The craft brewing movement, while undeniably a boon, arguably has a blind spot: the old bock beer “season”. Into the 1980s, beer fans duly anticipated the few springtime bocks still available. In Ontario and Quebec, Molson Brewery offered a Spring Bock, and Labatt, its Super Bock. Over the border you might find a bock from Genesee Brewery in Rochester, and other examples.
In general, these were darker than regular beer, and Super Bock was a point or so higher in alcohol. Label images may be seen online and even some reviews. A few old-school brands lasted into the early craft era. Genesee still makes a bock, in fact.
I remember these beers as mild-tasting, with a light molasses or dark sugar note.
Beer historical studies has advanced in the last decade but not to alter the generally-accepted account for bock’s origin: it started as a strong beer, made partly from wheat, in Einbeck, north Germany in the early 1300s.
Further, the original, made by top-fermentation, was later adopted and altered in distant Bavaria to the south. Einbeck, the place of origin, was corrupted in the Bavarian dialect to ein bock. A key stage in the evolution was brewing by bottom-fermentation, the lager way that is.
Today’s Weizen Bock of Germany, a strong, hearty wheat brew, may recall the original style since it is top-fermented and uses malted wheat along with barley malt.
Because bock in German also means goat, the idea of the goat and its proverbial kick became associated with bock beer. Hence the images of goats appearing on bock labels and the related advertising.
From the late-1800s until present day, more fanciful or “heroic” explanations have been offered for bock’s origin, for example that bock described the effect on the loser in a drinking contest. The goat association is still latent here.
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 stories advanced this notion.
An interesting origin account in 1936 in Plattsburgh, New York (via New York State Historic Newspapers) took more trouble over the details. The idea of toasting the fertility goddess, which I hadn’t seen elsewhere, makes sense. In this notion, bock beer honours the malt and hops of the last season, functioning as a midwife for a new season’s fertility and hoped-for bounty.
In America, the bock season was from beginning of March until early May. March is the German time, as well, but the period was often extended in North America, maybe because American brewers issued only one bock, generally a dark, malty brew. Germany had (has) variations for other seasons including the paler Helles and strong double bocks.
There are yet further variations, eg. the extra-strong, amber Eisbock – all worth exploring.
Craft brewing has not quite ignored bock. 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, in my experience. The true taste of spring bock is, in my view, a molasses-like signature, underpinned by mineral-like German hops.
Doppel-Hirsch from Germany is a classic bock, although lighter in body than some.
There is enough resonance for bock in the popular memory to support a renewed spring tradition, but craft brewers need to get behind it more. A formal return of the old bock season, perhaps helmed by a craft brewing associations, is one way.
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 used for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their owner or authorized users. All feedback welcomed.