Bock brings the Germans rushing to the beer garden
After the dark months of winter, the Bavarians are now venturing cautiously into their beloved beer gardens, even though the weather is not yet reliably warm enough to ensure comfort.
They can always give themselves a little central heating with a Bock Beer. In Germany, this is a brewery's strongest beer, unless - as is often the case - it also has a "double" Bock.
Both variations are seasonal specialities for cool weather, and the Doppelbocks are especially associated with Lent. Extra-strong beers were originally made at this time of year by monastic breweries as "liquid bread" to see the brothers through the weeks when their diet forbade not only meat but also fish.
The notion of beer as liquid bread is not fanciful. In the dawn of civilisation, bread was baked as a raw material for brewing and in some corners of the world "traditional beers" are still something of an alcoholic porridge.
A rich, malty beer like a Doppelbock is quite filling and does not, like the lighter, hoppier styles, further arouse the appetite.
The most famous Doppelbock is the one first made by the monks of St. Francis of Paula. The saint's town is in Calabria, but the monks had crossed the Alps and founded their community in Munich, in 1634.
They began to sell their beer commercially in 1780 and named their Doppelbock after the Sayiour - in Latin, Salvator. Other brewers copied the name until trademark laws were introduced. After that, competitors began to devise other names ending in -ator.
During the Napoleonic period, the brewery was secularised but the tradition has continued. These days, the Paulaner brewery makes its Salvator available year round, but still has a ceremonial tapping in March or April for the new spring season.
The ceremony is two weeks after Ash Wednesday. The Prime Minister of Bavaria and the Mayor of Munich attend the event at which the invited elite of Munich is entertained to a topical cabaret but the public flock to the brewery's beer garden to drink the beer.
Going to the beer garden at the Paulaner brewery is sometimes referred to "as taking the beer cure," as though it were water that was being sipped, at Tunbridge Wells, Malvern or Harrogate, perhaps.
In heavily Catholic Bavaria, where the most popular Christian name is Joseph, that saint's day, on March 19, is often regarded as the beginning of the "strong beer " season. Going to the beer garden at the Paulaner brewery is sometimes referred to "as taking the beer cure," as though it were water that was being sipped, at Tunbridge Wells, Malvern or Harrogate, perhaps. (Innerleithen used to be a spa - maybe Traquair House should start a "beer cure season").
Like many monasteries, the Paulaners' was on a hill, a defensible point overlooking the city, and in the 1880s much of the present brewery and garden was built there. The hill is known as the Nockherberg, after a wealthy man who had his home there.
The Salvator, with a gravity of 1072-4 degrees and 7.5 per cent alcohol by volume, is a dark-brown lager with a malty aroma and palate rounding out to a dryish finish. As the weather warms, attention will drift from the Salvator to the lighter, sharper, more quenching Weissbier wheat brews of summer.
That might be the moment to sample the unfiltered products at Paulaner's brewpub in the centre of town at Kapuziner Platz.
Every Munich brewery has these styles, but one associated with both is the Hofbrnuhaus. It was the first brewery in Bavaria to use the term Bock, well over 300 years ago.
Its annual tapping ceremony, again private, is in the last week of April, again usually on a Wednesday, at the Hofbranhaus tavern (no longer a brewpub, though it was in the 1500s), on the Platzl, the square that is the heart of the town.
The beer tapped in April is available throughout the next month and is called May Bock. In a slight gesture to the more summery weather it has a gravity of a mere 1072-3 and an alcohol content of 7.2. It is an amberred lager with a malty fruitiness in its aroma and palate, without being over-sweet, and is perilously easy to drink.
Head north from Munich past Nuremberg and Bayreuth and you will hit the Bock-producing town of Kulmbach. This pretty little town of half-timbered buildings sits at the foot of another of those defensible hills which has been topped by a castle since the beginning of this millennium.
For those who enjoy such treats, the castle has the world's biggest collection of toy soldiers (sorry, tin figures).
Kulmbach is at the meeting point of two small branches of the river Main and was an early centre for the distribution of beer. Its propensity for strong styles may date from the days when their potency protected them on their travels. The most famous examples are the Reichel's "Ice Bock" and the Kulminator of the Erste Kulmbacher Union Brewery.
Both Reichelbrau and EKU are now large, modern breweries. Reichel, founded in 1846, has wooden lagering vessels ranged as a memory of tradition outside its white-painted tower. Its Risbock, sub-titled Bayrisch G'frorns ("Bavarian Frozen") has a gravity of 1096 and is made from five malts, one with an intentionally-sour, lactic character.
After a conventional bottom-fermentation, the brew is frozen for 11-14 days. Between 5 and 7 per cent of the volume of the brew stays behind as ice. Because water freezes before alcohol, this concentrates the brew, which then has six months' lagering.
The beer is released at about 7 o'clock in the evening at a public festival in Kulmbach town hall on the last Saturday in March. If you have missed it for this year, perhaps you should think about booking a trip for 1994.
The festival opens with the ceremonial hacking open of an icebound wooden cask. The beer that emerges is very complex, with a deep, reddish-brown colour; a malty aroma; a smooth palate; a warming, faintly bitter, finish reminiscent of a coffee liqueur; and a strength of 10 per cent ABV.
On the last weekend in July, Kulmbach has a beer festival on the town square, but the only brews served are specials for the occasion, at a respectable 5 per cent. The more potent products can, of course, be found around the town. Reichel and its sister brewery Kuimbacher Monchshof (known for its "black" Schwarzbier, a dark lager) and EKU have ties on most of the local taverns.
EKU makes a dark (cherry-to-brown), creamy, malty Doppelbock called simply Kulminator, at 7.6 per cent, and a paler (pinkish amber) but famously strong version, at 11.5-12 per cent which has the subtitle "28." That figure refers to degrees Plato, the German system of original gravity. Call it 1120.
The brewery claims that this beer has nine months' lagering, dropping in temperature until it begins to freeze, but the amount of ice left behind in this instance is not regarded as being a significant factor in its potency.
Kulminator 28 is even more creamy and malty, slightly ora ngey-tasting and instantly alcoholic. At the brewery I was offered it in a cocktail with orange juice and rum. After a hard night's drinking, this would be the perfect breakfast.
EKU was a union of two smaller breweries, which linked in 1872. Its 1890s makings building still stands, a classic of the period, with modern equipment inside, and makes a marvellous contrast to the post-modernist brewery of 1990.
This northern part of Bavaria, known as Franconia, is the most densely breweried corner of Germany, and is endlessly interesting for the beer lover. Turn west and you are heading for Bamberg, better known for smoked beers than for Bocks, though it does have the odd strong brew from mid October through November and December.
At either end of the year, Bock beers are usually considered to be winter warmers. I believe they are also a remnant of the days before artificial refrigeration, when it was impossible to brew in summer because of wild yeasts.
A high gravity brew was made in March and laid down as a provision to be drawn upon during the summer months. When the warm weather was over, in September and October, the last of the stock was ceremonially consumed.
This may explain the resilient folklore that Bock beer is made from the sediment taken from vessels during spring cleaning. A laughable story, but perhaps based on a misunderstanding of the truth.
Bocks are usually stronger than the Marzen (March) and Oktoberfest beers, and the traditions are now distinct from each other, but surely they all have their roots in the original seasonal nature of brewing.
Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: APR 1, 1993
In: What's Brewing
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