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Original Bock: the beer the doctor ordered

Just when you thought it was safe to leave the beer garden and go home for a well-deserved snooze, I have to inform you that there is no peace for the bockbier drinker. Having disposed of those pre-Easter bocks from Bavaria, the true devotee must now head north to sample the originator of the style, which dedicates its speciality to the month of May.

Consider the most likely derivation of the word Bock. When the Bavarians came to grips with such strong beer, they at first called it Einbock, or something similar.

That was their southern-accented way of pronouncing Einbeck, the first town in Germany to win a reputation for extremely strong beers, and still a proud producer. I was there recently, and greatly enjoyed tasting the town's beers.

Einbeck, in Lower Saxony, is close to Brunswick, Hamelin (of the Pied Piper) and Hanover.

There were times in German history when Bavaria and Saxony were rival southern and northern kingdoms or duchies, spreading so far that they had a common border (today, they are kept apart by a slice of Hesse). When a Bavarian aristocrat's daughter married a Duke of Brunswick, the guests are said to have been served Bockbier.

That is one of several stories explaining how the Bavarians gained a taste for this strong Northern beer. At one stage, the Duke of Bavaria, anxious to have a beer of this style, employed a brewer from Brunswick. Landlocked Bavaria has always been strongly rooted in country life and agriculture and Northern Germany more given to trade through rivers and ports linking it with the Baltic and North Seas. That is why the Northerners were the first to win Einbeck's label showing Martin Luther, a famous imbiber, a widespread reputation for their beer.

The beer was widely known before the Reformation and was famously consumed by Martin Luther during his deliberations, but it could be argued that in the centuries since Catholicism has kept the Southerners conservative and close to the soil, while Protestantism served the trading ethic of the Northerners, near to the sea.

To either side of Einbeck lie the Harz mountains and Solling hills, their streams providing plentiful (soft) water for brewing. Einbeck is at the point where a smaller river meets the Leine.

Its broad valley widens out further into a plain to the north, with barley still cultivated around Hildesheim, between Brunswick and Hanover. In the early days of Einbeck brewing, hops are said also to have been cultivated in this area. Farther north still, are the ports of Roetock, Lubeck, Hamburg and Bremen.

Einbeck became the brewing centre of the Hanseatic League founded by these and other port cities as an attempt at a European trading union, a medieval forerunner of the European Community.

No doubt Einbeck made its beers to a very high gravity so that they could protect themselves on their journeys by continuing to ferment. In the style of the time, the first Einbecker brews may well have been made from wheat as well as barley, and no doubt top-fermented. Today, we would call that a Weizenbock. Modern Einbecker Bock beers are strong lagers, made wholly from barley malt.

Like Chicago, London and many other cities, Einbeck was at one stage destroyed by fire. Its conflagration was in the 1500s, but the houses built immediately afterwards still bear the evidence that almost every citizen was a brewer.

People dried their own malt and hops in lofts with vents that look like dormer windows. These vents are still visible on every other house in the town centre. I have heard of this method of wind-drying malt, instead of kilning it, also being used in Louvain, Belgium, in living memory. The Chinese wind-dry ducks as a means of preservation.


An odder feature of Einbeck, of which evidence also survives, was the use of a travelling brew-kettle, owned by the city and taken to each house in turn. Once the beer had been brewed, the citizens carried out their own fermentation.


An odder feature of Einbeck, of which evidence also survives, was the use of a travelling brew-kettle, owned by the city and taken to each house in turn. Once the beer had been brewed, the citizens carried out their own fermentation.

I have always had some difficulty in believing this story, but I am told that is why the houses have such unusually high arched entrances - to admit the kettle.

When the warmer weather came to Einbeck each year, the brewing had to cease because the temperature was too high for fermentations. So a spring fair was held. At this event, a draw took place to determine the order at which the mobile kettle would visit householders during the next brewing season. The beer served at the fair is said to have been the original May Bock.

Einbeck's great power as a brewing city began to diminish in the 1600s, with the growth of rivals, political change and wars. A public brewery was built in 1794, and this was replaced in 1844 by a more modern model, powered by steam. In 1880, the city sold shares in this to raise money for public works.

This brewery was rebuilt, on the same site, between 1967 and 1975. The brewery is known as Einbecker Brauhaus. It still uses the city's initial "E", with a crown, as its insignia. A controlling interest is now held by Brau and Bruimen, the national group built around Dortmunder Union and Schultheiss of Berlin.

Close to the main street is the Einbecker Brauhaus. Among its own, earlier, half-timbered buildings, the brewery rises, its tower clad in a sympathetic terra-cotta colour, and bearing a slogan that claims the style. It translates as: "Without Einbeck, there would be no Bock beer".

Inside, a decorative arched door of 1620 is maintained, even though it faces on to a wall. A mosaic depicting medieval beer-making stands behind the 1976 brewhouse, made of stainless steel but in traditional shapes.

As is typical in Germany, only two-row summer barley is used. A double decoction mash is employed and a slow-pressure boil, with two additions of hops (Northern Brewer, Perle, Hersbrucker) as both extract and pellets. The house yeast ferments very thoroughly, and the beer is krausened.


It is possible to sample the brewery's products while sitting inside a retired lagering vessel and admiring stained-glass depictions of beer lore.


Guest are received by arrangement in the old cellars, which contain many items from the town's brewing history. It is possible to sample the brewery's products while sitting inside a retired lagering vessel and admiring stained-glass depictions of beer lore.

The brewery makes three Bock beers, all at an original gravity of 1065.2, with 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume. All are intended to have an aroma leaning toward a soft maltiness rather than the hop. The maltiness is intended to be aromatic rather than sweet, syrupy or full, and the hop bitterness to be evident.

All bear the legend Ur-("original") Bock, and are further identified with the descriptions Hell ("pale"), Dunkel ("dark") and Mai (May).

The pale lives down to the description in its golden colour, and has a fresh maltiness in aroma and palate, with a light hop character eventually developing to become pronounced and long in a late finish (38 units of bitterness). The dark has a tawny brown colour, with a smooth, dry, quite intense malt character, balanced by the hop in the finish. These two beers are said to be lagered for eight to 10 weeks.

The Maibock has a bronze colour, a softer malt character, and a fractionally less assertive hoppy dryness. It has only six weeks lagering, with the intention that it should have a more lively, refreshing ("rougher"?) character.

It is released at the end of March, and the last bottles leave the brewery in early to mid May.

Curiously, there is no festival set around the Maibock. Perhaps today's Northerners are too Protestant for such frivolity.

I did, though, have a hearty lunch of brain sausages in the brewery tap. The sausages are called Bregen in German, and the brewery tap, on the town square, is Brodhaus. It was originally the meeting place of the Bakers' Guild.

What was that the monks said about Bockbier being liquid bread?


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAY 1, 1993
In: What's Brewing

Beer Styles

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