Bock to the basics

Dark, malty German lagers
ease the sting of winter

Cincinnati’s bockfest is a celebration rich in tradition

By David Nilsen

When I say the words “German beer,” you most likely picture a glass of pale, brilliantly clear Pilsner, or perhaps a stein of amber-colored Märzen (Oktoberfest). Maybe you think of a curvy vase of cloudy Hefeweizen the color of a wheat field. Germans love their beer, and they love to drink a lot of it, which means most German styles are fairly low in alcohol, like the popular ones I just listed. But it gets pretty cold in Germany during the winter months, and one family of German lager styles—Bocks—have the strength to stand up to the season’s cruelest weather.

Bock originated in the northern German town of Einbeck, and the town is apocryphally purported to have lent its name to the style by way of a slight mispronunciation. “Bock” is also the German word for a goat or ram, and the animal is now the mascot and symbol for Bock styles the world over. Bock eventually migrated to Munich in southern Germany, and evolved into several variants within the thriving beer scene of the Bavarian capital.

The basic form of the style is Dunkles Bock, which is often just referred to as “Bock” without any further descriptors attached to the name. Bocks as a group are all about malt flavor, and Dunkles Bock is one of the maltiest beer styles you’ll find under 7 percent ABV. Typically light brown in color, Dunkles Bock features aromas and flavors of dark bread, toastiness, a touch of caramel, and perhaps a bit of chocolate. Hops are kept to a minimum. Not too many American craft breweries tackle the style, but exceptions can be found. Moeller Brew Barn in nearby Maria Stein, Ohio, releases their 7 percent ABV Rooster Bock during the colder half of the year.

The most popular member of the Bock family for craft brewers is Doppelbock. The style was first brewed by the monks of St. Francis of Paula, who established their monastic brewery near Munich in the 17th century. The monks were forbidden from eating solid food during times of fasting, but the Almighty provided a fortuitous exception for these pious brothers by allowing them to continue to drink beer during these lean seasons. They created a strong, malty beer that could serve as “liquid bread” during fasts, and the Doppelbock style was born. The brewery eventually became a commercial outfit, and the still-popular Paulaner brewery is credited with releasing the first commercial Doppelbock—Salvator—in 1780. The strong style is rich and malty, with dark bread, chocolate, and dark fruit notes. Dayton’s own Warped Wing Brewing releases their 9.1 percent ABV Abominator Doppelbock each winter to commemorate the great blizzard of 1978.

Weizenbock is a Doppelbock that has been partially brewed with wheat, and it utilizes the same expressive ale yeast strain that gives Hefeweizen its banana and clove aromas. Typically coming in at 7-9 percent ABV, these beers taste like boozy, liquid banana spice bread. Excellent Ohio examples are produced by Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland, and Fat Heads Brewery in North Olmsted.

While Doppelbocks and Weizenbocks are occasionally brewed in pale versions, the only member of the Bock family that consistently sports a light color is Maibock (also sometimes called Helles Bock). As the name suggests, these moderate strength beers are traditionally offered in Spring. With excellent clarity and a noticeable but restrained hop presence, these 6-7.5 percent ABV beers are like May sunshine in a glass. Warped Wing provided an excellent example last year with the release of their Man Devil Maibock, brewed to commemorate an employee’s spring wedding.

The rarest form of Bock—at least, here in the U.S.—is Eisbock. Eisbock is created by freezing some of the water in a Doppelbock and removing it to concentrate the beer. Even though this rarely increases the alcohol by more than a few percentage points, the process is considered a form of distillation, and an American brewer must have a distiller’s license to produce an Eisbock. Consequently, very few domestic craft brewers are able to attempt the style. The best German example is produced by Kulmbacher.

Most Bock styles are traditionally released in late winter (Doppelbock, Eisbock) or spring (Maibock), so by the time you’re reading this, Bock season will be beginning. Not only will you begin seeing more of these beers on local bottle shop shelves, but you can also check out the oldest Bock festival in the United States during the first weekend of March.

Cincinnati’s Bockfest annually draws tens of thousands of Bock fans to the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, home of breweries like Christian Moerlein and Taft’s Ale House, for a three day festival devoted to all things Bock. The 2018 festival will be held March 2-4, and will kick off with the Bockfest parade, led annually by a goat pulling a keg. The weekend will include special beer releases, historical talks and tours, and numerous other special events.

If you love Bock, or want to learn more about this unique family of German lagers, head to Cincinnati the first weekend in March and—as festival organizers like to say—Party Like a Bockstar.

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David Nilsen is a beer writer living with his wife and daughter in Greenville. He is a Certified Cicerone and National Book Critics Circle member. You can follow him at and reach him at

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