Bock beer has been the subject of much speculation over the years. Let's immediately lay to rest the oft-heard tale that Bock came from the stuff the brewers cleaned out "from the bottom of their vats". The rationale for this fallacy rested on the notion that bock was only available once a year because that's when the tanks needed cleaning! Anyone who's been involved with brewing understands that this is a total crock. Brewing equipment is cleaned and sanitized constantly, so there must be another story.
The other story is that there are several stories. And none of them are written in stone, so each of us gets to pick the one we like best. One thing that is fairly certain is that Bock beer originated in the German town of Einbeck. In the 14th Century Einbeck had become a famous brewing center, notable for its powerful, dark beers. Because these beers were brewed to high alcoholic strength, they were able to travel well. And because they were viewed as high-quality products, a strong demand for them assured the success of Einbeck's brewers. Einbeck beers were sold as far away as the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
Some contend that the Bock name derived from a corruption of the town's name. Ein-Beck╔ Ein-Bock╔ What's the difference? There is enough evidence to lend credence to this theory, many prefer the "goat connection". In German, "bock" means billy goat. Goats are cantankerous little guys with a penchant for knocking the unsuspecting human onto their backside with a swift, powerful head butt. The powerful, dark brews have been knocking unsuspecting beer drinkers onto their backsides for several hundred years, thus the connection.
An entertaining variant of this explanation is contained in a story about the confrontation between knight and brewmaster. According to legend, the knight made disparaging comments about the character of the beer offered to him by Duke Christhoph of Bavaria. No record exists of the Duke's response, but his brewmaster was rightfully peeved by the insult. The offended brewer challenged the knight to a formal bout of drinking. The knight was to bring a keg of the best beer from his home of Brunswick and the brewmaster would supply a keg of his finest. Each man would drink the beer of the other.
At the appointed hour, with much fanfare and pageantry (always looking for an excuse to party) the contestants began by draining several large flagons of the brew. The knight continued to cast aspersion upon the brewmasters work. More beer was consumed. The brewmaster then challenged the knight to a test of skill. Whoever could thread a needle while standing on one foot would be declared the winner. While the men were preparing to thread the needles, a pet billy goat came upon the scene. While the brewmaster quickly threaded his needle, the knight dropped his several times and wound up sprawled on the ground. In his embarrassment he tried to blame the goat for knocking over, but the triumphant brewmaster cried out, "The Bock that felled you was brewed by me." And we have had Bock beer ever since.
Modern Bock beer has come a long way (for better or worse) from those days. Until recently, many American Bocks were little more than regular light lagers with some coloring added. The revival of brewing styles of the past 15 years has brought a new appreciation of the Bock beer and given us more examples of this traditional style than have been available for many years. Domestic brands now vie for shelf space with the imports. Let's look some. Due to lead times, most Bocks were unavailable when this issue was being put together, so we had to rely on past experiences for this report.
August Schell Bock - Coming from the 135 year old August Schell brewery in New Ulm, this Bock has one of the longest track records in the Bock battles. Brewed in the German tradition, August Schell Bock is of moderate body with a malty touch. They save the huge malt profile for their Dopplebock, a more recent addition to their seasonal portfolio. New Glarus "Uff Da Bock" - Dan Carey apparently made the mistake of letting his lovely wife name this brew. The flavor is very German, with a marvelous balance between the maltiness and the "roasty" highlites. We'd guess that Deb let her Norwegian blood get the best of her when she tasted it for the first time. Dan asked her, "What should we call this one, dear?" After taking a sip, Deb cried out, "Uff Da! That's a good beer!" Apparently the judges at Beverage Testing Institute agreed, naming Uff Da Bock "World Champion Bock" for 1996.
Capital Brewing Gartenbrau Bock - Brewmaster Kirby Nelson has developed a reputation of making excellent beers that closely match the German tradition. The story goes that some of Kirby's brews were served at a reception at the German Consulate in Milwaukee. The Deutschlanders raved about the good beers until it was revealed that they were from Middleton, Wisconsin rather than the Fatherland. The Gartenbrau Bock is accompanied by a Dopplebock that brought home a medal from the 1995 Great American Beer Festival. (GABF) A special brew in 1995 was the "Blonde Dopplebock" served at the Milwaukee Blessing of the Bock. This Maibock on steroids was one of the most memorable brews of the year.
Minnesota Brewing "Landmark Bock" - This pleasing brew is a seasonal offering from the St. Paul landmark. Tending more toward the "middle of the road" in flavor profile, this beer has proven popular with drinkers trained on the "lite-weight" beers. Rumor has it that this recipe won a medal at the GABF a couple of years back under the name of a West Coast contractor.
Pavichevich Brewing Company "Baderbrau Bock" - Ken Pavichevich is a one-of-a-kind guy, and his Baderbrau Bock stands alone as well. Purists might suggest that this brew tends more to the hop flavor than a true Bock, but most beer drinkers just say "Yummm!" As an added bonus, this great Chicagoland brew is available year around.
Stevens Point Brewing "Point Bock" - One of the long-time Bock brewers, Stevens Point has helped to keep the Bock tradition alive in the Midwest. The Point brewers were still smiling when Bock season arrived as a result of their GABF silver medal in the American Premium Lager category. The Bock is pretty darned good, too. Point Bock is one of the early releases, having been available since mid-January in selected markets. (I think I'll take a break and see if I can find some.)
Leinenkugel's Bock - It was Leinie's Bock and the masterful marketing work of Jake Leinenkugel that built the Leinie's mystique in the Chicago and Twin Cities markets. Leinie's Bock is back and better than ever. (You might even want to try the famous "pencil test".) Rumor has it that we can expect a new addition to the Leinie's Bock family. Look for a Dopplebock in the near future. In the meantime, don't forget to take the pencil out of your Bock before you drink it. You could put your eye out!
Now that Bock season is at hand, keep your eyes open for Bock at your package store or ale house. Just don't turn your back on any goats!
Copyright 1996, Beer Notes, No material herein may be reprinted without permission. Distributed on the W3 for personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!