Rock The Bock
In the days before the craft beer revival, bock beer was important for those who took an out-of-the-ordinary interest in beer. Around springtime, the Canadian breweries, one or two of them anyway, released their version. American breweries did too.
Bock was a stronger style of beer, originally an “ale” (top-fermented) which transmuted into all-malt lager form with the onset of Bavarian bottom-fermentation. It derives by old accounts from the town of Einbeck in northern Germany, and may have been a dark wheat brew. It was shipped widely including to Bavaria where it was admired for its strength and restorative qualities.
Due to its special qualities, there have long been monastic and even royal associations with the beer. The Paulaner Franciscan order apparently devised the extra-strong version called doppelbock.
This 1890s account of bock’s origins has a ring of truth about it and accords with other accounts going back at least to the 1820s. Einbeck, sometimes formerly called Eimbeck, has a brewery that still makes a (bottom-fermented) bock, indeed more than one kind, and they are very highly regarded.
Bock in Germany, the regular kind, was a couple of points stronger than regular lager in the 1800s, around 6% abv. Labatt Breweries 30 years ago had a “Super Bock” in the market at 6.5% abv. I remember it well. It had a nice tawny colour and a more pronounced taste than regular beer. Still, by today’s craft standards, it would be considered fairly inoffensive.
In an unlikely development, a bottle of Super Bock was found in recent years and opened, you can see the video review of the team which drank it, here. I haven’t see the video yet, but I’d imagine the group had fun checking out this oldie.
Strangely, bock in its most traditional form has been overlooked by the craft breweries. You can find everything from Silesian smoked wheat beer to tea-flavoured stout to you name it, but relatively little dark bock of the old spring seasonal type.
Helles bock, a later variant based on a golden lager, doesn’t really flatter the style. This type of bock does appear with more frequency from the vats of craft brewers.
Perhaps they feel the light colour will appeal more to people than the regular dark bock, but I’ve had few that are really good. (Blonde beer in general shouldn’t be too strong I think, whether Whitbread Gold Label, Duvel, U.S. malt liquor, or helles bock, they seem of limited appeal somehow).
Good dark bock shows the qualities one associates with great German beer: clean, mineral-like hop character and rich malty notes, but in bock the latter should predominate.
Schlenkerla’s Urbock from Bamberg in Bavaria, only lightly smoked, is outstanding.
The doppel versions of German brewers are usually very good but tend to be early winter specialties and hard to find in North America. These and numerous other bock beer variants are well-described in this German Beer Institute entry here.
In Ontario, Brick Brewing in Waterloo made an excellent bock for years but I haven’t seen it lately. Molson-Coors’s Creemore UrBock is first-rate if well-matured to expel the boiled veg note that the Creemore lagers tend to exhibit (IMO). I keep a few cans for months in the fridge, bought in the winter when it is only available. This extra “lagering” usually makes them perfect by the autumn following. Molson used to have its own bock beer (see image appended) at a modest 5% – to my best recollection this was fairly ordinary, and its Creemore brand today is a decided improvement.
I heard that Side Launch Brewing in Collingwood, ON just issued a bock which is good news as anything from that brewery is top quality. I’ve been trying to track it down, so far without luck. Maybe Saturday will be Der Tag.
You still hear the story that bock beer is or was made from the residues at the bottom of the vats, before they were cleaned. It’s not and never was true. Michael Jackson, the great beer author (1942-2007), wrote that various beer legends were embroidered and transposed to result in this tall tale. Fest lager made in March but finished up in October – what was left in the vats – became associated with bock because both were stronger and darker than regular blonde lager. Fest beer was sometimes called March beer since it was brewed then, so the last of the March beer consumed in the fall became associated with the strong dark beer called bock which hit the market in March and April.
The goat association results from the fact that in the Bavarian dialect, Einbeck sounded like ein bock – a goat. Goats famously can kick, so the association with bock beer was a natural and has never disappeared – a harmless story which makes for fun labels.
If you can find a genuine, un-hyphenated bock, locally made or imported, it is a treat. Whether it tastes like the 1300s Einbeck original, we will never know. But it’s great beer either way.
Note re images: The first image above is in the public domain and was sourced here. The second and third were sourced here, and here. The fourth, in the public domain, here. All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.