Nowadays, beer lovers can turn to seasonal brews at virtually any time of the year. New season-specific styles, such as fresh hop and pumpkin ale, have taken a seat at the table with more reverent names such as oktoberbest, doppelbock and winter warmers. Many seasonals were originally brewed for celebrations, or when ambient conditions or supplies would permit. Maibock or Helles Bock, is one such seasonal. The name alone –May Bock or Pale Bock– descriptively hinting at its roots as a strong, bottom-fermented spring beer, and one designed to bridge the chasm from hearty wintry brews to bright summer fare. Think of them as an intersection of traditional bock with Munich Helles or festbier, with firm and tempered maltiness melding with the subtleties of pale Continental brews. Forged in Einbeck, maibock as we know it today is considered a fairly new style, but it is a remnant of those beers that fostered Germany’s image as a brewing epicenter.
Bock is generally associated with Bavaria but actually originated in Einbeck, a historically important brewing city in the heart of Germany. Einbeck was part of the regional trade federation known as the Hanseatic League. Formed in the 13th century, this alliance stretched from Estonia in the east to Brugge and Antwerp in the west, serving ports in the North and Baltic Seas, fed by rivers and the primitive roads of northern Europe. Members were required to provide access or goods, or both. Inclusion in The League allowed Einbeck’s unique and outstanding beer to be among the most widely distributed and famous. But what made Einbeck beer so reputable?
In brewing, proficiency and fame are equal parts skill, art and raw material, and perhaps a bit of serendipity. Einbeck was in an area that had long cultivated wheat and barley. Its malting and curing techniques for brewing left these raw materials noticeably lighter in color than many of their contemporaries. Some of it was air-dried in breezy lofts, avoiding the darkening effect of kilning. Einbeck had soft brewing water and prosperous hop cultivation, a combination that added to their renown.
Exercising quality control, banning the sale of substandard beer and brewing only in winter ensured that high-quality product would charm the palates in Einbeck and beyond. The mayor of Einbeck had a twofold stake in the local brew, not only was Einbeck’s reputation at stake, but so was his, since he was the city braumeister. With a bit of imaginative liberty, we can envision these as strong, light-colored (relatively), top-fermented, well-hopped wheat beers, perhaps something along the lines of weizenbock or strong altbier. The strength and hop levels meant that even under the duress of export, they would arrive at their destination in prime condition. Brewers in Bavaria, lacking this technical finesse and perfect storm of brewing cornucopia, had taken jealous note of the goings-on in Einbeck. This disparity between the renown of Einbeck and the relative mediocrity of Munich eventually led the latter to reexamine their own brewing ways.
The foundation of bock brewing in Munich began with the establishment of the Hofbräuhaus in 1592. Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria had grown tired of importing Einbecker beer, since he and his cronies didn’t care much for the locally brewed brown beers. The original Hofbräuhaus was known as the “brown” brewery since they made the typical dark beers of Munich. Wilhelm’s son, Maximillian I, opted to go a different route, choosing instead to focus on “white” wheat beers. Within a few years, a new brewery was needed to accommodate the demand, and the modern Hofbräuhaus was finished in 1607. In spite of this modernization and desire to serve only locally-made white and brown beer, the quality still wasn’t up to the standards of the Einbecker product.