Some of the most beloved beers in the world are those that blend distinct styles to create a vibrant and perfect marriage. Obvious examples are the top-fermented lager biers of Germany, kölsch and altbier; and California common from the United States. One style, weizenbock (wheat bock), is not generally recognized as a product of beery fusion, but it certainly is.
Actually, the original bock of the 14th century was really a weizenbock. Bock lost it wheat element, leaving room for the reintroduction of weizenbock just a hundred years ago as a new style. This reborn beer dispels the notion that to hybridize is to compromise, as both the wheat and bock beer components express themselves in regal fashion. Not only do they coexist harmoniously, but act synergistically, as weizenbocks are more flavorful and complex than the sum. They are rich and malty like a doppelbock, full of soft fruit esters and spiciness like a dunkelweizen, and also showcase the dark fruit, molasses, and sherry notes common to both old ale and doppelbock.
Bock to Basics
The first weizenbier (wheat beer) brewery was built in Schwarzach, Bavaria in the 15th century by the noble Degenbergers. The passage of the Reinheitsgebot “purity requirement” in 1516 disallowed the use of wheat in brewing, but because of a grandfathered situation, the Degenbergers were exempted. Eventually, the control of the Degenberger brewing operations was taken over by the ducal Wittlesbachs, who made their weizenbier adjacent to their braunbier (dunkel) brewery in Munich (now the site of the Hofbräuhaus Munich). They were also the authors of the Reinheitsgebot, and this autonomy allowed them to be the sole producers of wheat beer in Bavaria. In true entrepreneurial spirit, the Wittlesbachs expanded their market for their coveted weizenbier by building more breweries and offering it to the commoners.
As the popularity of lager beer increased during the early- to mid-19th century, weizenbier consumption waned precipitously. To the rescue came Georg Schneider, who took over the ducal brewery and began producing his own wheat beers, and eventually wrangled away the royal control of weizenbier in 1872. Thus, he single-handedly resurrected wheat beers from the scrap heap (his family is still a major player of the wheat lineage today). Weizenbiers, though, were of modest strength at that time. Schneider’s contribution to the style we are scrutinizing here would not come until later, a stroke of genius that needs to be examined relative to its other donor style, doppelbock.
The most coveted brews of the 14th century in continental Europe were those of Einbeck in northern Germany. The reasons were many-fold. Einbeck is one of the earliest hop-growing regions of Europe and their brewers had an important jumpstart in the utilization of what would become an industry standard. Einbeck brewers were also unchallenged in the production of high-quality, contemporary pale malt. Their famous bockbier was strong, but also had a delicate and well-balanced character, as it used one-third wheat in the grist. By this association, one could deduce that it was the original weizenbock, and may have been quite similar to those that we enjoy today. Adding to the claim of the world’s best beer was the fact that it was brewed only in winter and stored cold, making it cleaner, clearer, and much less susceptible to the nefarious organisms of beer spoilage. Einbeck was a major trade center and member of the powerful Hanseatic League, a cooperative trade organization in the Middle Ages, furthering its fame.
Munich’s beers were mediocre by comparison, and, in fact, its brewers enlisted the expertise of Einbeck’s craftsmen to improve their own beer. Eventually, bock morphed into a barley-only brew, and soon enough, doppelbock was developed by monks at the St. Francis of Paula monastery near Munich in the 18th century. Strong, wheat-based beers may have existed, but if they had, they were in direct violation of the Reinheitsgebot.
Bock to the Future
This brings us back to the Schneider Weisse Brauhaus in Munich. In a brilliant and perceptive business move, the Schneiders acted upon the trend of the day without straying from their mission. One of the most popular seasonal brews in Bavaria in the early 20th century, and one that was gaining even more market share, was the rich, bottom-fermented doppelbock. The retort by Schneider was to make a classic Bavarian brew that was unlike any other, but nevertheless was similar in several respects to the doppelbock.
In 1907 they launched Aventinus, a dark wheat beer that rivaled doppelbock in strength and color, but also offered the familiar profile of the popular and modest dark wheat beers. It was an instant hit and has been a popular offering for a hundred years. They boasted that it was conditioned with the Méthode Champenoise, as a fresh dose of yeast was used at bottling (it was later dubbed the Méthode Bavaroise for obvious reasons). In hindsight, it can be said that the innovative and tenacious Schneiders not only kept weizenbier from oblivion, but also astutely invented an enduring style that remains unique today, as it was then. The name Schneider translates to “tailor” in English, and they were truly that in crafting the original weizenbock.
Few beer styles incorporate disparate complexity as deftly as weizenbock. There is no bickering among the flavors, textures, and aromas borrowed and blended. Hefeweizen is known for its banana, clove, and vanilla esters, among other things. Dunkelweizen (dark wheat) marries those qualities with a backbone of darker German malts, such as caramel and Munich, to add yet another dimension without overwhelming the softer qualities of hefeweizen. Bocks rely on their opulent maltiness that is derived from Munich-style base malts and a full-bodied heft. All of the aforementioned brews have a common thread of being lightly-hopped, allowing the character of the yeast and malt to shine.
Weizenbock is essentially a trinity of those styles. The soft, fruity esters and spiciness, a byproduct of classic Bavarian top-fermenting weizen yeast, mingles with nuances of raisin, prune, and molasses, contributed by the dark malts. Bready melanoidins, brought to the table by the malt again, and the action on the wort in kettle, add a savory banana bread fragrance. The mouthfeel is generally full, but a little less so than a doppelbock, and very velvety. Wheat, being high in protein relative to barley, offers this creaminess, with an additional bonus of a billowing, moussy, tenacious head.
Malted wheat is usually used at a proportion of 50 percent or more in the grist. Most weizenbocks come in at between 6.5 and 9.0% ABV, with a bit more attenuation and dryness than a bock or doppelbock and even a modicum of tartness. A weizenbock must have a gravity of at least 1.064 to be labeled as such, and 1.072 to be called a weizen doppelbock, as Aventinus is. They are cloudy to one degree or another, owing to bottle-conditioning, with gives a fine carbonation to sustain the copious head, and also an earthy and rustic texture. Aged versions may have an oxidative, sherry note, reminiscent of the dark Old Ales.
Weizenbock offers the beer drinker a chance to savor many facets of classic brews rolled into one. Even so, it has no rough or adventurous edges, but a smooth, contemplative personality. Like a prism, a single entity fills the glass, but with a sensory continuum composed of many distinct components on the palate and in the nose. Sit back and enjoy the show on a cool winters eve.
Erdinger PikantusABV: 7.3
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Erding, Bavaria by Erdinger Weissbraü. This weizenbock pours russet with a dense tan head and slight haze. The nose is banana, chocolate, malt and raisin bread. Clean and somewhat malty, with lots of banana and clove in the flavor, with some sweet caramel and rummy oxidative notes. Creamy, with a full mouthfeel, and a spicy, grainy finish. The bottle boasts “bottle-fermentation and never pasteurized.” This beer would be outstanding paired with apple strudel.
G. Schneider and Sohn AventinusABV: 8.2
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Kelheim, just north of Munich, it is dubbed “Germany's original wheat-doppelbock.” Mahogany in color, it presents the expected turbidity, and a tall, almost brown crown that leaves some lacing. Chocolate, cherries, vanilla, and sherry grace the aroma. Quite malty and rich, full-bodied, and full of raisins, caramel and molasses on the palate. Very creamy and complex, with minor notes of banana and clove. The finish has a bit of earthy oakiness. A classic all the way around. Aventinus also is available in an eisbock.
Avery ThirteenABV: 9.5
Tasting Notes: From the Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, CO. Thirteen is a relatively clear ruby-red with a tan head that drops rather quickly, but lingers to the end of the glass. Caramel, malt, and molasses dominate the aroma, with faint notes of chocolate and banana. Very rich on the palate, presenting rich caramel, toffee, nuts and rum. A background tartness round out the flavor. The alcohol is evident in the finish, as is the full body and residual sweetness. Quite satisfying, it leans more toward a doppelbock in overall character. Chocolate pecan pie would welcome this brew as an accompaniment.
Victory MoonglowABV: 8.7
Tasting Notes: Yet another outstanding offering from Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA. Moonglow pours red-amber and hazy, with a substantial head. Aromatically complex and authentic, with banana, clove, prunes, sherry and caramel. Just as complex in taste, with a beautiful balance between malt, spice, and fruit, accented by an aged character. The yeast offers spice reminiscent of pepper. Somewhat hot from the alcohol, and not too overwhelmingly cloying, but somewhat crisp in spite of the full body. Victory never disappoints, and this is yet another triumph.