Most styles of beer have a signature characteristic or two that dominate their profile. If it’s the pure, unobstructed, lugubrious essence of malt you seek, reach for a bock. Born and raised in Germany, traditional bock beer and its brethren present unfettered maltiness to the palate like no other style of brew. These strong, lusty lagers come in several substyles beyond traditional bock―the stronger doppelbock, the paler, springtime helles/maibock, and the fortified eisbock.
Outside its native Germany, exquisite examples are brewed in Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Canada, The Netherlands and the United States. Bocks run the color gamut from golden to dark brown, and the strength scale from moderately strong to bludgeoning force. Some bocks are seasonal, coinciding even with religious calendars, but many can be found throughout the year.
The Birth of Bock
The roots of bock beer can be traced back to the 14th century and the city of Einbeck, in northern Germany. Bock’s history is less nebulous than that of many other beer styles. Einbeck was a major European trade center in the Middle Ages and a member of the powerful Hanseatic League, a group of cities that worked together to protect each others’ trade interests during a tumultuous time. Einbecks beers were highly regarded throughout Europe, and with the aid of the League, it wasn’t long before the product was exported to its devotees in England, Scandanavia, the Mideast, and Mediterranean and Baltic countries.
Several things contributed to the quality of Einbeck beer. The city is located in one of the earliest hop growing regions in Europe, which no doubt made the beer more stable and unique, considering that herbal gruit was the more common beer spice of the era. Einbeck beer was also brewed with the palest malt available, one-third wheat and two-thirds barley, making for a more delicate than usual beverage. It was brewed only in winter, and therefore stored cold, making it cleaner and less prone to infection. When compared to the generally murky, darker brews of the day, it’s no wonder that those of Einbeck won so many fans.
Even though Munich was a brewing center during the same time, its beer couldn’t match that of Einbeck. The Munich braumeisters set out to change this disparity. In 1612, Duke Maximillian I invited the best brewer in Einbeck, Elias Pichler, to teach them the moxie necessary to produce Einbeck beer. Munich’s indigenous brown beer, probably the forerunner of today’s dunkel, was then made using the Einbeck procedure. The resultant brew still was dark, and probably stronger. Within a few years, it became wildly popular. Refined over the years in keeping with advancing technology, these beers are known today as traditional bock.
Bocks are bottom fermented and extensively lagered to give them a smooth, deep maltiness. They are generally dark amber to dark brown in color and often scantily hopped. They are substantial beers at 6.0 to 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Many authors have presented various legends, some believable and others quite farfetched, about the origin of the bock name. One theory holds that it is a corruption of the beck in Einbeck. Another cites the German word for goat as the origin, referring to the kick of the strong brew or even its coincidence with zodiacal Capricorn. Yet another cites a corruption of the German word “pogkmedt” (mead) as the origin. Still another attributes bock to “Ainpoekische,” dialectic Bavarian for Einbeck, and a shortened version, “Poeckishe Pier.” This seems the most logical, but it is still open to debate.
The Paulaner brewery of Munich can lay claim to the creation of doppelbock as a style. A group of Italian monks from the order of St. Francis of Paula crossed the Alps and settled near the city of Munich. Devout Catholics, they followed their traditions religiously (excuse the pun), which meant fasting occasionally. Solid food was verboten, but liquid, not. As the monks were expert brewers anyhow, making a brew that sustained them during these periods of dubious abstinence was a logical choice. Strong and nutritious fit the bill perfectly, providing sustenance both physical and mental.
Strong beer, brewed with local Germanic influence, resulted in what is now doppelbock. The monks established the Paulaner brewery in 1634 (coincidently, not long after Herr Pilcher from Einbeck visited Munich). Their beer became available to the public in 1780. The beer was named Salvator (The Savior) for obvious reasons, and it carries that moniker to this day. As the beer became popular, other breweries in Bavaria brewed it with great success and adopted the “-ator” suffix for their own versions.
Doppelbock literally means “double bock” but it isn’t really twice the strength of traditional bock, only marginally stronger. Doppelbocks are generally dark in color, from dark amber to dark brown, though some pale versions exist. A beer can be considered a doppelbock if its original gravity is no lower than 1.074, which ensures a beer of substantial strength and character.
Doppelbocks are quite complex. As there is virtually no hop flavor and aroma, and just enough hop bitterness to be detectable, virtually all of this style’s character can be attributed to its Munich-style malt and brewing practices. Munich malts are darkened from some extra kilning and they are also rendered less fermentable, resulting in a full-bodied, dextrinous wort. The character of these flavorful malts is augmented by using time-consuming, complicated decoction mashing techniques.
Decoction mashing was the method employed before thermometers were available. It consists of raising the mash temperature through its critical stages by boiling a little of the mash at a time and re-mixing it with the main portion. Repeated several times, this ensures that the all of the enzymes are able to do their job. The extra boiling, both during decoction and in the kettle, results in caramelization and a myriad of other complicated chemical reactions that benefit the wort and ultimately the flavor of the finished beer. All of this adds up to a complex, rich brew with unparalleled malt character.
Fermentation is done slowly, as with bottom-fermenting beers, and the lagering period is lengthy, often several months in duration.
Doppelbocks are not hard to find if you have a good package store and unrestricted beer laws. The majority of bocks available are, in fact, doppels. All of the major Bavarian breweries produce a doppelbock. All are good, some are excellent. Depending on local distribution, look for Spaten, Ayinger, Paulaner, Tucher and other brands with -ator in their name. Like other bocks, these are diverse, some relying solely on lighter malts, others on an influential dose of dark malts. The darker ones have distinct caramel and chocolate notes and sometimes a faint roastiness, whereas the amber versions have a slick, clean malt palate and a little less complexity.
Some breweries really push the envelope when it comes to strength. Most doppelbocks fall in the 7 to 8.5 percent ABV range but some are significantly higher. Coming in at 9.6 percent ABV is Urbock 23 from the Eggenberg brewery of Austria, established in 1681. The designation “23” refers to its original gravity in degrees Plato, roughly a 1.092 specific gravity. It is very pale, pure tasting and honeyish.
Stronger still is a product from the Hürlimann brewery in Zurich known as Samichlaus. Insanely strong at about 15 percent ABV, and with a starting gravity of about 1.120, it is brewed but once a year, on St. Nicholas Day, December 6. After fermentation, it is lagered until the following St. Nick’s day, when it is released just in time for winter. Reddish brown in color, and rich beyond description, it retains a smooth lager character despite its potency. This beer will keep for quite some time, so if you are lucky enough to find some, cellar it.
The lightest colored of the bock beers, these two are generally grouped together. These pale bocks are brewed in winter and first tapped in spring, often to coincide with seasonal celebrations. They range in color from deep gold to light amber. Naturally, light malts are used almost exclusively to produce them; thus they are fairly new to the bock scene. Pale malts were unheard of until early in the 19th century, when malting technology was refined, but they soon found their way into strong lagers in central Europe.
Decoction mashing is usually employed in the production of a pale bock, but the caveat to this is that the overall color of the brew darkens substantially during this procedure. A tricky undertaking, indeed. Because no dark malts are used, the soft, clean malt flavor and aroma come through totally unobstructed. Helles/maibocks are often given a slightly higher dose of hops than other bocks, giving them a fresher, livelier aroma and more balance.
Because of their relatively broad color range, pale bocks present a nice diversity. They could actually be segregated into two subcategories, with helles bocks being the golden hued and maibocks being those that appear more amber. The helles version would contain almost exclusively pilsner malt, while the maibock would contain a significant dose of toasty Vienna or Munich malts. Then again, there is that middle ground that would make them neither (or both).
Many German breweries, especially in Bavaria, may include a pale bock in their lineup. Einbecker itself brews both a helles and a maibock. Spaten makes a golden helles known as Premium Bock that is very much worth trying. Compare it to an Ayinger maibock, which is a little deeper in color and spicier on the palate. For something really unusual in the style, Schlenklera of Bamberg, Germany, makes a rauch maibock that uses the brewery’s famous smoked malt quite liberally. The label is almost identical to its regular rauch märzen, so read carefully.
Not surprisingly, many North American micros that specialize in German-style brews take a shot at pale bocks. The Gordon Biersch brewery includes a blonde bock that is mellow, malty and crisp. Pittsburg’s Church Brew Works annually wins awards in the maibock style and employs decoction mashing. Breweries in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, and North Carolina are just that produce these seasonal brews.
In yet another twist in strong lager production, some breweries produce eisbock. Simply put, this is a strong beer that is made into a stronger beer by freezing. As only the water portion will freeze, the beer is concentrated by the removal of the resultant ice. Generally, the beer is concentrated by only 10 percent or less.
One brewery that employs this strategy is Kulmbacher of Kulmbach, Germany. The beer is known as Reichelbraü, about 10 percent ABV with the signature dark doppelbock color and malty character.
Another brewery from Kulmbach, EKU, produces a strong bock called EKU 28 that uses a minimal concentrating step of freezing. The “28” is a designation of its degrees Plato, which gives the beer a strength of about 12 percent ABV. It is amber in color and aromatic. EKU also makes an excellent doppelbock called Kulminator.
Capital Blonde DoppelbockABV: 8.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Middleton, WI, the heart of US lager country, by Capital Brewery as a limited release in March and April. Bright gold in color, it pours with a rich, white head and boasts 8.5 percent ABV. The aroma is soft and malty, with a hint of Noble hops. The taste is crisp, well balanced, clean and malty. A cross between a helles bock and a doppelbock. Any trip to Madison should include a short side trip to Capital to enjoy its many fine beers, including a maibock, in the biergarten.
Aass BockABV: 6
Tasting Notes: Deep brown in color, and sporting a beautiful, lingering tan head, Aass Bock is of moderate strength at 6.0 percent ABV, but very wealthy in character. Lots of residual character demonstrated in a sweet, malty flavor, a full body, and chocolate and caramel notes. Brewer Aass Bryggeri in Drammen, Norway, takes its cues from Bavarian brewers of this style. One of the best bocks brewed outside of Germany.
Morretti La RossaABV: 7.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Udine, Italy, this beer straddles the traditional doppelbock style as it lists its gravity at 18 degrees Plato, right at the cusp. Deep amber-red in color with a wonderful malty aroma, the palate is somewhat light and dry but very pleasant, being rich but not cloying. The flavor rivals that of any German variety, with malt dominating and hops sitting in the background. The label designates the beer as a “doppio malto,” which translates to double malt. About 7.5 percent ABV.
Ayinger CelebratorABV: 7.2
Tasting Notes: Deep mahogany in color, with a tan head, checking in at 7.2 percent ABV. Brewed in the village of Aying, in the foothills of the German Alps not far from Munich. The aroma is pure malt and little hop. Dark malts are very much in evidence in the flavor, with caramel and light roasty notes. It is relatively dry for a bock and the roasty finish lingers nicely.