Faithful readers may recall that I have sequestered myself away in the wine cellar to wait out the third wave of the pandemic, surviving on the regular deliveries from our hard-working booze merchants and grocery services. I had to make an exception a few weeks back, for the annual release of the Bock beers on March 19, also known as Saint Joseph’s day, husband to the slightly more famous Virgin Mary.
Never heard of a Bock? That’s not too surprising, as the North American palate has never become accustomed to this high-gravity beer with a long and colorful history.
The Bock beer style came from the German city of Einbeck in the 14th century, and was first brewed by Catholic monks for consumption during Lent. Since the monks were required to fast during Lent, they brewed a high-alcohol beer that contained more calories than standard beers as a way to keep their strength up.
Reports that some of the more progressive cloisters used this as justification for a 40-day beer bash tend to get to get swept under the rug by the church, so I will leave it as a mental exercise for the reader to figure out just how many pints those monks guzzled each day.
Traditional Bock beers tend to have a low hop bitterness, so the sweet flavors of the malted barley are usually the dominant taste in this style of beer. The alcohol content is generally 6% to 7%, making it stronger than most mainstream brews.
Maibocks are often dry hopped, which adds hops after the wort has been boiled. This imparts a more intense flavor and aroma to the beer, but does not increase the bitterness released by the hop oils during the boiling process.
The most common Bock beer that you may have come across in your boozing career is the Holsten Maibock from the German city of Hamburg. Originally a one-off seasonal brew, it proved so popular that it has been brewed year-round for over a decade.
Widely available in Alberta in the tall-boy 500mL cans, Holsten Maibock weighs in at 7% ABV, and is the easy-drinking macrobrew of the Bock world, with a grassy and floral hop aroma, but very little bitterness, followed by a grainy malt body. Certainly an easy drinker, but perhaps not something to impress the beer nerds.
Fortunately, over the past few years, our local Alberta craft brewers have jumped on the Bock bandwagon, at least for seasonal releases this time of year. Calgary’s Inner City Brewing makes a seasonal Bock called Troll’s Toll Bridge, made from a traditional Bavarian recipe from the 1500s. True to its ancient style, this is a crisp German lager with a hefty malt backbone, delivering a very biscuity flavour with hints of chocolate from the caramelized malt.
While this is only a briefly available seasonal brew, Inner City Brewing is a hidden gem among Alberta craft brewers, with a dozen-ish or so brews, made up of a stable of core recipes made year-round, and an ever-changing assortment of seasonals and one-offs. Their porter-style ale has gotten me through many cold winter nights, but will soon be retired to make way for the lighter summertime beers.
Getting back to the Bock style, my favourite comes from the Hell’s Basement Brewery in Medicine Hat, in the form of their Elevator Doppelbock. Even the non-German speakers in the audience may have guessed that doppel translates to the English word double, meaning the Doppelbock style is a bigger and stronger version of a Bock beer, with the Elevator Doppelbock weighing in at a hefty 9% ABV.
I first tasted this brew after it won gold at the 2020 Canadian Brewing Awards, coming in first place in its category. The dark malts impart treacle notes, toffee from the caramelized malts, and even some fig and raisin flavour.
The Elevator Doppelbock is made in the style originally brewed by monks to sustain themselves while fasting during Lent, who deemed the brew to be “liquid bread”. This style has almost no hop flavor, resulting in the sweetest of the Bock styles. Depending on the type of malt used, there may be overtones of chocolate or dried fruit
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and this fine beer is no exception. Since Bock beers tend to be only a seasonal brew, pick one up soon or you might miss out!