The heavyweight beers currently in vogue tend to have an assertive signature quality that is the object of desire. Puckering IBU levels, searing alcohol and coarse roastiness are sought by extreme beer hunters and brewers alike. As these stylistic features slug it out for popular supremacy, the succulent, uncompromised maltiness offered up by the burly German lagerbier, doppelbock, often goes underappreciated. The intensely distinctive malt is so amiable, it distracts from the sly strength. Though indelibly linked to Munich, doppelbock’s roots lie to the north, in Europe’s earliest eminent brewing center. Commercial proficiency, followed by monastic transcendence, provides an easily traceable evolution of the style. Doppelbock was a seasonal provision at its sacred beginning, and a celebratory seasonal in its afterlife, and still a beer worthy of reflective respect.
The City of Beer
Doppelbock has its origin in Einbeck, in the north German state of Lower Saxony, and an important link in Middle Ages European commerce. It is near Hanover and Brauschweig on the mainland, and the port cities of Hamburg and Bremen. This geographical kismet nurtured vigorous trade, and the relatively flat terrain and access to the Baltic and North Seas allowed easy establishment of commercial routes. With an eclectic assortment of tradesmen, each city had its particular specialty; Einbeck’s was brewing. These scattered merchants and guilds were willing to pool their guile and skill, forming the Hanseatic League in the 14th century, a symbiotic alliance of trade.
Membership in the League ensured Einbeck beer export via land and sea to every accessible market. England, Russia and Scandinavia where easy marks, but France, Belgium, Bavaria and the Mediterranean also were targets.
Some of Einbeck’s exported beer was made by homebrewers. In fact, the mayor himself was the chief brewer. A communal brewing kettle rotated from house to house and any excess beer that passed stringent critique by authorities was exported. This rigorous quality control, coupled with strict fermentation guidelines, guaranteed a minimally flawed, stable product. Historical accounts suggest a beer made of one-third wheat, two-thirds barley, both lightly kilned, top fermented at cool conditions, of somewhat high gravity to weather the travel, and highly hopped (Einbeck was an early hop cultivation center): essentially a hoppy weizenbock.
So what caused the rather dramatic shift that resulted in today’s dark, non-wheat, malt-accented, bottom-fermented beer that we know as doppelbock? The answer is found in a collaboration of Einbeck and Munich brewers, secular and monastic disciplines and ultimately a “Munichizing” of the legendary Einbecker bier.
Until her brewers got access to Einbecker artisans, Munich’s brews were considered rather pedestrian. So keen were the brewers of Munich to learn the superior northern method that King Ludwig X of Bavaria brought braumeisters from Einbeck in 1540 to teach them the ways. This led to limited success until finally, in 1612, Duke Maximilian I hired esteemed Einbeck brewer Elias Pilcher to stay and brew in Munich. This was the turning point.
The death knell of brewing in Einbeck sounded shortly thereafter, as the Thirty Years War and a massive fire ravaged the city. The torch passed to Munich, the new brewing epicenter of Germany. Though under Einbecker tutelage, Munich brewers would make use of its own brewing heritage.
Bottom fermentation and prolonged cold-conditioning methods were kept, as they had been used since around 1400. Darker kilned local barley malt made up the entire grist, and wheat was saved for royal brews. They were brown and lightly hopped, as Munich wasn’t a prolific hop-growing region and the water wasn’t conducive to brewing hoppy beers.
In general, this could be used as a description of modern bocks, virtually unchanged from the 17th century. They were known as bockbier, a corruption of “Ainpoekish Pier,” Bavarian dialect for Einbecker bier. This tidy chronology would continue with the help of an order of monks who came to settle in Munich, “the place of monks,” and the beer evolved into doppelbock.
In Bavaria, as in much of Europe in the Middle Ages, monastic brewing was prevalent and reputable. Franciscan monks from Paula, Italy settled at Neudeck in Munich in 1627 and began brewing. They were required to subjugate themselves by fasting during Advent and Lent and allowed no solid food. Already brewers of Munich’s finest dark, strong lager (bock), they decided to make it even more robust and sustaining (doppelbock)—literally “liquid bread.”
The uplifting quality of the beer led them to question whether this was indeed not truly suffering as religiously dictated, so they sought to have it sanctioned by the Holy Father himself in Rome. When given the dispensation, they began referring to it as Salvator (Savior). Some was served up to the public, perhaps illegally, who dubbed it “double bock” because of its noticeable fortification.
The Paulaner monks received legal permission to brew commercially in 1780. These endeavors were short-lived however, as the monastery was dissolved in 1799, and the brewery came under control of Napoleon Bonaparte, who secularized all business activities.
The brewery lay fallow until it was rented by local brewer Franz Zacherl in 1806, and purchased by him in 1813. Though he continued to produce the beer known as Salvator, he had to endure years of legal wrangling, as city factions fought over brewing rights and such. Finally, in 1837, King Ludwig I of Bavaria allowed Zacherl unrestricted brewing of the beloved Salvator. It was around this time that the beer was officially recognized by that name. Many imitators were spawned in light of the popularity of Salvator. The original is still brewed on location and lagered in the world’s deepest cellars, 72 feet below ground.
Doppelbock is often given a name that ends in the suffix “–ator” as a reverent nod to the original brew and the divine symbolism, making for easy identification of the style. “Bock” is also German for billy goat, a symbol of vigor that occasionally graces the label.
The Gentle Giant
Doppelbock may be one of the few beer styles that very closely resembles its original blueprint. In a sense, it is still made the way it was by the monks of St. Francis of Paula, when specialty malts were nonexistent, but all beers were made with single malt formulations. Munich was made famous by its dark lagers, those made entirely of its namesake Munich malt. It is kilned to deep amber or brown color, with the side benefit of acquiring superb depth of toasted malty flavors and a full mouthfeel.
Today’s Munich malt may be a little smoother around the edges, given the technological advances in kilning over the past 200 years, but nonetheless it is made with a single purpose, to give that luxurious complexity associated with doppelbock. Pure malt flavors are difficult to achieve, and paradoxically hard to explain. The sensation and perception is of something sweet and thick, without the unpleasant, cloyingness of syrup. The malted milk aroma and flavor is inimitable. Decoction mashing and an extensive lagering period add measurably by exaggerating the malt and smoothing out the profile.
Unobtrusive hop dosage brings this malty character to the forefront. This is not to say that a lighter shade of base malt or even some caramel malt isn’t in the grist, but the star is the Munich style. By law, wort with a minimum original gravity of 1072 must be used to produce a doppelbock. Most are around 6.5 to 8 percent ABV, but stronger versions at 10 to even 14 percent do exist. The lower strength versions hide the alcohol quite well, but the lavish nature of the brew encourages deliberate sipping. The heftiest ones, like Eggenberger Samiclaus (14%) and EKU 28 (11%), are incredibly malty with a noticeable alcoholic character. They range from copper-red to chestnut to deep mahogany in color.
It is worth mentioning the fortified offspring of doppelbock, eisbock. Legend has it that in 1890 a feckless brewery worker at Kulmbacher in Bavaria left some casks of doppelbock outside on a frigid night. The partially frozen kegs burst, and as punishment, the worker was forced to drink the concentrated liquid that separated from the ice crystals. Surprisingly good, this serendipitous brew became a regular product, and is still produced today. It is simply a slightly concentrated form of the base doppelbock, and rather formidable at 9 to 14 percent.
The quest for bigger brews has been the impetus for many to expand their horizons, and brewers are more than happy to accommodate. Some of the frontiers however, were breached some time ago, with no refinement necessary to satisfy the tastes of traditional and new style lovers alike. With a touch of divine guidance, doppelbock is such a timeless brew, not to mention timely, as winter arrives and eventually melts into spring.
Weihenstephan KorbinianABV: 7.4
Tasting Notes: From the oldest brewery in the world comes one of the truly underrated doppelbocks. Brewed in Freising to Bavaria’s finest specifications, Weihenstephan Korbinian pours ruby brown, with a creamy, unforced tan head, leaving a beading lace. Aromatically busy with oven-fresh raisin bread, malted milk and hints of vanilla. The deeply caramelized flavor presents notes of burnt sugar, malt and dark chocolate riding over a smooth, full mouthfeel. A sensational finish with that same bittersweet, malted chocolate and raisin character. Korbinian deserves to proudly sit aside the other fine doppelbocks of the world.
Ayinger CelebratorABV: 6.7
Tasting Notes: At the foot of the Alps just outside Munich, lies the Brauerei Aying, considered by many the pinnacle of Bavarian brewing. Celebrator may be its premium offering. Bright mahogany in color, the light brown head lingers impressively, a true measure of its richness. The nose is clean, intense malt, with a suggestion of fresh molasses brown bread and sherry. Velvety and thick on the palate, the condensed maltiness evokes dessert flavors of caramelized dark sugar and figs. The persistent finish is rich, but not heavy, and softly bitter, reminiscent of mocha. The bottle sports a rearing billy goat necklace to arouse the palate in anticipation. A classic by any measure.
Paulaner SalvatorABV: 7.9
Tasting Notes: The original Münchener doppelbock, the recipe remains virtually unchanged since its creation in the 18th century. Full copper-amber with an off-white head, Salvator has a warm, cookie-like, malty aroma. Medium in body and imminently agreeable on the palate, the malt flavor is toasty up front and slightly spicy in the background, like a brawnier, fuller version of Märzen. The finish has a tad more hop bitterness than most other doppelbocks where it is often disguised by dark malt. Relatively well-attenuated and lean in character, Salvator is the mellowest of the Bavarian offerings.
Victory St. VictoriousABV: 7.6
Tasting Notes: Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA offers an eclectic and outstanding portfolio of brews, and its German interpretations are top notch. Traditional decoction mashing, a complex malt bill and extensive cold aging gives St. Victorious an authentic, old world profile. The layered, solid maltiness is teeming with notes of raisin, toffee and chocolate. The thick caramel and toasted malt finish is swept clean with a fresh underpinning of hop bitterness. Perhaps the finest doppelbock brewed outside of Bavaria.