In the days before the craft beer revival bock beer was important for those who had more than a passing interest in beer. Around springtime the Canadian breweries, one or two of them anyway, released their version of bock. Many American breweries did, too.
Bock was a stronger style of beer, originally an “ale” (top-fermented) which transmuted over time into all-malt lager with the onset of Bavarian bottom-fermentation. It derives by old accounts from the town of Einbeck in northern Germany, and may originally 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 Doppel Bock.
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 (bottom-fermented) bock, indeed more than one kind, all highly regarded.
Bock in Germany, the regular kind, was 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 full bottle of Super Bock was recently tasted, you can see a video of the team who drank it here.
Strangely, bock in its most traditional form is often overlooked by the craft breweries, but there are exceptions. Helles bock, a later variant based on a golden lager, is liked by some craft breweries but this form doesn’t flatter the bock tradition, IMO.
Good dark bock shows the qualities one associates with fine German beer: a clean, mineral-like hop character and rich malty notes, but for bock the latter should always predominate. This form is rarer on the ground in craft brewing and can be spiced or flavoured when it does appear.
Schlenkerla’s Urbock from Bamberg in Bavaria, lightly smoked, is an outstanding bock, and there are many others of distinction in Germany.
The Doppel (double) versions are usually very good but tend to be early winter specialties and hard to find in North America. The bock variants are well-described in a 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 Creemore lagers can exhibit, IMO. I keep a few cans for months in the fridge. This extra “lagering” usually makes them perfect by the autumn following. Molson used to have its own bock at a modest 5%. To my best recollection this was fairly ordinary, and the Creemore version is a decided improvement.
On still hears the story that bock beer is made from the residues at the bottom of the vats, before they were cleaned. This is 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. A fest lager made in March but finished in October – what was left in the vats – became associated with bock beer as both were stronger and darker than regular lager. Such fest beer was sometimes called March beer since it was brewed in that month (Marzen), so the March beer left in the fall became associated with the strong dark beer called bock which hit the market the following March or April.
The goat association resulted from the fact – the best explanation – that in the Bavarian dialect Einbeck sounds like ein bock – a billy goat. Goats famously can kick so the association with bock beer was a natural, and has never disappeared. It’s a harmless story that makes for fun labels.
If you can find a genuine, un-hyphenated bock, made locally or imported, it is a treat. Whether it tastes like the original, 1300s original is debatable, we will never know. But if it’s good it’s good.
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.