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.
Consequently, brewer Elias Pilcher was recruited from Einbeck to shore things up. He introduced the first Einbecker style beer in 1614, a strong beer dubbed “maibock,” keeping with the pragmatic tradition of brewing and aging in winter for release in spring. The exact personality of the brew is lost in time, but it was nonetheless a cross-pollination of Einbeck and Munich brewing. An impressive new brew, it incorporated the indigenous preference for bottom-fermentation and light hopping, and helped differentiate the original and Munich versions. These rough parameters played perfectly in Bavaria, generating further interest by other brewers, including the development of dark bocks using fuller-colored Munich-style malts. The word “bock” was ironically not used by the Einbecker brewers, but was instead coined to designate these beers with a shortened version of “Einbeck” in the Bavarian dialect.
The maibock of Hofbräuhaus is still touted as the original (while Einbecker’s is hailed as the May version of the ancestral bocks), and is ceremoniously tapped in late April each year as the cool weather of early spring flows into the mildly balmy days of late spring. How does the original compare to those of today? Beer considered pale prior to the advent of innovative malting techniques would not have the same connotation as it does today. These innovations that came in the early 19th century led to finely-tuned shades of malt, tailored to fit the precise preferences of individual brewers, and the birth of modern beer styles such as Vienna, Oktoberfest, all of the pale lagers, and of course, today’s maibock. We can surmise that the deep golden and light amber maibock encountered today has paled somewhat over that time course. It was once one of the more purely seasonal beers, released during early and mid-spring, but some are produced year round today. Either way, it is by nature something of a transitional beer, and this puts it squarely in that territory of something not too strong, nor light, but rather a substantial and satisfying brew that straddles and expresses the finest virtues of either side.
Brewers are always faced with the task of finding the perfect measures to balance nuance and signature notes, balance that could not be more important in a beer than it is in maibock. There are minimal gravity requirements for bock in Germany, and for maibock, 16° Plato (specific gravity 1.065) is the magic number. To make a beer of that strength, while still showcasing some measure of delicacy and finesse, is quite a trick. Maibock has a lean, muscular body, and soft bready and toasted malt character, as well as the brilliant clarity of lagerbier. Base malts, in the style of Pilnser, Vienna, and light Munich are used alone or in combination to create the trademark pure gold to copper complexion.
At times, these are called helles (pale) bock, stirring some debate as to whether this specifically denotes the golden version, with maibock comprising the ambers. The terms are considered interchangeable by many, though, with maibock being the more common label overall. Even in the “helles” varieties, the aroma and flavor should be full of malt, with the darker adaptations taking on the additional spicy character that comes with more intense malt kilning. Absent are the roasted and rich caramel notes associated with the dark beers of Munich. Maibock usually carries a bit more bittering hop character than other bocks, which rely almost wholly on malty overtones. A small amount of aromatic hops may also be present, with those subtly herbal German nobles a perfect pairing for the continental malts. It has been presented that Maibock and Helles Bock are merely stronger versions of Vienna lagers, Oktoberfest, or Munchener Helles, and indeed there enough different interpretations to make that statement. The extra level of potency, coupled with the range of offerings, makes these pale bocks even more appealing. Also scattered about the landscape are blonde doppelbocks, which on the surface seem to be nothing more than strong maibock. Usually though, these are brewed more like doppelbock, with scant hop rates and a reliance on fuller body, lower attenuation, and more maltiness.
In the United States, there are enough stellar Maibocks brewed in spring to pique the interest of domestic lager lovers, as well as numerous imports from Germany, including Einbeck. The true measure of the style, would be to drink them fresh in a biergarten in their homeland, amid a perfect spring day, fresh from the conditioning cellars.
Einbecker Mai-Ur-bockABV: 6.5
Tasting Notes: With history dating to 1378, the Einbecker Brauerei is nearly without historical peer among Germany’s breweries. There are three bocks among their offerings (Hell, Mai, and Dunkel), all of which are brewed to an original gravity of 1.065. The Mai-Ur-Bock is a year round brew, and quite suitable for any time of year. Brilliant bronzed amber on the pour. The aromatic sweet and toasty nose is freshened by a whiff of grassy noble hops. Medium on the palate, with a full range of classically clean, balanced flavor of spicy malt, and firm hoppy bitterness. Not only an excellent maibock, but would fit into the autumnal season just as perfectly.
Hofbräuhaus MaibockABV: 7.2
Tasting Notes: Along with that of Einbecker, Hofbräuhaus Maibock sets the standard for the style. Rather brawny at 7.2 percent ABV, it is full of flavor without losing any delicaty. Full copper in color, it pours with a thick off-white head. Hints of sweet malt, light honey, and herbal hops in the aroma. The flavor is rich and malty, with notes of caramel atop a medium body. The finish is crisp and smooth, with a sturdy hop bitterness, and lingering sweet malty character. There are none finer.
Sprecher Mai BockABV: 6
Tasting Notes: This Glendale, Wisconsin brewery was one of the first micros to focus on lagerbiers when they were founded in 1985. Their maibock pours full orange-amber, and delivers a rich aromatic profile of fresh bready malt, floral hops (dry-hopping), and light toffee. More robust on the palate than most in the style, the full mouthfeel is backed up by a big, succulent malty taste, caramel-honey sweetness, and just enough hops to cut the grainy goodness. The finish is nicely executed with a balance of malt and hops.
Victory Brewing St. Boisterous HellerbockABV: 7.3
Tasting Notes: Victory Brewing, in Downingtown, Pennsyvania, makes several lagerbiers of outstanding quality. At 7.3 percent ABV, St. Boisterous is as burly as doppelbock, but with the lilt of maibock. Deep gold in color, the pearly head is big and persistent. The nose presents some lemony-herbal hops, fresh milled grain and bready malt. In spite of the light color, it is rather chewy. Deliciously full of flavor, with earthy, herbal hops, a touch of grainy sweetness, and silky smooth German malts. The finish shows that this is a rather formidable, tidy brew, with a hint of alcohol, and some light sweet malt.