This beer style, bock. It is old and slightly odd, usually sporting a block-printed goat on the label and a title in gothic script. It conjures the mood of wood-paneled libraries and leather chairs. And what about that “–ator” suffix that seems so common, like Optimator, Maximator, Animator? One of the most famous Bavarian bocks is Ayinger’s Celebrator, and the label features many of these classic symbols (though, alas, no gothic lettering). What is the meaning of these signifiers and evocations? Let us hoist a stemmed pokal glass of Aying’s finest and meditate on its midnight depths while we consider these matters.
As with so many good stories, sometimes it’s best to start with the end—or suffix in this case, which definitively marks the beer in question as a doppelbock. The history of doppelbocks is wholly distinctive from other bocks (mai-, eis-), and in fact, it was centuries before they were even called bocks. The original name, curiously, was “Salvator,” a beer that dates back to a monastery near Munich in the 17th century. There the monks prepared a special lager for the eight-day Feast of the Holy Father; an unusual beer, it was brewed with a thick wort but left underattenuated and therefore sweet and of only modest strength—perfect for pious men of the cloth. The name was a shortened version of the fuller title “sankt-vater-bier” (holy father beer). Both the holy festival and the beer were popular with Munichers, and before long other breweries were making their own “Salvators”—all in the heavy and sweet and lightly alcoholic manner of the original.
The centuries passed, and eventually the secular descendent of this brewery—we know it as Paulaner today—placed a trademark on “Salvator,” ending its run as the name of the style. Breweries got their subtle revenge by using the –ator suffix, and now we call them all doppelbocks. Among the many examples of this old lager, Ayinger’s is a standout for both its difference and its excellence. Generally speaking, modern interpretations of these beers usually tip the scales at 7.5% or stronger, and Celebrator is a mere mite by comparison—just 6.7%—but it has a gravitas many others lack in the form of a refined, cask-aged quality.
Franz Inselkammer Jr., whose family owns the brewery, is tightfisted with information about this iconic beer. It was originally called St. Andreas Bock—after the town church—and dates back roughly to the brewery’s founding in 1878. “It is an old, traditional Bavarian style,” he said, divulging little. He did report that “the recipe has never been changed, at least as long as we know”—but everything else in the world of brewing has changed, starting with breweries.
Those old underattenuated Salvators—they were still the norm in 1878—would have been made on primitive systems using decoction mashing. By contrast, in 1999, Ayinger spent 21 million marks (about $12 million today) to build a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. Perhaps reflexively, the Inselkammers installed a brewery capable of decoction mashing—the way the old Salvators were made—but quickly discontinued the practice. Now the disused mash cooker sits there like a forgotten toy; Ayinger’s John Forster dismissed it unsentimentally when I visited. “We say decoction is for old breweries. We can do it, but it’s not necessary.” Ayinger makes precise and lauded—but modern—beer now.
If 21st-century Celebrator uses the same recipe, it is nevertheless very different from its 19th-century self. It is fully attenuated, to begin with. Doppelbocks always highlight the skill of Bavaria’s maltsters, and Ayinger does that, too, with a raisin-and-molasses nose and a panoply of malt flavors: toffee, a roastiness suggestive of a mild maduro cigar, more molasses. The thing that really distinguishes Ayinger is that burnished portlike note. It makes the beer seem aged, like a Bordeaux or an Islay Scotch, and elegant. The quality is unmistakable, and I wondered how the brewery produced it. When I asked, though, Inselkammer demurred. “The process is something we would like to keep for ourselves,” he said politely. Whatever it is, the quality takes us back to the images of sketched goats, wood-paneled libraries and gothic script. Few doppelbocks have the capacity to evoke these things with their palate as well as their labels.
Today, the Feast of the Holy Father is forgotten, and doppelbocks are now associated with the Lenten season. They are rich and luxurious, as warming and hopeful as the first sun of March. Raise a glass and drink it in—perhaps in your favorite leather chair.
The following beers were tasted by Jeff Alworth.
Bayern DoppelbockABV: 8.4%
Tasting Notes: The malts in native Bavarian son Jürgen Knöller’s doppelbock are dense and creamy, and they create layers and layers of flavor. They start with a sweet raisin note and evolve into a continuum of burnt sugar and rum before fading to roast. Along the way are a hint of toasted malt and the faintest whiff of smoke.
Grand Teton Double VisionABV: 8%
Tasting Notes: Grand Teton’s interpretation speaks with an American accent. The malts are used to create two big, contrasting flavors—something like the mountain goats butting heads on the label—a candy sweetness that is offset by a sharp roastiness. It’s a burly, rib-sticking and satisfying beer.
The Livery Bourbon Barrel Aged LiveratorABV: 11%
Tasting Notes: You’d expect a doppelbock aged 10 months in Heaven Hill casks to taste the most American of all, but instead, age and oxygen have given the sweet, rounded beer the quality of Burgundy. Bourbon infects these flavors, but doesn’t overwhelm them. Although sweet, it doesn’t cloy and tempts you to drink more than you ought.