The yellow label on the brown bottle is ubiquitous among Texas beer drinkers, and the brand has been making its way outside the confines of the Red River for years. But while Shiner Bock may be many people’s only association with bock-style beers, it certainly isn’t the oldest one around – not by about eight centuries. It’s those beer-saavy Germans that invented the bock beer – and the dopplebock and eisbock and hellesbock, among others – and it’s the Germans whom many believe have perfected the art.
But what does it mean to be a bock beer, and what is it about how they’re made that makes them taste like they do? We spoke with Cicerone and Flying Saucer Beer Director Sam Wynne about this venerable style, and why it’s managed to stick around all these centuries.
Always good to chat with you, Sam. We’ll begin at the beginning: what is a bock beer, exactly?
Bocks are one of the oldest proper styles that are out there, and they’re definitely characterized by the malty side of the profile; bocks are really a showcase for that caramely sweet barley characteristic.
One of my favorite parts about bocks, though, is the history to them. As a style, bocks date all the way back to the 14th century, which is really, really old as far as beer styles go. When you think about things like the porter and the stout that feel like such classic styles, those weren’t even being thought of until the seventeen or eighteen hundreds. Even the Belgian beers like the doubles and triples; with the association of the Monks, people automatically assume that those are really ancient styles. But doubles and triples are – to over simplify it – are only right at the hundred-year-old mark.
So, going back to those origins, one of the first things to talk about with bocks is how they got their name. A lot of people associate that symbol of the goat with a bock – bock is German for goat. But the way that came to be is one of those random evolutions of language. The German city of Einbeck was, back in the day, one of the major brewing power houses of Germany. So because the name of the city was Einbeck, people started asking for Ein Beck – pronounced ein bock in different regions – and then that is thought to be where the name bock actually came to be to describe that style of beer.
Ah. So it’s not made from goats?
(Laughs) No. None that I’m aware of.
A relief to dark-beer drinking vegetarians everywhere. How is it made?
Pretty much all of the old malts had some degree of smoky characteristics about them because that’s how they malted; those darker malts were pretty much the easiest to produce. So at that time everything was pretty murky and dark, so it’s about as natural of a beer style as there is. Really, the movement of even using hops in beer didn’t come along until after the bock had already gained its popularity. So back then, the defining characteristics of beer hops wasn’t even in that vocabulary. Nowadays, they will use hops to brew them, but typically for a proper bock you’re not getting really any of that pine, citrus, or any of those classic hop flavor profiles. It’s really just there to play behind the scenes and prevent the beer from being too sweet.
Really, bock is your classic lightly roasted barley; you’ve got your water, you’ve got your hops, and there’s really not too much craziness. Since it’s a lager, you’re really not supposed to get any flavors from the yeast; any fruitiness that you’re getting should be coming from the actual barley and not the esters from the yeast, like you would get from a Hefeweizen or a Belgian-style beer. And because those ingredients are so straightforward, it really comes down to the way that you are mashing and boiling those simple ingredients. In order to make a bock be complex and have its uniqueness to them, decoction mashing and long boils will help caramelize those flavors and develop melonoidens to produce those bready, caramely – sometimes even toffee – flavors. Part of the definition of a bock is sticking to that classical style – there’s really not much room to innovate. When you take a bock to the next level, it’s just not a bock anymore. It starts to be a completely different thing.
What about doppelbocks? What makes them different from a traditional bock style?
Even though it’s called a doppelbock, it’s not like they can really just double the recipe and have it come out like that, but to simplify it, you can think of it that way. The Doppelbock is going to have more of that sweetness – and more alcohol – simply because there’s more barley being put into it, producing more sugars, which then go on to produce more alcohol. And it makes them sweeter. Bocks are a little bit more on the balanced side; they have a nice multi-sweetness without being classified as sweet. The Doppelbocks, though, will actually cross that line a little bit and many can be considered sweet. Paulaner’s is one of the sweetest that I can think of.
There’s also Maibocks, which is lighter in color and has the reference to May for Springtime production, and there’s also Weizenbocks as well, which are wheat beers brewed to bock strength. Schneider Aventinus being the most famous Weizenbock.
What are some of your favorite bock producers in America?
Capital Brewing’s Autumnal Fire – a doppelbock – is the best I’ve had. There aren’t really a lot of American bocks that are out there because it’s one of the older styles and the American craft brewing movement has been so forward thinking and focused on innovation. Like I said, When you take a bock to the next level, it’s just not a bock anymore.
So if somebody wanted to ask you what to drink if they wanted a bock, what would you tell them?
I’d tell them that I’m biased – my first proper beer was Paulaner Salvator. I’ll always remember that beer and it will always have a very special place in my heart. There were a couple years where that was what I drank and I didn’t think I was ever going to get over loving that beer.
You wouldn’t hand them a Shiner?
Shiner Bock is a little bit thinner than what I think a proper bock typically is. I would call Shiner closer to a Vienna than a Bock. And now I think Lonestar Bock is really trying to capitalize on that Shiner excitement.
Well, at any rate, I think you’ve talked me into a Salvator.
(Laughs) I’ve noticed that it’s not that hard to do.