It’s time to join a revolution — a revolution born of thirst for big, rich, full-flavoured lagers. At the forefront of this revolution are seasoned quaffers who keep gravitating away from the prevailing trends in craft beer marketing culture — such as the race for the most eclectic brew or the biggest hop bomb, or the endless quest for the most radical brew, or status symbol, flavoured Belgian clones — to a return to basics. Basics have been the sustaining elements in traditional crafted beer styles and brewing; they are balance, taste, silken drinkability and warming comfort. Many of today’s big brews lack some or all of these refinements.
According to the histories I have become acquainted with, the cradle of the brewing art was not Belgium but Germany, and of its traditional styles, bockbier (or simply “bock”) is universally accepted as the apogee of 1000 years of the Teutonic brewing art. Bock is my all-time favorite go-to beer for sipping, pubbing, and to mate with good food because of its diverse sub-styles. Bock also has a natural toasty sweetness, because unlike the big Belgian ales which get their strength from the addition of candi sugars, Bock derives its strength from large amounts of crafted malts. Bocks are woefully under-represented in the local markets and in commercial craft brewing enterprises in general. Too bad, because bock has so much to offer the robust beer fancier.
Bockbier: The Lager with a “Kick”
Bockbier’s historic roots reveal the reasons for its longevity and why it was, and should remain, so popular. Bockbier originated in the 14th century as a dark, malty, strong, aged ale made in the town of Einbeck. It was wildly popular for the big malty body hiding its strength. The style migrated to Munich, where the local dialect pronounced “Einbeck bier” as “ein bock bier” or “billy goat beer” — “bock” being a ram goat. The name became a humorous reference to the beer’s strength so to this day we see a ram goat associated with bockbier labeling/marketing.
Another innovation happened to the strong dark brew from Einbeck in Bavarian brew houses — it became a lager. Brewers took the old heavily malt accented Einbeck ale and subjected it to bottom fermentation at cool temperatures and long cold conditioning periods, to produce a rich dark malty-roasty robust lager with strength, yet that is incredibly smooth, balanced and satisfying. Bocks varied in strength from 6% to 13%, rivaling wine as table fare. These characteristics made bockbier widely popular for centuries as both a stimulating drink and as a meal beverage. Bavarian bock breweries were kept busy supplying demand.
Diversity of Style
As bockbier became more and more popular, German brewers offered diversity of style by changing the strengths and types of malts used. The earliest variations were of “Dunkelbock” (dark bock) with a rich red Christmas bock (Weihnachtsbockbier), Doppelbock (double strength) and Eisbock (an ice-process bock of imperial strength). Next, a tawny-red medium strength bock appeared for the Easter lent festivals (“Fastenbock” — Paulaner Salvator is the historical benchmark of this sub style). And then, as the new pale malts became available “Mai Bock” (May bock) appeared for the spring festivals. Also called helles bock or heller bock, this is a deep golden lager of extra strength (6% to 7%) — essentially a strong Edel hell lager.
So, aside from the traditional dark bock lagers (usually a winter season brew) bock drinkers now had Amber Lenten bocks and golden Mai Bocks to choose from, and bock became a three-season phenomenon as refrigeration technology advanced. Unfortunately bockbier’s popularity waned as the new wonder of the brewing art, Bohemian Pilsner, eclipsed the popularity of darker, more robust lagers. Today, outside of the few traditional Munich brewers and older commercial German brands, bockbier has had only marginal resurgence in the current craft brewing renaissance.
Local Examples & Recommendations
Outside of the wonderful Ayinger Celebrator and Paulaner Salvator imported German commercial offerings we see at the LCBO occasionally, there are some fairly good examples of the bock styles available from local crafters. The beauty of locally brewed bock is that there is nothing quite like new bockbier fresh from the tap — it’s a treat for the senses and just so awesomely satisfying.
Grand River Brewing offers a fairly feisty example of a spring bock called “Dog Stalker April Bock.” It’s a tawny amber bock with red highlights, which has toasty-sweet malt richness but finishes dry with some herbal bittering. I buy it on tap when I see it. This year’s release was particularly good, so I put in a supply of bottles as well (LCBO #337352)
Junction Craft Brewing offers a fall and a spring bock on tap. I’ve sampled both and I prefer their “Bockscar Spring Bock” — light brown and deliciously malty-toasty-roasty, lightly sweet with good balance and a hop bite in the finish, a good drinkable bock.
Amsterdam Brewing makes an exceptional spring bock. It’s a dunkel bock but very tasty and satisfying. It gets good ratings and for good reason; it’s a rich malty bock with lager smoothness in spades. In spring it usually appears on tap, at better craft beer pubs, and in bottles (LCBO 208942).
Mill Street Brewing makes a practicable Heller-Mai Bock that appears on tap now and then — they bottle it occasionally too. But it is the Mill Street winter dunkler bock that is worth a trip to the pub — deep brown, roasty toasty, lightly sweet, balanced noble hopping, a first rate quaff and a decent bock worth seeking out.
For home imbibing Creemore UrBock is a serviceable enough dark bock but lacks the robustness of larger bocks (LCBO #219659). It does pair well with a variety of cold cut sandwiches and sausage dishes so I usually have a few around for visitors and late season hockey games.
I’m fortunate that my favorite brew pub usually has all or most of these on tap, but unfortunately they are seasonal and the kegs drain out far too fast. For a bockbier fancier it’s a long wait until they appear again and I find myself wishing there were more bocks available year-round. Maybe a local crafter reading this will take pity on us bock lager quaffers and fill that void.
Malt Monk’s Brew de Jour
My recommendation for this edition comes from the spring LCBO Brewer feature of four new Beau’s offerings. Of the four, one well-crafted brew stood out. It drank well alone as a spring patio quencher but was just made for food pairings. Beau’s White Pepper Saison (LCBO # 378794) is a bright, fruity, sparkling imperial strength saison infused with just enough white pepper to make a crisp piquant impression which compliments the spicy hopping in this big fruity ale. A natural companion for creamy rich dishes, this is a good stand-in for wine. I paired this with a creamy shiitake chicken fricassée with great results. Highly recommended but a limited release. Buy it quickly, before it’s gone.
THE MALT MONK is the alter ego of D.R. Hammond, a passionate supporter of craft beer culture. He invites readers to join in the dialogue at maltmonksbeerblog.wordpress.com/