Cover image Calvert Lithography Co. (Detroit, Mich.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I regularly see memes and articles about how German beer is considered “flussiges Brot” or liquid bread. But where does this idea come from? Most likely this started with a group of monks and Bock Bier. During Lent, members of the Paulaner order abstained from eating solid food. Bock beer, with its extra load of carbohydrates and satisfied some of those pains nutrients. (40+ days is a long time to go without eating, I’m sure that strong beer also helped them forget a bit too). So, what is Bock Beer, and where did it come from? How is it different from Starkbier?
And why is there a goat on the label of so many Bock Biers??
What is Bock Beer?
Humans have been brewing beer for thousands of year. But it hasn’t always been tasty (in Mesopotamia, they drank beer with a straw, to avoid ingesting the impurities and solid bits…ick). Then in the 11oos, the brewers of Einbeck in Lower Saxony (south of Hannover) worked out a formula for really good beer. So good, in fact, that they started exporting the beer. First to Hannover, then further to Hamburg and beyond. As members of the Hanseatic League, the beers were even shipped abroad. The fame of the beer spread, and everyone wanted to try it. (A modern comparison might be the rare and much sought after Pliny the Younger from Russian River Brewing).
Einbeck managed to work out a program to standardize the beer by regulating the brewing and sale. Basically, if you wanted to brew beer in Einbeck, the city would send over a brewmaster, who brought along the equipment and recipe…then oversaw the brewing in your home. If it was done correctly, and tasted right, it could be certified and sold.
The biggest problem with sending these early beers over distance…preserving the flavor. (Remember, this is before modern sealed containers and refrigerated semi-trucks). The brewers of Einbeck solved the problem by adjusting how they brewed the beer. (And this is where is gets a little technical) They bottom fermented the beer, and lagered it cold for a long time to smooth the flavor. The result is a maltier flavored beer, without the slight bitterness that comes from hops. At 6.5% alcohol, it’s also a fairly strong beer.
Far down south in Munich, Bavarian Royalty developed a taste for the brew, but importing it got to be an expensive habit (in 1578, the city of Munich spent 562 guilders on imported strong beer). William V, Duke of Bavaria got the idea to skip the middle man, and have the Einbeck beer produced close by. He hired (some say poached) Einbeck brew master Elias Pichler, and built the Braune Hofbrauhaus (on the Plätzl) to be the center for brewing operations for the crown.
The Bavarian dialect is responsible for the name change. Although the name started as Einbeck, it got shortened to Beck, which came out as p’ock or oinp’ock…and from there Bock. (And although in German a male Goat is a Bock, it’s just a pretty symbol for the label.)
Beer becomes Bread
In the 1600s, the Paulaner Monks moved from their home in southern Italy to Cloister Neudeck ob der Aar in Munich. Like many monasteries, they brewed beer for the Monk’s consumption. Once in Munich, they started using Pichler’s recipe. The Paulaners were a strict order, and when Lent rolled around, they abstained from solid food. They COULD however, drink beer. And when they doubled the malt, the beer satisfied the monk’s hunger pains (a 1 liter Mass contains 160-200 grams of malt, the equivalent of 4-5 slices of bread).
Now here’s where myth steps in. According to legend, the beer tasted so good, that they felt guilty. Lent was a time of abstaining from pleasures, and enjoying beer is contrary to the spirit of Lent. The monks decided to take it to a higher authority…not God… the Pope. The thing is, the Pope lived far away. Road Trip! A few of the monks took a barrel of their strong beer up over the Alps for judgment. Along the way, the barrel was subjected to changes in temperature… and it went bad. When the Pope tried the beer, he declared it foul, and an appropriate Lenten penance. The monks were granted Papal Approval to drink their Doppelbock Bier during Lent.
Back in Munich, the authorities granted Paulaner monks to produce beer for their own consumption, but… somehow outsiders managed to get their mugs on some of it in exchange for “donations”. By 1751 Elector Karl Theodore granted the Paulaner Monks permission to sell their Salvater beer. This strong bottom fermented Doppelbock is still brewed and sold, 375 years later, using the same recipe (with only minor adjustments).
An interesting aside… what would it be like to spend a month fasting with only Doppelbock for sustenance? J. Wilson, a home brewer and beer judge decided to give it a try, and he blogged his experience and turned it into the book, “Diary of a Part-Time Monk”. (Of course, he made sure to get permission from his first employer). According to Wilson, the first two days he felt hunger pains, and after that, they faded. He became more alert and in tune with his senses. Plus he lost 25 lbs (maybe he’s on to something…)
What is Doppelbock?
On an incredibly hot July day, a few of us on a Beer Tour sought some relief from the heat of the monastery courtyard with a beer. One member of the group had been looking forward to trying the famous Doppelbock. The waitress explained…”We can’t serve him that today, it’s too warm, and it will interfere with his Kreislauf (circulation).” Wait, WHAT? After a few minutes discussion, we assured the server that our companion was not only familiar with brewing, he was a well-seasoned beer drinker, and quite willing to take the responsibility for anything that happened. Apparently, past guests underestimated their ability to handle the strong beer. According to Luke, the beer was delicious….but STRONG. Normal Bock beer contains 6.5% alcohol, but a Doppelbock has 7-12% by volume. You feel it. A doppelbock tends to be sweeter and maltier than a regular boock. To me it tastes like toast that stayed in the toaster just a touch too long.
Other Bock Biers
Of course, once the Doppelbock appeared, other Bocks came on the market. You’ll find Triplebock (I imagine you’ll have trouble walking after a few of those), Maibock, and even an Eisbock.
About Eisbock. (We had a chance to taste one at Schneider Weisse in Munich.) The intensity of flavor comes from freezing. According to the origin story, a lazy journeyman didn’t feel like putting all of the beer barrels that were in the courtyard away in the lagering cellar. Overnight, temperatures dropped, and much of the beer froze, bursting the barrel staves. But in the center, there was still liquid. The master Brewer was (obviously) incensed! He decided that as punishment, the journeyman would have to drink the liquid center. Some punishment. Because freezing pulls the water out of the beer, the remaining beer was sweet and malty, with a 9-14% alcohol content. (The journeyman was most likely useless for the rest of the day).
Because of the strength of the beer, it’s illegal to make in the United States. Because the freezing is considered an offshoot of distillation, it falls under different laws than brewing. Brewers aren’t allowed to distill spirits, and old laws require different licenses and taxation on Brewing vs. Distilling. For now your local craft brewer can’t make it. You will just have to get on a plane to Germany (or other places where it’s legal) or buy an import… which for some reason is exempt?
Maibook. Do you prefer your beers with more hoppy flavor? Maibock has a paler color, and incorporates more hops. This bock is served in Springtime… think of it as a shoulder season beer.
Weizenbock. A Weizenbock is made with wheat, and is said to be “beefier” than a doppelbock.
Today, Bockbier is referred to as Starkbier. The name Starkbier (strong beer) comes not from the alcohol percentage, rather from the percentage of solids or Wort (for Bock that is 16%, for Doppelbock 18%). And since it’s Germany, there’s a Fest for that. Munich’s Starkbierfest takes place during the Lenten Season, Starkbierzeit (Strong Beer Time). The Festival hasn’t been scheduled yet for 2022.
During Lent, why not give a Bock Beer a try? You even have Papal approval!
Although I’m not certain giving up food is a good idea…..
Beer and Brewing
Why can’t you make Eis-Bock in the US
The Complete Joy of Home Brewing- Charlie Papazian