Bock, Starkbier ("strong beer"), Winterbock, Weihnachtsbock or Weihnachtsbier ("Christmas bock" or "Christmas beer")
guide for English-speakers:
Bockbiers rank among the heaviest and maltiest, yet smoothest, brews in the world. Like British barley wines, they are very rich and should be sipped, not guzzled.
Traditionally, a standard Bockbier has no less than 6% alcohol by volume. Stronger Bockbiers, called Doppelbocks (literally "double Bocks") may have as much as 7%, while super-strong brews, called Eisbocks have at least 8 to 9%. But many Bockbiers are even stronger. Some may weigh in at a substantial 14%. To put these figures into perspective, the average German beer has an alcohol level of about 4.5 to 5.5%.
The Lager With a Kick
In the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, December to May is the season for Starkbier (strong beer), those big, malty Bavarian brews that nourish body and soul. May the winds be a-hauling and the snows be a-drifting outside, life is good with a glass of Bockbier by your side, while you kick back in front of the fire place. Brewers in the south of Germany understand, of course, that the bone-chilling time of the year is just not right for quaffing beers. So they turn their attention to making hefty potions, ranging in strength anywhere from 6 to 12% or, on rare occasions, even more alcohol by volume.
Making such mighty brews is not a job for the fainthearted or impatient brewers, because Bockbiers need to restto "lager"for weeks, even months, to bring out their mellow satisfying glow. This means that, once the Oktoberfest oompah bands fall silent, there is no time to waste in the brew house. The new malt and the new hops from the new harvest have arrived at the brew yard, and it's time for some serious brewing. The winter brews need to be ready on the first day of Advent, which is the traditional start of Bavaria's outdoor Christmas markets. It is also the kick-off for winter-beer drinking. The brewers, therefore, must mash in their first Bockbier no later than the middle of October.
The start of Bockbier-brewing also marks the beginning of the New Year for the German brew industry. The brewers' New Year's Day falls on October 1, not January 1, because this is the most practical time for a brewery to start a new fiscal year. By that date, all the malt and hops from the previous harvest have been turned into beer, and the new harvest has been reaped. Tradition in Bavaria, where half of Germany's breweries are located, also plays a role, because, in Bavaria, between the middle of the 16th and the middle of the 19th century, brewing was outlawed during the hot days of summer, when infections in the brew house were not uncommon. Bavarian brewers simply put their mash rakes away in the spring, after first cranking out endless casks of Märzen-Oktoberfestbier, only to pick them up again in the fall to get straight on with Bockbier-mashing.
What Is Bock?
Bockbiers rank among the heaviest and maltiest, yet smoothest, brews in the world. Like barley wines, they should be sipped, not guzzled. Beer strength and maltiness increase simply by changing the malt-to-water ratio in the brewhouse in favor of the grain. Traditionally, a Bockbier has a minimum alcohol by volume content of about 6.5%. Most "standard" Bocks do not exceed an alcohol level of 8%, but some Bockbiers, such as the hallowed Kulmbach EKU 28 weigh in at a substantial 13% alcohol by volume. The strongest Bockbier (and strongest commercial beer in general) ever made is called Utopias. It is a specialty produced not in the Old, but in the New World, by the Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams). It has a stunning alcohol by volume of 24%!
The bitterness of a Bockbier is very gentle and subdued. There is almost no hop aroma in the nose or in the finish. The standard Bockbier offered between Christmas and Easter is slightly dark, between dark copper and burnt amber in color. Some Bockbiers, however, are almost black, especially those offered around the winter solstice, while others, such as the Maibock or Helles Bock offered in late spring, are golden amber to almost blond.
A Different Bock for Each
There are several traditional types of Bockbier, each with its typical color and strength, which seems to vary almost in rhythm with the season. With the arrival of frost and the shortening of days in early December, the soul needs something more nourishing then a blond lager, especially after a frigid day of shopping for Christmas presents. Weihnachtsstarkbier (Christmas Bockbier), which is popular in the south of Germany, is often a darker version of the regular Bock. Sometimes it is also called a Dunkles or Dunkler Bock. In addition to the rich malty finish, these rewarding Yuletide brews have a slightly chocolatey taste from the addition of some roasted malts.
By February-March, with winter dragging on and Ash Wednesday putting a somber stop to all the merriment of Fasching (the Bavarian Mardi Gras), it's time for some serious consolation: Out comes the Doppelbock. Initially, the monks made their beer only for their own consumption, but in 1780, they were granted a license to sell their strong brew commercially. As an escape from the rigors of the Lenten season, it seems, thousands of Munich residents nowadays gather annually in the Paulaner Beer Hall at the Nockherberg, around St. Joseph's Day (March 19), to kick off two weeks of official Bockbier-drinking. The season's first cask of Paulaner Salvator Doppelbock is always tapped there by a celebrity, usually the mayor of Munich. Though lighter in color than the Christmas Bocks, Doppelbocks tend to be stronger, rarely less than 7% alcohol by volume.
By May (Mai in German) still too cold for a picnic in the beer gardens the strength of the Bockbier starts to decline back to "normal" and the beer color gets lighter, almost to a fiery blond, perhaps in deference to the lengthening days. The Bockbier that's served during what Lerner and Loew's Lady Guinevere of Camelot called "the lusty month of May" is appropriately called Maibock or Helles (pale) Bock. It is getting close to the summer Helles in color, but in terms of strength, it is still a serious Bock.
Bockbiers are not the only beers Germans drink during the cold stretch of the year, but their qualitative standing far outstrips their statistical, quantitative standing. Even though Bockbiers account for less than 1% of Grmany's overall annual beer production of almost 23 million hectoliters (roughly 19.3 million U.S. barrels or 600 billion U.S gallons), Bockbiers are clearly winter's and spring's signature brews. Especially in Bavaria, brewers consider the seasonal roll-outs of their strong beerstheir Christmas Bockbiers, Lenten Bockbiers, and Maibocksthe highlights of the brewing year.
Finally, a quick point of grammar: You may have seen the spelling of both Heller Bock and Helles Bock (or Dunkler Bock and Dunkles Bock). Either ending is correct, but the difference rests with the grammatical gender of the implied noun. The gender of beer (das Bier) is neuter. However, because the word Bock means ram or Billy goat in German, its gender can also be masculine (der Bock). Those who think of a strong Bavarian lager as a Pale or Dark Billy Goat can call it Heller/Dunkler Bock. Those who consider Bock a shortened version of Bockbier (which it is), can call its Helles/Dunkles Bock(bier).