In the days before the craft beer revival, if you had more than a passing interest in beer, bock beer was important. In or approaching spring Canadian breweries, one or two of them anyway, released a bock. Many American breweries did as well.
Bock was a stronger style of beer, originally an “ale” (top-fermented). It 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 have started as 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 Franciscans are credited with devising an extra-strong bock called Doppel Bock.
This 1890s account of bock’s origins by the American William Walsh has a ring of truth about it. It accords with other accounts going back at least to the 1820s. Einbeck, sometimes called Eimbeck formerly, has a brewery that still makes (a bottom-fermented) bock, indeed more than one, all highly regarded.
Bock in Germany 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 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. Helles bock, a later variant based on a golden lager, is promoted by some craft breweries. This form doesn’t flatter the tradition, in my estimation.
Good dark bock shows the qualities one associates with German beer in general: a clean, mineral-like hop character and good malty notes, but in bock the malt should predominate. Basic dark bock seems relatively rare on the ground in craft brewing, and when you see it, can be spiced or flavoured, a craft innovation.
Schlenkerla Urbock from Bamberg in Bavaria, which employs smoked malt (an old tradition in Bamberg), is an outstanding bock. There are many others of distinction in Germany.
The Doppels (double bock) 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, see here.
In Ontario, Brick Brewing in Waterloo made an excellent bock for years but it hasn’t been seen lately. Molson-Coors’ Creemore UrBock is first-rate if well-matured, and can vary slightly year to year. I like to keep a few cans for months in the fridge. I find the extra “lagering”, or cold-aging, makes it even better. Molson used to have its own bock at a modest 5%. To my recollection this was fairly ordinary, and Creemore’s is a decided improvement.
One still hears the story that bock is from the residues of vats before they are cleaned, the dregs. This is not and never was true. Michael Jackson, the great beer writer (1942-2007) wrote that various beer legends were embroidered and transposed to result in this tall tale. Barrels of fest lager made in March and drained in October – what was left in the vats – became associated with bock as both were stronger and deeper in hue than Munich Helles, or golden lager.
Such fest beer was sometimes called March beer since brewed in that month (Marzen Bier). The remaining March beer consumed at fall festivals was conflated with the strong dark beer called bock which hit the market the following March or April.
The goat association results from the fact – the best explanation – that in Bavarian dialect Einbeck sounds like ein bock – a billy goat (buck). Goats famously can kick so the association with bock beer, given its alcohol, was a natural, and has never expired. It’s a harmless story that makes for fun labels.
If you can find a genuine, unhypenated bock beer, made locally or imported, it is a treat. Whether it tastes like the 1300s original is debatable – we will never know. But if it’s good, it’s good.
Note re images: The first image above, in the public domain, was sourced via Wikipedia Commons here. The second, also public domain, was sourced from Wikipedia here. All intellectual property therein, as applicable, belongs to lawful owner. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.