Spring is the season for bock beer. The rich, malty profile of these strong, German lagers forms a perfect bridge between the departing winter cold and the coming summer warmth.
There is a rumor afoot that bock beers are made from the dregs left in brewery tanks at the end of the year. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. Brewers are obsessive cleaners. They have to be. There are never dregs in a well-run brewery.
Never mind the awful-tasting, stale, sour beer that would result from such a tank dredging project. The myth denies the real, rich history of this malty German lager — a history that stretches back to the Middle Ages.
Bock beer was born in the central German city of Einbeck, a member of the powerful Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds that stretched across northern Europe from the 13th to the 17th centuries. The league’s commercial network allowed the brewers of Einbeck to export their beer far and wide, including to the Bavarian city of Munich.
The beer of Einbeck found exceptional favor in this southern German capital. When the 30 Years War slowed shipment of the beer, the Bavarian Duke Maximillian invited brewmaster Elias Pichler to re-create the beer at Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. Pichler quickly realized that he was not allowed to leave. Within two years, the captive brewer was making Einbecker beer in Munich, and bock beer brewing migrated from north to south.
The word “bock” means goat in German. The image of a goat is often used in the branding of bock beers. It is believed that the word’s application to a beer style derives from the mispronunciation of Einbeck in the Bavarian dialect. The city name may have translated as “Einbock.” From there it’s an easy leap to imagine someone asking the barkeep for “Ein bock, bitte.”
There are several varieties of bock beer to enjoy. The amber-colored, dark bock and its stronger cousin doppelbock gives toasty flavors that are great for those colder spring nights. The golden Maibock — translated May bock — is a more refreshing, hoppier version that was traditionally brewed for consumption in early spring.
Bavarians celebrate the arrival of this new season and the release of Maibock with a blessing ceremony. You can experience a homegrown blessing of the Maibock on May 7 at the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewpub. The festivities kick off at 5 p.m. with what’s described as a “tongue-in-cheek blessing of the brewhaus” and a community toast. There will be music, bagpipes and, of course, Maibock beer.
The Town Hall Maibock is rich and malty with lightly toasted bread crust and honey being the dominant flavors. It’s malty, but not sweet. A dry finish and moderately high bitterness keep it balanced and crisp. Spicy hop flavors reminiscent of licorice and cinnamon form a nice complement.
Schell’s Maifest is another Minnesota-brewed, blond bock hitting stores now. Its malt character is more bread dough than bread crust. A sharp shot of herbal hops helps to cut the moderately high sweetness. A bit of alcohol gives a warming glow. Maifest is a cozy comfort to lift your spirits as the Minnesota winter drags on into May.
For a less traditional take on the style look for Heller Bock “Saphir” from the Brauerei Hofstetten in Austria. The typical sweet, bread and toast malt provides a base for a burst of hops flavor and aroma that is far from the norm for the style. Extensive dry-hopping with the Saphir variety lends the beer prominent and pleasing notes of pepper, cinnamon, flowers and lemon/orange citrus.
Dark bock beers are hard to find, but you may still come across a six-pack of Schell’s Bock in area stores. The nose and the palate both abound with toasty notes of dark bread crust. Hints of caramel and raisin add sweetness that is balanced by a low level of hop bitterness.
Look to Germany for great, locally available examples of the stronger doppelbock beers. Kloster Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel is a world-class place to start. Rich, pumpernickel malt is enveloped in luscious layers of caramel and milk chocolate. Loads of dried fruit — cherry and golden raisin — deepen the experience. A subtle wisp of smoke adds intrigue at the start and dissipates as the beer warms. Import beers sometimes suffer in transport, and this one was no exception. Even with some handling issues, the brilliance of this beer still came through.
Go even darker and richer with Weihenstephaner Korbinian. This full-bodied brew is a full-on malt assault, with enough warming alcohol to take the edge off a night around the fire pit. Toasted pumpernickel dominates, with background notes of bitter chocolate, raisins and prunes. It’s fairly sweet, but dries out in the finish to leave pleasant chocolate and dark fruit afterthoughts.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.