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Bock beer's turn at the tap

This rich, malty brew is Germany's tribute to spring. It's time we took part in the celebration.

April 19, 2006|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

IN beer, the closest thing to the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau is the annual tapping of the maibock keg at the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl in Munich -- which happens next Wednesday.

This salute to spring doesn't stir many ripples over here because Americans don't know from bock. That's a shame. They might find it a welcome change of pace from both ordinary lager and the sharply hopped ales that are the rage at craft breweries.

In brief, bock is a strong lager, heavy on the malt and light on the hops; a big, plush mouthful with few sharp edges. It combines the clean taste of a lager with some of the roasted flavors of a stout. If it were a wine, bock would be a soft Merlot, and a "highly extracted" one -- maltier beer uses a higher proportion of grain per bottle.

Maltiness corresponds to protein content, so bocks tend to produce a thick head and leave a "lace" of bubbles on the sides of the glass, not to mention a protein savor in the mouth. Generally speaking, they're a little sweeter than lagers and darker, ranging in color from pale amber to reddish brown.

Most brands on the market are imported. In its German homeland, bock is widely considered the official beer of spring and early summer and countless breweries make one. In fact, they tend to make bock all year round.

In this country, only two national breweries, Michelob and Samuel Adams, produce a bock, and most craft breweries don't bother because so many customers are crazy for bitter, aggressively hopped pale ale. But not everybody is a "hophead."

"The kind of person who doesn't like a pale ale enjoys [bock]," says Bob Kluver, brewer at Main Street Brewing in Corona. "It's not a light beer, it's got a lot of body and flavor."

Dan Gordon, director of brewing operations for the Palo Alto-born Gordon Biersch chain of brewery-restaurants, makes more bocks than anybody else in this country: an extra-strong Winterbock, Maibock (available in April and May, but only on draft at the restaurants) and the year-round Blonde Bock. "I'm a fanatic about bock," says Gordon, who fell in love with the style while he was an exchange student in Germany. "It's my pride-and-joy beer."

A note of caution. Bock may come on mellow and easygoing, but it's stronger than lager, as high as 8% or even 12% alcohol as opposed to lager's 5%. Sean Dewitt, whose Coronado Brewing Co. brewpub in San Diego makes a bock called Bay Bridge, says wryly, "We get tired of forgetting to warn people, and they get loopy. This is a family restaurant, and the average Joe not even knowing what a bock is."

There are many legends about how this amber brew originated, but the following is the generally accepted one. In the 16th century the north German town of Einbeck was known for strong beers, which it exported widely. To supply his court with good beer, Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria invited a leading Einbeck brewer to Munich around 1612, and the brewer adapted his style to the local malts. Munich's water is alkaline, so Munich brewers were in the habit of roasting their malt, a process that produces acidity as well as a roasted flavor.

Voila, a new style was born. And got a name; over the years, "Einbeck" was corrupted to "bock."

In addition to the keg tapping at the Hofbrauhaus, there are at least three other dates each year when German beer lovers are said to switch to bock: Fasching (the pre-Lent season), "Strong Beer Season" (begins St. Joseph's Day, March 19) and the tapping of the first keg of Paulaner Salvator (second Wednesday after Easter).

Drink up anytime

ALTHOUGH bock is a spring beer in most places, it turns out that it's released in October and drunk throughout the winter in northern Bavaria, the Netherlands and Einbeck itself (where a brewery makes an excellent bock in Munich style).

So do Germans just drink bock all the time?

The receptionist at the German Consulate General in Los Angeles gives an amused silvery laugh and passes the call on to Lars Leymann, the consulate's press representative, who says, in effect, yes: "Traditionally, you just drink bock in spring and early summer, mostly April and May. But these days, you can drink it all year round."

So the rule is clear: Drink bock whenever you feel like it.

But maibock (lighter in color, less malty and alcoholic) is always a seasonal style, brewed specifically for drinking in spring and summer. Only a few American craft breweries make a maibock, one being Sierra Nevada, whose Pale Bock is only available on draft.

"It has its fans," says Steve Harrison, Sierra Nevada vice president, about his maibock. "Our problem is that we run out of tanks. There's an eight- to nine-week lagering period for it."

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