The bock: a lager in ale’s clothing

Beer, with its seemingly infinite varieties, often surprises and challenges. Sometimes, a beer comes along that grabs your attention because it is so different to what you were expecting.

The bock is just one of those styles: it is so magnificently schizophrenic, so contrary to conventional perception. It’s a lager but it’s not yellow, nor bland.  Bockbiers are generally dark amber to dark brown in colour, strong in ABV, scantily hopped with layered malt flavours that could have you believing that the beer has been conditioning under the watchful eyes of monks for 600 years in some forgotten Bavarian cave.

Sweet rich malt aromas of toffee, toast, dark fruit and caramel coat the inside of your mouth while the finish is well-attenuated and crisp, with a subtle bitterness that has you coming back for more and more. This is a lager, but it is worlds apart from the “hot country lagers” that dominate the macro-brewed landscape. It is strong and bold yet still manages to be refreshing. It is its very own paradox: a lager in ale’s clothing.

Bock as style got its name from the Bavarians’ inability to pronounce the name of the Hanseatic German town of Einbeck, where it was brewed for the first time in the 14th Century.  The Bavarians of Munich adopted the style a century later, originally brewing it as an ale, though to be fair, all beers prior to 15th century were ales.

With its new Bavarian name, and the advent of lagering – that is, ageing beers for long periods in cool caves – the beer we know today started to take shape. Bock means “billy goat” in German and many modern brewers pay homage with goat or ram iconography on their labels or bottle caps. However, all great stories have many origins and some say that the association with the goat is not linguistic but rather a reference to the zodiac since it was initially brewed in December and January – under the sign of Capricorn. .

The bock family

Origins aside, the Bockbier has several substyles on which various German towns and brewers have put their own stamp. Maibock, meaning “May bock”, is a paler, more highly hopped version often made for consumption at spring festivals; doppelbock (double bock), a stronger and maltier version originating in the monasteries of Munich; and eisbock, a whopper of a beer at over 9% ABV, made by partially freezing the beer and removing the ice that forms, therefore concentrating the alcohol volume.

Thankfully we have some great examples of the style currently available in South Africa. South Africa’s best beer, as awarded by the South African National Beer Trophy 2017, is indeed a bock – Maibock to be precise. Bruce Collins of Stellenbosch Brewing Company has produced a beautiful example in his Hoenderhok Bock, first brewed to celebrate spring in 2015. “We brewed it originally in a humble chicken shed in Stellies”, says Bruce. Not the only messiah to be born in a manger and this beer has collected its fair share of disciples, me being one of them.

Namibia Breweries have long produced a seasonal Urbock (original bock) which is an absolute treat and friendly on the pocket as well. This beer is produced by a macro-brewery but certainly stays true to the original style. It has always been brewed just once a year and has an irksome habit of disappearing and reappearing on the shelves.

Unfortunately, two world-class examples of Bockbier that used to be available in SA have disappeared. Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale was an American craft take on a Maibock and brewed to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Paulaner’s beautifully balanced Salvator was the original doppelbock, brewed by 18th-century monks as a hearty way to get through weeks-long religious fasts when solid food was forbidden. It was a sad day for South African beer lovers when it disappeared from our fridges.

But don’t fret too much. With a little searching, we can still find one of the finest examples of a foreign bock on our shelves. The only Trappist-produced bock in the world, La Trappe Bockbier is brewed by monks but thankfully not only for monks. It is sensational in all its schizophrenia.

This winter get your hands on a bottle of bock, light your winter fires, take your work-weary woollen socks off, take a sip, hold, enjoy the journey, swallow, and then wiggle your toes. It will surprise you – and you will thank me.

This beer style is crying out for more South African examples. Go forth brewers; get brewing this paradox poster child of why beer is so versatile and amazing. It’s about time someone released a Spring Bock, right?

Bock trivia

Although born in Einbeck, bock became massively popular as far away as Britain and Scandinavia due to the Hanseatic trade links as well as a unique system of quality control. Dozens of citizens in Einbeck were entitled to create their own recipes, malting their barley at home, though they were not allowed to own brewing equipment. Instead, city employees would transport the brewhouse to the citizens’ dwellings, bringing along a professional brewmaster to operate the equipment. It was then certified for sale and export. Think of it as homebrew on a whole new level.

*This article was first published in On Tap Magazine. South Africa’s first dedicated beer publication is a quarterly magazine aimed at craft brewers, homebrewers, beer fanatics and those just beginning
to dip their proverbial toe into the mash tun



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