Restoring the Bock Beer Season

The craft brewing movement, while an undeniable boon to the beer fan, has had one arguably negative effect, which is the effacing of the bock beer “season”. Attenuated as the tradition was, into the 1980s beer fans awaited the springtime bock beer from the few breweries which made one. In Canada in Ontario and Quebec, Molson had a Spring Bock, and Labatt a Super Bock. If you hopped over the border you could find a bock from Genessee and other American brewers.

In general, these were more tawny than the regular issue, and the Super Bock was a point or so higher abv than the 5% norm. Labels for these can be easily found online, even some reviews as the products either lasted into the first years of online rating or older bottles were being reviewed.

I remember these beers as mild, with a light molasses or dark sugar flavour.

Beer historical studies have advanced quite a bit in the last decade, but not much seems to have been done to alter the generally accepted story of bock’s origin. It all has to do with a strong beer, partly made with wheat, from Einbeck in the Hanover district. The beer started there in the early 1300s and was later adopted and altered by Bavarians. A key stage in the evolution was making bock by bottom-fermentation. The weizen bocks of Germany though probably recall the older style, as they are top-fermented and use both malted wheat and barley.

From the late 1800s until the present day, stories of bock’s origin offer the Einbeck story as the true account, but sometimes recount fanciful or heroic explanations if only (often) to dismiss them. One such is the two knights who had a drinking competition. The one who lost was said to have been butted by the goat (bock in German) in the winner’s tankard. Variations on the butting and goat story abound.

The long-discredited sediment-in-the-vat story occasionally appears but must have been seen as silly even by the late 1800s as only the occasional story refers to it.

And so Einbeck must claim the honour of the beer’s origin, until any different theory of origin may emerge.

You can read a good account in 1936, from a Plattsburgh, NY newspaper.  This account takes more trouble over the details than most. The part about toasting the fertility goddess makes sense, the idea of the last season’s malt and hops honouring or being midwife to the new season’s bounty.

The season in America for bock was anywhere from beginning of March to early May. March is the German season, but it was often extended in America, perhaps because Americans issued one bock, generally a dark beer, and eschewed the light-coloured helles bock which comes in May in the German calendar.

Craft brewing hasn’t quite ignored bock beer, in Ontario I’d guess about a dozen brands currently carry the name, although some aren’t really a bock or use unorthodox ingredients. It can be hard to find (conveniently) more than one or two at any one time. These beers  are usually quite good. But few or none really emulate the German palate which is an intense, molasses-like taste. Steely, mineral German hops play an important role too but without dominating the taste.

The Doppel-Hirsch pictured, from Germany, is a classic bock taste albeit lighter than some I’ve had despite the doppel designation. Doppel is, or can be, almost a separate style but a signature taste informs most dark bock, at least in my experience. There are yet further variations, not just helles bock (or Maibock) but Eisbock, all worth exploring.

Note to Ontario craft breweries: make the most authentic bock(s) you can and create a bock beer festival. There is still enough resonance in the folk memory for the bock tradition, people will respond to it gladly.

Note re images: the first image is from an April 30, 1935 news article in the Commercial Advertiser, Potsdam, NY, sourced from the NYS digital newspaper archive, here.  The second image is from the 1936 article, in the same archive, linked in the text. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their owner or authorized users.  All feedback welcomed.