Restoring the Bock Beer Season

The craft brewing movement, while undeniably a boon, has had arguably one downside: erasing the bock beer “season”. Attenuated as the tradition was by then, into the 1980s beer fans dutifully awaited the few springtime bock beers still available. In Canada, at least 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 some other American brewers.

In general, these were darker than the regular issue, and the Super Bock at any rate a point or so higher in alcohol. Label images for these are online, even some reviews as some products lasted into the early years of online rating.

I remember the beers as mild-tasting, with a light molasses or dark sugar note.

Viz. bock’s origin: beer historical studies have advanced in the last decade but not much to alter the generally-accepted account, namely that a strong beer, partly made with wheat, emerged in Einbeck, Germany in the Hanover district early in the 1300s.

The beer was made then necessarily by top-fermentation, and later adopted and altered in distant Bavaria. Einbeck, the place of origin, was corrupted in Bavarian dialect as ein bock. A key stage in the evolution was, finally, bottom-fermentation, the way most bock and its variants are brewed today.

However, the Weizen Bock of Germany may recall the older style since it is top-fermented and to boot uses both malted wheat with the barley malt.

Because bock in German means goat, and the kick of a goat recalled for some the unusual strength of bock beer, the goat and its iconography became forever associated with bock beer.

From the late-1800s until the present day more fanciful or “heroic” explanations are offered, some connected to the goat aspect. One is that two knights had a drinking competition and the loser was viewed as butted by a goat via the winner’s tankard. Variations on the butting and goat story abound.

The long-discredited, sediment-in-the-vat theory occasionally still appears. It must have seemed silly even in the late-1800s as only the occasional story in that period refers to it.

And so Einbeck must claim the honour of the beer’s origin, at least until a more persuasive theory emerges.

A good account of bock, in 1936, appears in a Plattsburgh, NY newspaper. It takes more trouble over the details than most. The part about toasting the fertility goddess makes sense, it’s the idea of the last season’s malt and hops being honoured, or as midwife to anticipated bounty from the new season.

The time for bock America was anywhere from the beginning of March to early May. March is the German season, but it was often extended in North America. Perhaps this was because Americans issued one bock, generally a dark beer, and eschewed the lighter-coloured Helles Bock that appears in May in the German calendar.

Craft brewing hasn’t quite ignored bock beer. In Ontario I’d guess about a dozen brands carry the name year in, year out, although some aren’t really a bock or use unorthodox ingredients such as coffee or chocolate.

These beers nonetheless 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.

What accounts for that molasses is hard to say, malt types play a role but we can import those. I suspect double-decoction mashing may be decisive.

The Doppel-Hirsch pictured, from Germany, is a classic bock 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 all dark bock, in my experience. There are yet further variations, not just Helles Bock (or Maibock) but the strong Eisbock, all worth exploring.

Note to Ontario breweries. Make the most authentic bock(s) you can and create a bock beer festival. There is still enough resonance in the folk memory from 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.



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