MOVIES & BOOZE: German beers to warm you up

Dean McGuinness reviews Jeff’s Bavarian Ale and Marc’s Chocolate Bock

We are just coming out of Oktoberfest season (which, of course, happens primarily in September).  However, with German themes in mind, and with the weather turning a little bit colder, I thought that it would be nice to taste some German beers.  Even better, we are going to taste some slightly stronger German beers to give a little alcohol warming to help us deal with the colder weather.

Originally Bockbiers were brewed in the town of Einbeck, and then copied by the brewers of Munich (to give the style Doppelbock).  Originally Bockbiers were strong lagers, but this ‘rule’ became a touch perverted with the development of Weizenbock (a combination of Bock and Wheat beer – Weizen).  Originally, Bockbiers were amber to dark brown in colour, and the idea of a black bockbier would be considered unusual.  I say this because today we are looking at the ‘alternative’ end of bockbiers.  While Germans (and some would argue that this is a stereotype, but it is a stereotype that is unusually consistent in the world of brewing) are very good at keeping to the ‘rules’, today we are tasting two bockbiers that bend these rules a touch.

Our beers for today are Jeff’s Bavarian Ale – a Weizenbock; and Marc’s Chocolate Bock – a Chocolate Bockbier.

Bocks –

The German style ‘Bock’ or ‘Bockbier’ originated in the town of Einbeck in Germany.  The origin of the name is assumed to be a corruption of Einbeck.  ‘Eins’ in German is one, so when someone was talking about a beer from ‘Einbeck’, it is not surprising that this could have been interpreted as ‘Eins Beck’ and later gotten corrupted to ‘Eins Bock’ over time giving the name ‘Bock’ for the beer.  In German, a ‘Bock’ is a ram or a goat – again, it is assumed that the beer found its name, and then brewers started using pictures of a ram or a goat on the label because of the name rather than the reverse (the beer being named after a ram or a goat).  However, as with many stories about beer, there is not always an absolutely clear thread to the story, and the explanation is an attempt to piece together the pieces of the puzzle of the beer’s history.

In Germany if one hears of an ‘Altbier’ this is a reference to an ‘old’ (‘Alt’) style of beer originating from Dusseldorf.  While this style of beer is not directly relevant to today, the fact that ‘old’ is applied to a style of beer that is an ale is.  Ales were considered to be the ‘old’ style of beer in Germany, and the last few hundred years saw the development of lagers.  This would have coincided with an understanding of yeast as an ingredient in beer (before the time of Louis Pastereur, yeast was a mystery, and brewers achieved fermentations by following age-old practises rather than by understanding that inoculation of the unfermented beer with yeast was the factor that triggered fermentation).

A Bockbier was originally a lager (or bottom-fermented) style of beer.  It was when the style travelled to the south of Germany that the style started to evolve.  Munich brewers in the monastery of St. Paula brewed an even stronger version of a Bock which has become known as a ‘Doppelbock’.  This was one corruption or evolution of the original style.  A second evolution took the form of the combination of wheat beer (Weizen) and Bock to give a Weizenbock.  Weizenbock combines the fruit and spice character associated with a wheat ale fermentation with the higher strength associated with a Bock, as is reflected in the first of our two alternative bocks that we are tasting today – Jeff’s Bavarian Ale.

While bockbiers were consistently in the mid-range of colours, it is true to say that a further alternative evolution of the style came about with the brewing of a ‘Maibock’ or ‘Helles Bock’.  This brought the colour of this evolution of the style towards straw gold, while maintaining the strong lager foundation for the beer.  However, moving in the other direction (darkening the beer to the point where you have a black version of a bock) is not something that has become established as an alternative evolution of the style.  Brewing of Marc’s Chocolate Bock reflects the innovative and craft-oriented approach of the Maisel’s and Friends range of beers – nudging a traditional style down the ‘craft’ road.  Possibly what is most interesting about this particular evolution of the Bock style is that the name would suggest a breach of the German Purity Laws.  While this second beer is described as a ‘Chocolate Bock’, and while the name suggests that chocolate has been used as an alternative ingredient, in reality the chocolate refers to the flavour of the beer rather than to an ingredient.  This chocolate flavour has been achieved by brewing with dark malts, thus keeping the beer true to the ‘rules’ of the German Purity Laws – namely that beer be brewed with only malted barley, hops, yeast and water.

Jeff’s Bavarian Ale –

Style                                      -  Weizenbock

Alcohol by Volume          -  7.1% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Maisels Brewery

Brewed in                            -  Bayreuth, Bavaria (Franconia), Germany

The foundation flavours for a German Wheat Beer (German Hefeweiss) are fruit flavours (most usually, banana, but often combined with other estery flavours) and spice flavours (most usually, clove, but other spices can evolve in the beer).  The foundation characteristic of a Bockbier is that it is above average strength.  While a bockbier would originally have been brewed with lager (or bottom fermenting) yeast and hefeweiss would be brewed with ale (or top-fermenting) yeast, this gives the brewer a choice as to which yeast should be used for the Weizenbock style.  Given that the fruit and spice character in wheat beer is coming from the wheat ale yeast used in brewing this style, almost by necessity the Weizenbock style only makes sense if it is brewed with wheat ale yeast.

Jeff’s Bavarian Ale pours with a slightly cloudy and distinctly burnished gold (dark / orange- gold) colour, and a full, off-white head.  Aromas that come through immediately are a superb blend of fermentation fruit character (banana combined with orange or marmalade peel), mid-coloured malt (caramel) and spice.  Even the aromas are complex in this beer, and on tasting this complexity continues.

On tasting this beer, layers of flavour come through one after the other.  Banana develops into delicious sweet, ripe banana character and combines with both sweet orange and the slightly more bitter character of orange peel.  Malt flavours combine toffee, caramel, breadcrust and merge with doughy, bready character from the yeast in the beer.  Spice develops in layers on each sip – clove most notably initially that is complemented by cinnamon, white pepper – which develops on later sips and into the finish as the more spicy black pepper – and with liquorice developing into the finish of the beer.  Candy floss and bubblegum sweetness develop further in later sips of the beer, but the balance of the beer is maintained to perfection with fermentation spice providing the balance to ensure that the sweet malt and fruit character is complemented and maintained at a deliciously pleasant level of intensity by the spice.

Jeff’s Bavarian Ale has layers of complexity, but retains the refreshing character that one would associate with a wheat beer.  The additional strength provides depth of flavour and tasty character.

Marc’s Chocolate Bock –

Style                                      -  Chocolate Bockbier

Alcohol by Volume          -  7.5% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Maisels Brewery

Brewed in                            -  Bayreuth, Bavaria (Franconia), Germany

A Chocolate Bock is a truly quirky – and deliciously alternative – interpretation of a German style.  The Germans are reknowned for their reliability, and with the German Purity Laws (which, dating from 1516 are the oldest piece of consumer-oriented legislation in the world), they codify this reliability.  Put simply, German beers are known for their quality.

However, rules can stifle innovation – which is what makes this beer doubly enticing.  The German Purity Laws stipulate that only four ingredients (malted barley, water, hops and yeast – with wheat allowed in certain instances as a fifth exception) can be used in brewing beer.  To brew a chocolate beer, Germans need to do so without the use of chocolate.  While one might naturally consider that this is a limitation in the brewing of a Chocolate Bock, in reality the flavour of Marc’s Chocolate Bock exceeds expectations, and delivers chocolate character in spades.

By judiciously selecting a blend of dark malts, Marc’s Chocolate Bock delivers aromas of chocolate (plain predominantly, with truffle and milk chocolate developing in the length of flavour) and cocoa which further develop into coffee and smoky cocoa character as the beer is sipped.  These flavours build on a beer that presents with a deep black to brown/black colour, with a full, off-white/tan coloured head forming on pouring.  The fermentation foundation of the beer – true to the use of lager yeast – is clean, which means that the malt flavour shines through as the centre-piece of the beers character.

This chocolate character is intense in the tasting of the beer, and the complexity of the beer combines liquorice, a caramelly/malty sweetness and mild fruity notes (blackberries and cherries) with the foundation flavour.  The flavour is intense as one sips and tastes the beer, but the quick finish of the beer ensures that the richness of the chocolate is not overpowering.  As each mouthful is swallowed, the flavour washes from the palate, leaving one anticipating the next chocolaty mouthful.

This flavour is both delicious, but the triumph of the beer is in the over delivery of chocolate character against expectations.  Knowing that the brewers cannot use chocolate (or any alternative, like cocoa powder) as a base ingredient, one would be forgiven for assuming that this beer would not be able to stand up to other chocolate beers.  In reality, in tastings that I have done of this beer side-by-side with other chocolatey beers, Marc’s Chocolate Bock consistently delivers, and more often beats other chocolate beers in terms of both the superb balance of complex flavours and in terms of pure chocolate character.

As I am sipping this beer, I cannot help but imagine how delicious it would be alongside a fruity strawberry cheesecake, or accompanying a Meringue Fool  dessert.