In the wonderful world of beer that goes beyond mere mass-market belly wash, variants of hoppy India pale ales now rule the day. This isn’t a problem for IPA lovers, but its very popularity has encroached on the brewing of other traditional beer styles. If you build it and they don’t come, eventually you stop. Try to find, say, an English-style mild brown ale these days and the task is up there with Diogenes discovering an honest man.
The same is almost as true — though thankfully not quite — with Bock beers. These hearty, generally strong, malt-accented lagers began life as ales in Einbeck in northern Germany. But as author Darryl Richman notes in Bock (Brewers Publications, 1998), “In 1612, Duke Maximillian I persuaded the brewmaster of Einbeck, Elias Pichler, to come to Munich. Once in Munich, the brewmaster was not allowed to leave the town, so valuable were his skills considered.”
The Bavarian brewers in the south eventually put their own stamp on the beer and created a stronger Doppelbock (“double Bock”). Bock means “goat” in German, and the animal still festoons many a Bock beer label, but why the beer is called Bock is anyone’s guess. One decent idea is that southern Germans’ requests for an “Einbeck bier” evolved into “Ein Bock bier, bitte.”
Another is that Bocks were brewed under the sign of Capricorn, which is why they were then ready by and became staples of spring (frequently called Maibocks). Or maybe it’s just that the beers tend to have some kick to them.
We’ve filled up a six-pack with Bocks that should be relatively available and which suggest the subcategories of the style: Helles (“pale”) and Maibocks, generally lighter in color; Dunkel (“dark”); Weizenbocks (wheat beers, with a further subcategory of Dunkel Weizenbocks); Doppels and Eisbocks (literally, “ice Bocks,” a stronger version of Doppelbocks that freezes the original brew and saves the fortified liquid that is left).
(Troëgs Independent Brewing; Hershey, Pennsylvania; 8.2% ABV [alcohol by volume])
Those U.S. craft breweries that produce Bocks often do so as spring seasonals, like Troëgs’ Cultivator Helles Bock, a light gold, bready, grainy and floral brew once available February through April, mainly on the East Coast. But Troëgs now concentrates on one of its most popular beers, the year-round Troegenator Double Bock, a mahogany beauty that, like most doppels, strikes a rich caramel note. The
“-ator” suffix, also used for many Doppelbocks, is in tribute to the next beer.
(Paulaner Brauerei; Munich; 7.9% ABV)
The issue of how to overcome their Lenten fasting habits was niftily solved by Italian monks (who had relocated to Munich) through brewing a strong beer — liquid bread, after all — as early as 1634, naming it after the Savior. Considered the first Doppelbock, Salvator is still archetypal in its use of dark barley malt (Munich malt), creating a mild sweetness with a touch of caramel or molasses and a nuance of chocolate. A world classic by almost any measure, Salvator is the type of beer that, when you drink it, you wonder why you don’t drink it more often.
(Spoetzel Brewery; Shiner, Texas; 4.4% ABV)
If not a world classic Bock, Shiner is certainly one of the best-known and most readily available nationwide, now often in 24 oz. cans for those with Texas-size thirsts. Brewed in tiny Shiner, Texas, since 1913, the Spoetzel Brewery’s Dunkel Bock lacks a firm malt backbone, but it may be more approachable to some imbibers at a mere 4.4% ABV. It’s unbeatable for nostalgia.
Dead Guy Ale
(Rogue Ales; Newport, Oregon; 6.8% ABV)
A bit of an outlier in that this Maibock-style brew is actually a top-fermenting ale rather than a bottom-fermenting lager, its Munich, malt-accented palate is on the stylistic money. And the dead-guy label art makes it a lively pick for Day of the Dead parties.
(Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan; Freising, Germany; 7.7% ABV)
Though brewing probably began at the monastery in Freising as early as A.D. 725, the Benedictine monks didn’t officially obtain a brewing license until 1040. If now secularized, Weihenstephan has a solid hold on the claim of being the world’s oldest operating brewery. Vitus is its Weizenbock, a style perhaps owing more to southern German wheat beers than Bocks, as the malt character is somewhat overshadowed by estery banana and clove flavors. No matter, as this pale-gold, slightly turbid beer is singularly delicious.
Wire to Wire
(Pinehurst Brewing Company, North Carolina; 6.8% ABV)
Yes, the Pinehurst Resort has its own brewery to go along with all those golf courses. So it’s not a great surprise that its Dunkel Weizenbock refers to German golfer Martin Kaymer’s 2014 wire-to-wire U.S. Open win on Pinehurst No. 2. You will have to travel to Pinehurst to find this beer, but that’s never been considered a hardship.