When you tip back a traditional German bock, you’re drinking a beer laced with history. Dating back to the Medieval era, this dark lager was originally brewed in the northern town of Einbeck, Germany, during the fourteenth century.
When the bock traveled south to the city of Munich during the seventeenth century, the subtle differences in language meant that Bavarians started to mispronounce the beer from Einbeck as ein bock.
That word in German literally translates to billy goat.
The name stuck and so did the image of the animal, which you’ll find on many bock labels to this day.
One might be tempted to say this beer style is the…GOAT. We might not go that far, but it is a fairly unknown style worth exploring.
Let’s fall down the rabbit hole.
First, The Bock Family Tree: Helles Bock / Maibock, Bocks, and Doppelbock
Typically, when saying bock one refers to the classic dark German lager, but there are actually several different types of bocks that fall under that umbrella. Think of all these bocks on a spectrum, starting with a lighter, pale lager and moving toward a darker, heartier lager.
Helles Bock / Maibock – Like the lighter, paler cousin of bocks, helles bocks and maibocks are oftentimes used interchangeably. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), definition helles bocks are “a relatively pale, strong, malty German lager beer with a nicely attenuated finish that enhances drinkability. The hop character is generally more apparent than in other bocks.” Pouring a deep gold to light amber, these beers are meant to represent the spring (Mai actually means May in German). For that reason, you’ll find a strong malt character, but also a heavier hop presence than in other bocks.
Bocks – The traditional dark German lager that sort of acts as the godfather to all these others bocks. Historically, according to the BJCP, bocks are “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.”
Doppelbock – Still very malty, still very dark, but much sweeter, Doppelbocks are much like the imperial version of a stout—maltier, richer, and higher in ABV. In fact, this makes sense when you translate the word doppel, which means double in German. First brewed by Munich monks, doppelbocks interestingly started out actually lower in alcohol content and considered “liquid bread” at the monastery. Expect deep chocolate, roasted toffee, and caramel sweetness.
So, What Exactly Is a Traditional Bock?
Traditional German-style bocks are essentially dark lagers that are heavy on the malt, showcasing classic German grains like Munich or Vienna malt.
“Definitely more malt-forward, the malt profile and the ester alcohol profile is where you achieve your balance,” says Dave Bleitner, co-founder of Off Color Brewing and architect of the brewery’s bock—Beer For Burgers. “As opposed to a pilsner or pale ale where you get more from a hop profile versus the maltiness, these bocks tend to be more on the boozy side of flavors to balance the sweetness.”
Additionally, because these beers are lagers, brewers used a bottom-fermenting yeast during fermentation. Historically, this meant brewers would store their bocks for longer periods to smooth out all those intense flavors.
At Off Color, Beer for Burgers rests in a blend of second- and third-use bourbon barrels. “You get a little more subtlety of oaky, vanilla, coconut note from the traditional bourbon, but it gets watered down into a nice beer,” says Bleitner. “It gives you the complexity of a bourbon barrel without the intense burn and booze.”
All this helps those malts that really shine.
Bocks Are All About the Malt
Remember bocks are traditional German beers, so whether you’re drinking a helles bock / maibock, traditional bock, or doppelbock, in most recipes you’ll find classic malts in the grain bill.
“The ingredients are usually pretty simple for traditional recipes when talking about a straight bock,” says Bleitner. “Traditional, classic, lightly roasted malts like Munich malt, Vienna malt, or Pilsner malt if you’re talking about a helles. ”
In Off Color’s Beer for Burgers, Bleitner uses a base pilsner malt and a bit of Munich malt as well. “It’s pretty straightforward,” says Bleitner. “You get a clean pilsner base, a little bready, a little sweet biscuit, and more of a biscuit flavor from the Munich malt.”
It’s that high malt character that contributes to a bock’s color and tasting characteristics.
What Are Some Common Characteristics of a Bock?
If you take away one thing from this piece, remember that bocks are all about the malt.
In traditional bocks you’ll find a significant amount of sweetness balanced with strong notes of toasted nuts. All thanks to the malt.
Bocks are “a little bit darker in color, a little bit richer in malt flavor with just enough hops to balance out that malt sweetness,” says Joel Shields, Rogue Ales Brewmaster. Rogue’s Dead Guy, a helles bock / maibock, has been a staple at the brewery since it was first brewed in 1990.
Typically a bit higher in strength for a lager, bocks clock in between 6.3% – 7.5% ABV.
Pouring a light amber to straight brown, bocks punch you with a predominant aroma of dark baking bread.
On the sip you’ll find much of the same: simmering caramel, chewy buttered biscuits, and maybe just a touch of dried fruit in the background.
Bocks will fill your mouth with a sturdy, smooth body, finishing very velvety with perhaps just a whisper of hop character.
What Are Some Common Characteristics of a Helles Bock / Maibock and Doppelbock?
Again, the malt takes centerstage with both a helles bock / maibock and doppelbock.
In a helles bock / maibock, European pale malts give off a deep gold to light amber color and predominant toasted notes. Hops do play more of a role here, working more in tandem with the malt. Just think of these beers like paler, slightly hoppier versions of a traditional bock.
For example, Dead Guy includes Munich for maltiness, a little bit of Crystal 15 malt for color, and 2-Row malt for the base. But the beer is complemented by Perle and Sterling hops. “Those are America’s version of Hallertau, Mittelfruh, and Saaz,” says Shields. “Sterling is more like Saaz for a nice lightly spicy finish and Perle is used for bittering.”
On the other end of the spectrum, doppelbocks benefit from very dark malts. Typically higher in alcohol than a traditional bock, doppelbocks fall somewhere between 7% – 10% ABV.
Closer to dark rust or brown in appearance, doppelbocks drink with a deep maltiness as well. Think almost closer to chocolate, stewed fruit, and toasted rye bread.
The State of Bocks in American Craft Beer
Bocks have a significant place in German history, but in American craft beer they’re far more rare.
“It seems like a beer that would appeal to people, so I don’t fully understand why there aren’t more of them around,” says Bleitner.
Although Dead Guy has become an extremely popular beer at Rogue, Shields says they avoid calling it a straight up bock. “It’s a great beer, but if you put ‘bock’ on there it won’t sell quite as well,” says Shields. Instead, Rogue relies on the catchy artwork to draw people in to drink the beer. Once they do…they’re hooked.
According to Shields, fifty percent of their customers that come through say Dead Guy is their favorite beer. “Many people say it’s their go-to even though they like IPAs,” says Shields. “You’ll like this beer because it’s pretty approachable for everyone.”
With breweries like Off Color, Rogue, and Tröegs, brewing their own versions, consider carving out a space for bocks.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with everyone,” says Bleitner. “They’re yummy!”
What Are Some Good Bocks to Try?
We’re including versions of all types of bocks to try here including helles / maibock, traditional bocks, and even doppelbocks.
Beer for Burgers – Off Color Brewing
Helles/Maibock – Originally brewed as a nod to a boilermaker—a beer and a shot—Beer for Burgers was meant to be the ultimate…well, beer for your burgers. “The idea was to make a clean beer that could stand up to the wood and alcohol you get from barrel aging,” says Bleitner. Using Off Color’s helles bock base, Bleitner created Beer for Burgers by resting the beer in a blend of second- and third-use bourbon barrels. Fermented with a traditional lager yeast, Beer for Burgers is “a very clean base that has a little bit of fruit notes from fermentation, especially like a mild stone fruit mixed in with a little boozy alcohol note,” says Bleitner. “Not to the extent you get on an imperial stout, but just a hint of alcohol burn helps balance the residual sweetness from the malts.”
Dead Guy – Rogue Ales
Helles/Maibock – A super popular beer at Rogue, Dead Guy came into the brewery’s portfolio in 1990. First brewed for a Day of the Dead celebration, Dead Guy’s unique artwork draws people in. But it’s the beer that captures their taste buds. “Expect big maltiness, especially because of the Munich malt and nice almost sweet finish but balanced out with just enough hops so that it’s not cloyingly sweet,” says Shields. “Dead Guy pours light amber with an off-white thick head and finishes with a nice crisp hop bitterness and a touch of spicy hop notes.”
Rockefeller Bock – Great Lakes Brewing Company
Single / Traditional Bock – The classic version from Great Lakes Brewing Company showcases the true power of a traditional bock. Rich and malty, Rockefeller Bock should be your go-to for an American version of this classic German beer.
Troegenator Doublebock – Tröegs Independent Brewing
Bock / Doppelbock – As Tröegs writes in its Troegenator Doublebock description on Untappd, “Thick and chewy with intense notes of caramel, chocolate, and dried stone fruit, ‘Nator (as we’ll call him) serves as a tribute to this liquid bread style.”