Restoring the Bock Beer Season

The craft brewing movement, while undeniably a boon, arguably has a blind spot: the venerable bock beer “season”. Attenuated as the tradition is, into the 1980s beer fans still awaited the few springtime bocks still available. 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 examples.

In general, these were darker than regular beer, and the Super Bock at any rate a point or so higher in alcohol. Label images can be seen online,  and even reviews of some old bocks as a few lasted into the early years of online rating. Genesee still makes its bock, as well.

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

On bock’s origin, beer historical studies has advanced in the last decade but not so much to alter the generally-accepted account, that bock started as a strong beer, made partly from wheat, in Einbeck, Hanover District, Germany in the early 1300s.

This type, made by top-fermentation, was later adopted and altered (goes the account) in distant Bavaria in the south. Einbeck, the place of origin, was corrupted in the Bavarian dialect as ein bock. A key stage in the evolution was, finally, to bottom-ferment the beer, the way lager is brewed.

The current Weizen Bock of Germany may recall the older style since it is top-fermented and uses malted wheat along with the barley malt.

Because bock in German means goat, both the idea of the goat and its proverbial kick became associated with bock beer. Hence the images of goats and related iconography on labels and ads.

From the late-1800s until the present day more fanciful or “heroic” explanations appeared, some still related to goats. For example, that the term bock arose to describe the effect on the loser of a drinking contest of the winner’s tankard.

The long-discredited, sediment-in-the-vat theory – that bock is drawn from the dregs of aging vats – is still occasionally repeated. It must have seemed silly even in the late-1800s as few press accounts even then repeated the tale.

An interesting account of bock appeared in 1936 in a Plattsburgh, New York newspaper. It took more trouble over the details than most. The part about toasting the fertility goddess, which I haven’t seen elsewhere, makes sense. The idea is, bock brewing honours the last season’s malt and hops, is a kind of midwife to a new season’s (anticipated) beery bounty.

The time for bock in America was between the beginning of March and early May. March is the German time, but the period was often extended in North America. Perhaps this was due to the Americans’ issuing only one bock, generally a dark beer, while Germans offered variations, e.g., the lighter-coloured Helles, in other months.

Craft brewing hasn’t quite ignored bock beer. In Ontario a few brands appear each spring although some use unorthodox ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, or smoked malt.

The beers usually are quite good but few really get at the German palate IMO, an intense, molasses taste in which steely or mineral German hops play only a supporting role.

What accounts for the molasses note is hard to say, malt type plays a role but we can import any malt. Double-decoction mashing may figure as well, not common in craft brewing.

The Doppel-Hirsch shown, from Germany, is a classic bock albeit lighter in body than some. Doppel, or extra strong dark bock, is almost a separate style but a signature taste informs all dark bock.

There are yet further variations, not just the  blonde Helles Bock again (or Maibock), but the very strong, amber Eisbock – all are worth exploring.

Note to craft breweries: Make the most authentic bock(s) you can and re-create the bock beer season, as a collective effort.

There is enough resonance in popular memory, of the old bock tradition, to support it, surely.

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.