Bock the Beer of Springtime

Maibock, your Bock, who’s Bock is it? What is Bock anyway? One of the things I truly enjoy about beer besides the obvious pleasure of tasting and enjoying with food is how beer and brewing has affected history and vice-versa. I personally have learned a lot about both American and World history while learning about beer. In researching the origins of this style, I came across some fascinating historical facts. What an excellent way to learn history they should have thought of this method in school.

Bock is the beer of springtime and it has several versions, which were meant for consumption during different times of the year. Maibock (May), Weizenbock (Wheat), Doppelbock (Double) and Eisbock (Ice) but we will talk about those later. This lager style of beer originated in the fourth or fifth centuries in northern Europe by the tribes, that had settled there. In that time as well as today grapes were grown in the warmer climates of Europe where France, Italy and Spain are located. In the colder regions of Europe such as parts of Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland grains were the crops of choice. During the height of the harvest season, the best grains were steeped in water, brewed into beer and allowed to ferment in underground caves. When springtime came, the beer was consumed in a celebration of previous harvest as well as prayers for a successful one in the coming season.

Later on during the fourteenth century this style of beer was brewed in the town of Einbeck which was the first city known for brewing great beer. Einbeck was also a member of the Hanseatic League, a group of cities that worked together to protect each other’s trade interests from piracy and other hazards of that period. The beers of Einbeck were distributed all across Europe as a result of this alliance, from England to the Mediterranean and Baltic countries.

Traditional Bock is a malty, somewhat high in alcohol content lager style of beer with a low hop character sometimes referred to as Hellesbock. In light of this broad area of distribution during a time when refrigeration did not exist and goods were transported by slow moving ships, Bock was probably brewed at higher gravity (read more alcohol content) for the same reason that the brewers India Pale Ale added hops to the barrels so the beer could survive long journeys and continue fermentation.
The city of Munich was also a brewing center, but their beer could not compare with that of Einbeck. The Bavarians were jealous so in 1612 they invited a Brewmaster from Einbeck to teach them how to make a better product. The beer that they produced refined over time with technological advancements is the style we call Bock today.

Lets talk a little about basic beer styles. There are two basic styles, ales that are top fermented meaning the yeast rises top the top during fermentation and lagers in which the yeast settles to the bottom during that process. Ale yeasts ferment more quickly and in warmer temperatures than lager yeast, which need to be cold fermented. Lager is the German word for “store” and the early practice of storage in caves during the winter is how this technique came about.

Today Bock beers are still made in Einbeck and other cities in Germany as well as Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and here in the United States. Bock has a high malt character smoothed by a long lagering period. These beers run the gamut from gold, amber, brown and even darker for Doppelbock. Maibock is slightly hoppier than traditional Bock and is brewed for consumption in May. Doppelbock was originated by Pauline monks as something to sustain them as “liquid bread” during periods of fasting. They established a brewery in Munich in 1634 and began selling it in 1780. The Paulaner Brewery was secularized during the time of Napoleon and still makes this strong dark beer called Salvator (savior) which was a generic term for strong beer until it was trademarked in 1894. Doppelbock, although it is quite strong (7.5% alcohol by volume) is not quite double strength even though doppel is the German word for double.

Many American breweries make these styles today, however I do not know of any which produce Weizenbock or Eisbock. Weizenbock has wheat grains combined with the barley malts and a fine example which is available here is Aventinus brewed by the Schneider Brewery. This is a wonderful beer especially on the rare occasion that you can find it on tap.

Eisbock is said to be discovered by one of those happy accidents. A brewer left a barrel of beer outside overnight during the winter. When he discovered it there was a layer of ice on top. Having no other beer to serve he discarded the ice and served this concentrated higher-octane version which delighted his guests. This style is currently produced by Reichelbrau and weighs in at 10% abv. I confess I have never sampled this beer but it certainly sounds interesting.

There is a common myth that Bock is made from the bottom of the barrel and there is absolutely no truth to this. There are also many fascinating stories on how it got it’s name. There is the goat (the German word for goat is “bock”) which frequently appears on the label and it is said that the beer has a kick like a goat. The more likely version is a variation of Einbeck which sounds like Einbock with the Bavarian accent.

The malty characters of this beer match up well with pork and duck and the fruit concoctions that are traditionally served with them. The darker versions of the style will also compliment chocolate desserts as well as certain cheeses. Well I could probably go on and on but that is not the point of this article. It is to show how beer was of huge importance in the daily lives of people for centuries and that for us in this country was halted by the thirteen years of Prohibition. Well that ended over seventy years ago and I think it is time we go out and try some beer we have not sampled and increase our knowledge at the same time.


Chef Bruce