This past weekend was Bock Fest, an annual deep-winter festival staged at the old Schell’s Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. It’s a celebration of winter and its a celebration of beer, but most of all it’s a celebration of one of the most traditional forms of German beer - the bock.
I’ve never attended Bock Fest - an oversight I hope to remedy next year - but that hasn’t stopped me from performing a handful of one-person bock fests when January rolls around, especially when Schell’s releases its Bock, thereby announcing the official end of holiday season. One part caramel deliciousness, one part easy-drinking nectar of the gods, Schell’s Bock is all that’s good with malt and alcohol.
Full disclosure: I love this beer. I love this beer more than maybe a handful of other beers. I love this beer more than I love most people, save my family and my kids on most days. Sure, there are maltier and more caramel beers out there - see the entire line of Ayinger beers - and there are better Schell’s beers. But there’s something about these secondary winter months, when the novelty of snow and cold has lost its sheen and we’re stuck in that weird transition from winter ales to fresh spring offerings, that makes Schell’s Bock a perfect ally - a friend in the darkness, so to speak.
Bocks were originally created by Bavarian monks as a form of nutrition during lenten fasts, originating in the German town of Einbeck. Though Michael Johnson claims the term “bock” was a mispronunciation of the city name (Einbeck could be misconstrued for Ein bock, which is German for “billy goat”), I suspect the high alcohol content of the beers probably didn’t help pronunciation.
While the traditional bock is stronger and sweeter - a complete maltbomb that smacks of caramel without being too sweet - there are also stronger versions (doppelbock or “double” bock), hoppier versions (maibocks, which are a form of helles lager brewed to bock strength) and even ice brewed versions (eisbock, which makes me wonder why Natural Ice hasn’t got into the bock game.)
Knowing we were missing yet another Bock Fest, we instead invited a handful of friends over for our own Vilhauer Bock Fest - a four-beer tasting that spanned the spectrum of American bock offerings. We naturally began with Schell’s Bock, then moved to either side, grabbing a Maibock from Summit Brewing (to provide a lighter and more bitter compantion) and bumping up the potency with a Grand Teton Double Vision dopplebock. To temper our taste, we grabbed the most popular bock in the country - Texas-brewed Shiner Bock.
Because I’m an incredibly weak and biased man, I couldn’t let go of Schell’s Bock as the front runner. Subtle caramel and a hint of toastiness makes this more than your typical bock, and it’s worth every ounce of its 6.1% ABV. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised with Shiner’s offering - especially given its ubiquitousness. It’s nowhere near as good as the more traditional bocks, but those kids in Texas tried to put together a session bock that could still be consumed in the summer.
While I thought Double Vision was pretty good, I found it was a bit much in this context - a delicious beer that overpowered the lesser “single” bocks, content with being a boozy version of an old standby. I know I’d like it if I had it on its own - it clearly outclassed the more traditional bocks, but our minds weren’t ready for something to slap us in the face.
And then there’s the maibock. Half of the room thought it was great. The other half? They let it sit. Barely touched. Summit makes some great beers - and they do the “German beers from Minnesota” thing at a level that challenges Schell’s - but this maibock gave birth to some polarizing opinions.
We tried hard to emulate the spirit of Bock Fest - the bocks, the winter weather, the community - but unfortunately fell short in two key areas: we sat inside, thus robbing us of frostbite and beer gloves, and we went off track, bastardizing the event with something from Texas and something else with too much bitterness.
Then again, with this past weekend’s pseudo-blizzard, it felt like Mother Nature recognized the incompleteness of our Bock Fest experiment, sending only a partial storm as a guest to our mini-festival. It was a noble effort, but in the end it did nothing but strengthen our desire to do it right in 2014.