Gordon Kendall Special to The Roanoke Times
The great English beer writer Michael Jackson explains in his book “Beer Companion” why someone should not go to a restaurant and order “a beer.” He observes that this is as ridiculous as saying, “I would like a plate of food, please.”
Indeed, with the myriad styles of beer available today, running the gamut of sour and fruity to coffee and bourbon laced stouts, the term beer covers a broad range of styles. Certain types of beer taste better in certain seasons, and when the weather starts warming up, maibock may be just right.
The allure of the maibock style is its emphasis on sweet, nutty and caramel malt notes, banishing bitter hop flavors into the background. Hops are a matter of personal taste, so those who don’t like hoppy beers such as India Pale Ales and Belgian Tripels, take note. Maibock is one variation of the bock style, known for amber color, malty flavors with a note of toffee and somewhat higher alcohol content.
According to Jackson, the style originated in the late 1300s in the Northern German town of Einbeck, on a trading route used by the Hanseatic League. Einbeck, known for brewing excellent beers, had a communal public kettle that was sent from one homebrewer’s home to another. The houses had front doors with arches one story high, so the kettle would fit through. Many of these houses remain today.
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The kettle’s recipient was determined by a lottery each May 1. In those days all beers were dark and lagers, which ferment at cold temperatures during the winter. The brewing season ended in May, so the lottery determined who would get the kettle on the next brewing season. Since this event took place in May, the bears were called maibock, as in May bock.
The brewers in Einbeck shipped what they did not drink and over time earned a reputation for superior beer. The beer traveled better than most of its contemporaries and arrived in drinkable condition at such distant locations as Scandinavia. According to allaboutbeer.com, Martin Luther subsisted on Einbeck beer during his Diet of Worms and proclaimed, “The best drink known to man is called Einbecker Beer.”
In 1619, Bavaria was not known for high quality beer, so the Royally owned Hofbruhaus brought in noted Einbeck brewer Elias Pilcher to help them improve. After some trial and error, Pilcher had success using lager yeast and lighter malts, and fermenting the brew slowly in the cold winter so it was ready about May. They were better than the “Dunkel” ales of the day and became known as helles bock since helles means “Light”.
Bavarians developed a liking for the Einbeck beers, which they pronounced ein bock, meaning “Billy Goat” in German. To further enhance the label, bock bears had a “kick” from extra alcohol, completing the goat analogy. Today, many bocks and doppelbock (more on that shortly) feature goats on the label. Forget the popular rumor that bock bears are made when the tanks are cleaned out. That is simply not the case. Expect alcohol content in the range of 6-8%. In Bavaria, the Monks developed the stronger Bocks for consumption during Lent as “liquid bread”.
Today the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines classifies maibock and helles bock as the same style. They say the beer should be golden to light amber in color, have flavors of grainy sweet bread dough and toasty malt. Alcohol should be 6.3% to 7.4% and hops should be in the range of 23 to 35 IBUs (International Bittering Units). An authentic beer from Einbeck is still produced. Einbecker Mai-Ur-bock has a deep golden color and malty notes with 6.5% alcohol by volume. Virginia ABC says the product has a distributor so if you don’t see it on store shelves your specialty beer retailer should be able to order it for you.
Oregon’s Rogue Brewing company has produced Dead Guy Ale for years. Rogue says it has the color of honey and malty flavors along with notes of toffee. The brew is 6.8% ABV and 40 IBUs. The brew should be available locally.
In 1634 the monks of St. Francis of Paul in Munich were trying to develop a beer that would sustain them during Lent, when they were not supposed to eat. They built a brewery and fashioned a beer using large amounts of malt. The sugars in the brew were not allowed to ferment completely, so the brew was strong and slightly sweet. Since double the malt was used, the beer was referred to as “doppelbock” or double bock. The alcohol was higher, but not twice as high as regular bock. Today the brewery Paulaner still produces their doppelbock, known as “Salvator”. It displays a chestnut brown color and notes of chocolate, malt and fruit. The brew has a mild hop note from classic German hallertau hops and weighs in at 7.9% ABV. The Germans assign these brews a moniker that ends in the suffix –ator.
The German brewer Ayinger produces a doppelbock known as Celebrator. The label features two goats and a small plastic goat hangs from the neck of each bottle. The brew has a dark amber color and notes of toasted malt and dark fruits. The brew weighs in at 6.7% ABV and 24 IBUs.
Pennsylvania’s Troegs brewery has its own take on doppelbock known as Troegenator. The brew is crafted from chocolate, Munich and pilsner malts balanced with German northern brewer hops. Troegs says the beer has notes of smooth caramel, stone fruit and fresh toasted grain. The alcohol is 8.2% and the hops weigh in at 25 IBUs. I have seen Troegenator, Salvator and Celebrator on retailers’ shelves in the Roanoke area.
Now if you need to order a beer, you can say, “I would like a double bock, please.”