The production of different beer styles brewed for the changing of the seasons goes back hundreds of years. Typically born in the brewing traditions of Germany and Belgium, who were at the forefront of brewing in the mid to late portion of the last millennium, these seasonal varieties became world renown for heralding in a new part of the year. Since this brewing period predated refrigeration, breweries had to adapt what they produced over the year based on available crops and temperatures of manufacture, as well as the palate of consumers in each season. In the cold winter months, many Europeans in northern climates expected a dark, filling, high alcohol beer to satiate bellies fed less over the long crop deprived winter, as well as to impart a greater sense of warmth. Such a beer would not be well appreciated during the warm and abundant summer months, and summer beer styles reflected a more thirst quenching palate need. Spring beers reflected a transition period of these palates, as does the season itself.
Spring beers traditionally are brewed in the winter with the same high alcohol content of winter beers, and can range in color from dark to amber, and even lighter still. While a few styles share introduction in springtime, the overwhelming majority of beers known as ‘spring’ beers are lagers from the Bock style. Bock beers originated Einbeck, Germany. This style eventually made its way to Bavaria and Munich, where the local dialect changed the pronunciation to Einbock. The style name shortened to Bock, and as the phrase ‘ein Bock’ means billy goat, the eventual symbol for this style universally became this horned animal. Such symbology still graces the labels of many beers of this style.
Bock beer has several variations, including Maibocks (“May” bock), Dopplebocks (“double” bock), and the Dutch Lentebok (spring bock brewed for Lent). Classic examples of these beers include Ayinger Celebrator, a double bock which comes with a plastic billy goat charm draped around its bottle, Hofbrauhaus Mai-Bock, from the oldest continued producer of bock beer when the style came to Bavaria, as well as the famous Paulaner Salvator. This double bock comes from the Paulaner brewery’s monastic origins, where the monks used to brew and consume this hearty beer as a way to sustain themselves during Lenten fasting. Another type of bock beer are the specialty Eisbocks, which are made by partially freezing bock beer and removing the ice crystals. This results in a higher alcohol content, and a stronger flavor that must be balanced as to not taste too much like alcohol. Schnieder Aventinus is a classic exam of this style. The style overall is a particular specialty of the Kulmbach district of northern Germany.
The bock style eventually spread outside of Germany, particularly to the Netherlands where the Dutch produce bocks along their entire range of variation (although not exclusively for spring), and also eventually to brewers in North America, where in the last 20 years there has been somewhat of a revival of the bock style. A fine example of this, and fitting for early spring, comes from the Abita brewery in Louisiana. They produce a bock for Mardi Gras sold yearly, but also make a pale double bock named Andygator which has only recently become regularly produced and distributed in bottles nationwide. Shiner Bock, from the Spoetzl Brewery in Texas, is the brewery’s flagship beer and has been produced for over a century. It is generally an everyman’s take on the bock style, with a relatively simple flavor but a high drinkability due to its lack of particular complexity. In addition to many examples of bocks, other North American brewers have developed a number of beers for spring outside of the traditional bock style, encompassing lighter colored ales and wheat beers that evoke the flavors of summer beer styles to come the following season.
As the warmer weather begins to beckon your return to the outdoors, raise a glass of bock beer as did our European cousins to herald the start of a happy spring and a bountiful summer to come.