With taprooms closed and festivals cancelled, I’ve been looking for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I’ve therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years. Working through it involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details. I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.
Style: Bock (Dunkles Bock)
History Lesson: Bocks originated in the German city of Einbeck in the fourteenth century, when local brewers started to employ hops instead of gruit as a bittering agent in their beer. In addition to improving taste, hops acted as a preservative, allowing Einbeck to ship its beer beyond Lower Saxony without spoilage. The city’s membership in the Hanseatic League, meanwhile, provided distribution channels to send its tasty, long-lasting beer all over Medieval Europe.
In the early seventeenth century, Duke Maximilian I of Munich poached Einbeck’s brewmaster and installed him as at Hofbrauhaus, where he began brewing the Einbeck (pronounced Ein-bock in Bavaria) style. Over time, the “Ein” was dropped and lager fermentation was introduced, resulting in the bock beer we know today.
Beer Judge Certification Program Description: “A dark, strong, malty German lager beer that emphasizes the malty-rich and somewhat toasty qualities of continental malts without being sweet in the finish.”
Fun Fact: Bock means billy-goat or ram in German, leading many breweries to put a picture of a ram on their packaging.
Third Coast Review’s Take: Bocks taste like a rammed up dunkel. In fact, when you consider that both styles use some of the same ingredients, the difference can be more in degree than in kind. While both are dark, malty and extremely drinkable, bocks have just a bit more of everything: more malt flavor, more mouthfeel, and more alcohol.
I started with Shiner Bock, a Bernstein recommendation from Texas’s Spoetzel Brewery. Spoetzel, of course, holds a unique and special place in American beer culture, as one of a few American breweries founded by European immigrants to survive both Prohibition and consolidation, only to emerge as a craft beer darling in the late 20th century. It first brewed Shiner Bock in 1913, and has done so year-round since 1973. Clocking in at 4.4% abv., Shiner Bock is significantly less boozy than many of its cousins that turned up in my research. When you consider the nineteen degree latitude difference between South Texas and Bavaria, however, that’s probably for the best. As a light-to-medium-bodied, balanced thirst quencher, it blends its German heritage with its subtropical locale.
It was surprisingly difficult to find bocks from Chicago breweries, but I luckily was able to snag a can of Bock in the Groove from Maplewood, a brewery better known for pale ales and pilsners. With its rich, malt-forward taste, it drank like a more robust version of the dunkels I had recently sampled. While not as crushable as Shiner Bock, it’s probably a more by-the-book bock.
Up Next: We’re doubling down with doppelbocks. Stay tuned!