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Bock – The Goat, The Town, And The Beer

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What’s in a Name?

Often beers were a product of local ingredients and brewing techniques, so it made perfect sense to name them after the city or region they where they were brewed: Pilsen after the town of Plzen, Schwechater, comes from the brewery in Schwechat, and so on.

Sometimes beer names are descriptive like beers with “Rauch” (German for “smoke”) or “Steam” in the name, the former describing the use of smoked malt, the latter referring to a beer style.

And sometimes one can only wonder…

“Bock” means “male goat” in German, but it also used to describe the male of other groups of animals like sheep (Schafbock) and deer (Rehbock). A fitness and exercise contraption is called “Bock” as well as the seat for a carriage driver (Kutschbock).

So where does that leave us with the name of the beer? Let’s look at the history of Bockbeer.

A Town Full Of Brewers

The city of Einbeck

The town of Einbeck is located in lower Saxony in Germany. It was awarded city rights in 1240 together with brewing rights for every citizen, with the effect that it soon sported 700 master brewers. Being a member of the Hanseatic League, beer was not only brewed for consumption of the local burghers, but also for sale in far away regions. The beer was at first top fermented, and to make it more durable for transport, it was brewed with a high gravity. The result was a heavy sweet beer that was soon drunk all over Germany, especially in Bavaria.

In 1589 The Hofbraeuhaus was founded in Munich and brewed beer according to the German Beer Law. 1614 the Wittelsbacher summoned master brewer Elias

Munich Hofbraeuhaus

Pichler from Einbeck, specifically to brew the “Ainpoeckisch Bier”. “Ainpoeck” was the way Einbeck was written and pronounced. Over time the Bavarians shortened and simplified the name of the cherished beer and “Ainpoeck” became “Ein Bock” and then only “Bock”. Written down it seems like a stretch, but when you speak German and say it out loud a few times, it is really not.

So there, Bock is really the name where the beer came from. In Bavaria the top fermenting Bock was transformed into a bottom fermenting lager that we became the beer we know and love today. It ranges in color from light to the dark and has a dominating malt character. Hop bitterness is noble and subdued, fermentation is clean.

The alcohol content is often misunderstood among homebrewers. Bock (and I am including Doppelbock here) should have a warming alcohol note. Under no circumstances should the alcohol taste overpower the malt and give it a sharp note.

Different Bocks

Today we know several versions of Bock:

Doppelbock

“Doppel” means “double” in German and refers to the higher alcohol content of the beer. Legend goes that Maximilian I. of Bavaria summoned the Paulaner monks from Italy to his realms, where they founded the monastery Neudegg ob der Au. Unaccustomed to the German climate and food, religious fasting was very difficult for this southern order. But luckily they were allowed to consume beer during fasting and the “ ainpoeckische bier” was high in nutrients. When Maximilain granted them brewing rights, the monks made the beer even maltier to enhance the satisfaction during fasting. The Doppelbock was born.

Maibock

Maibock is a light beer that was only allowed to be brewed a few weeks in April and was then drunk in May.

Eisbock

Another legend has it that a brewing apprentice in Kurbach, Germany in 1890 left a few barrels of bock out

Making Eisbock

in the open on a very cold night. Some of the water in the beer froze and the beer was thought to have spoiled. The angry master forced his apprentices to drink the “spoiled” beer and… it turned out to be delicious. Eisbock (German for “Iced Bock”) is partially frozen and the ice is taken out. Since water is removed in the process, the beer becomes more condensed and maltier.

How the Bock Helped To Save Munich

In 1632, during the 30 Year War, the Swedish King Gustav Adolf conquered Munich. This war was a bitter conflict and conquering a city usually ended in mayhem, plundering, and utter destruction. In Bohemia it had a devastating effect on the brewing industry. But all of that did not happen in Munich. Gustav Adolf wanted 300.00 Thaler to spare the city. When the citizens could only come up with a third, Gustav Adolf accepted 220 hectoliters of brown beer and several liters of bock. One wishes all conflicts could be solved with a beer.

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Pure and Simple – The German Purity Law

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The Spice of Life

A tourist traveling in Belgium or Britain is greeted by a cornucopia of different styles and tastes in beer. Porters, stouts, witbiers, saisons,… the variety is remarkable. If said tourist now traveled on to Germany or Austria, he or she would find a steep decline in choice. Let’s have our hypothetical tourist sit down in a German pub and sample the beer menu. There would be Munich Helles, Bocks, Dunkles, Schwarzbier, Rauchbier,… all lagers…, and Dampfbier, Koelsch and  Hefeweizen (plus some more obscure local ale varieties). But where are the ales brewed with fruit, sugar, and other adjuncts? Where are the milk stouts, the sugar and honey in the beer? Why are there mostly lagers?.

Variety is the spice of life, or so the saying goes, and that was certainly true for the beers brewed in the Holy Roman Empire in the early 1500s. Brewers used barley, wheat, rye and all kinds of herbs and spices in their beer, and, of course, hops. Beers that were brewed were not really divided in ales and lagers yet, but there were definitely lagers brewed – inadvertently.

How do you brew a lager and not know it? Lagers need cold fermenting. Lager yeast is especially bred to ferment lager in the 50F range. In those days, brewers did not even know, what turned their wort into beer. Yeast was not bred or propagated as much as contracted, like a disease,  from other beer batches. A yeast cell was not a concept that the brewers understood or knew about, but they knew that a beer that was fermented in winter tasted different than a beer fermented in warmer months. That there were two different yeasts going to town on the wort, depending on temperature, that was a thought that would come much later. So winter produced cleaner tasting lager beers – lagers – and summer was the time of ales.

So far, so good. Until the early 1500s there were lagers and ales, some with hops, some with herbs. So who were the spoilsports who ruined this rich menu? We can point squarely to two people: Duke Wilhelm IV. and Duke Ludwig X. of Bavaria.

Duke Wilhelm IV.

A New Beer Law

In 1516,  the law propositioned to the Assembly of the Bavarian Estates in Ingolstadt reduced the ingredients in beer to hops, water and (barley) malt. it was first only used in Bavaria, but it gave the local governments the tools to enforce the regulation and slowly spread all over Germany. The driving factor behind the law (which was not called Purity Law at this time) was economy and health.

Before the rise of hops, herbs were used to brew beer, all kinds of herbs. Those herbs could be beneficial, or highly poisonous. There had been regulations through the Middle Ages in various places and cities, that attempted to regulate the use of herbs in beer, but using hops was simply safer.

Economics played a role too. Beer was such an important part of society, that it consumed a huge part of the grain production. Some grains, like wheat or rye, were necessary for providing bread to the people. The Purity Law restricted brewing to barley, to ensure that enough wheat and rye remained for baking.

So here were the main reasons why German brewers were restricted to water, hops, and malt. Over time this became the motto of the German beer industry and something of a seal of approval. “Hopfen, Wasser, Malz – Gott erhalt’s” (transl. “Hops, water, malt –  may God preserve it”) was a way to define clean tasting, long lasting quality beer. But all that does not explain the fixation on lagers. Hops, water, and malts can make a great ale as well.

Prohibition

The second part of this story is one of prohibition. Brewers and consumers were aware that beers brewed in summer could not be as well preserved as beers brewed in winter. Higher temperatures caused not only a different fermentation process, but also contributed to bacterial infections and sour beers. The second and knockout punch to beer variety came in 1553 when in Bavaria summer brewing was outlawed. Beer had to be brewed in the cooler season and stored cool in caves for summer drinking. Continuous practice  of this isolated the lager strain of the yeast, and specialized it for cold brewing.

While these revolutions were born in Bavaria, they slowly made their way through all Germany. This was hampered by the political situation at that time that saw Germany not as a unified country, but a quilt of little independent kingdoms and and duchies, all united under the name of Holy Roman Empire. What was good for the towns of one duchy, was not the law for the towns of the neighbouring duchy, and so the law had to make it’s way from town to town and guild to guild, aggravated by the fact that brewers had to find other work in summer, when brewing was forbidden.

And then, how else could it be, the tension of the chain became slack. In a few places, brewing with wheat was allowed again, coriander and cumin snuck into the wort. In the late 19th century a new Beer law was put in place in Bavaria to bring the recipes back to the old standard hops, water, and (barley) malt. Other parts of Germany allowed top fermenting beers with sugar and other  malts, but Bavaria stayed the course.

Keeping It Pure

In 1918, the beer law became the “Purity Law” (Reinheitsgebot) in Bavaria for purely economical reasons. Bavaria was defending its beer industry against beer brewed with sugar from other parts of Germany. Later, in the European Union, this “Reinheitsgebot” was adopted in other parts of Germany to indicate that their beer was more pure than the beer imported from other countries in the European Union. This, of course, had the effect that more and more breweries in Germany that had used sugar, had to adhere to the ingredients “hops, water, and malt” again.

And so the Purity Law created an isolating zone around Germany and Austria that fended off everything that strayed from the beaten path. 1987 the breach occurred. Other countries in the European Union were  bringing in lawsuits for not being able to export their beers to Germany and Austria and call them “beer”. This started to serious chip away at the Purity Law. Today, the Purity Law only regulates the production of bottom fermenting beer in Germany. Bottom fermenting beer to be sold in Germany has to be produced with hops, water ,and malt, but can deviate when it is produced for export. Other countries shipping their beer to Germany are not bound by this law.

And the law lives on. It has continued to be a trademark of German and Austrian Lager breweries and countless commercials and billboards try to drive home the fact that hops, water, and malt is all that a beer needs. Today the market is opening up. Free trade is bringing new tastes, and even established breweries cannot help but notice that the consumers are thirsty for more than the old standard lager. I was very surprised when I found the first Shandy (Radler) produced by a beer company that I only knew for lager beers, but I am happy that variety is making a comeback.

History: Czech Pilsner – Bohemian Rhapsody in a Glass

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A Long Tradition Gone Bad

There was something foul in the Bohemian city of Plzen (Pilsen) in 1838.

Plzen in the 18th century

The citizen despised their cloudy, dark, quickly spoiling, top-fermented beer that was brewed in the region. They had good reason to do so. Not far away, in Bavaria, brewers were able to produce a delicious bottom-fermented product that was perfected by cold-lagering. The citizen were so upset in their thirst for good beer that they dumped 36 barrels of their undrinkable brew into the street. So why were the Pilsners stuck with an inferior beer?

This situation  was especially puzzling and infuriating, since the kingdom of Bohemia has always been a shining star in the art of fermenting grains. Mainly the cities of Prague, Pilsen, and Budweis had a long tradition of brewing excellent beers. In Prague several monasteries were keeping up the good work, and in other parts of the kingdom brewing history can be traced back hundreds of years.

In the 13th and 14th century several Bohemian towns received the rights to brew beer (1). For Pilsen the time came in 1295 when King Wenceslas II. gave the 260 citizens the right to brew and sell the beverage. Located near trade routes to Regensburg and Nuernberg, the setup was ideal.(2)

The first written records of a distinct brewery in Plzen date back to 1307 . Evidence suggests that many of the early residents of Plzen formed joint breweries and even a community malthouse to make production more efficient, with individual brewers making their own wort and then dumping it into a large vat for fermentation .” [Ensminger 1997]

Another asset were the excellent spicy hops of the Zatec region. Those Zatec Red hops were so valuable , that it was a crime punishable by death to smuggle the rhizomes across the border. Eventually the Pilsener brewers formed a guild and took King Wenceslas as their patron saint. Brewing became more and more consistent, and it was the Czechs again that put it in black and white. Tadeas Hajek was a botanist, alchemist, astrologer (3) and he also wrote the first book on brewing in 1588: On Beer and the Methods of Its Preparation, Its Substance, Strengths, and Effects. This attempt was only part of the quest for better beers that emerged in the 1500s.

In 1516 the Germany the Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) was put in place to regulate the sale and production of consistently well brewed beer.  So what had happened between that period and the moment in history, where 36 barrels of beer ended up in the gutter? The answer is that somebody took a bad fall, and civilizations tumbled after..

Second Defenestration of Prague

 In 1618 the Bohemian Protestants were upset that their Catholic Habsburg king wanted to cut their religious rights.So a group of nobles went to the Hradschin Castle in Prague and threw two Habsburg Lord Regents and their secretary out of the window. They fell into a pile of dung and lived, but many would not, because this event, commonly known as the Second Defenestration of Prague (yes, there was a first one), started the Thirty Year War.

Decline

 The Thirty Year War did not only leave a terribly destructive footprint and took an immense human toll in Bohemia, it devastated all Europe. As for the Bohemian brewing trade it ”wiped out two thirds of the population and saw local town councils and nobility on the losing Protestant side. Brewing privileges were revoked and many breweries were taken over by Catholic nobility loyal to the Habsburg emperor.” (Oliver, 2011, p.140) Recovery after the war was slow. While the late 1700s and early 1800s brought scientific exploration and better understanding of yeast and the fermentation process, it was still not enough to revive the ailing brewing industry in Bohemia. The beer remained subpar and that is what lead to the eclat in 1838.

New Beginnings and a Bavarian Master

Something good came out of this upheaval, because the good citizens of Pilsen had enough of the bad beer brewed in their vicinity and decided to build their own city brewery, the Buerger Brauhaus. But a brewery alone does not make good beer. It needs good ingredients and the knowledge of brewing. 

Josef Groll

As mentioned before, with the Moravian barley and the Red Zatec hops the stage was almost set for Pilsner beer. It justneeded the right yeast and the right brewer. The German lager yeast had already reached Bohemia through smugglers. It is however doubtful that the right technology and knowledge was in place for cold fermentation. However, the climate and the facilities in Pilsen were similar to the caves that were used in Germany to lager the beer.  The knowledge came in the form of a  Bavarian brewer by the name of Joseph Groll. The son of a Bavarian brewery owner had the talent to work with bottom fermenting yeast. The brewer was hired and soon found out that he  faced a different set of ingredients than in his homeland. The hops had a spicy character and the soft water was not suited for dark, acidic malts.  

The New Way

 Ray Daniels in his book Designing Great Beers  (4) speculates on the way the malt was used in Pilsen. Rather than kiln the grains at higher temperatures, it was not kilned at all, but dried, which left moisture in the grain. The non-kilned grain, of course, stayed very light in color, but had to be used quickly because of the remaining moisture. This fact, in turn demanded a maltster that remained close to the brewery, to allow for short transportation times.  On November 11, 1842 Joseph Groll tapped the  first light, clear beer ever seen before. Today we call it Pilsner Urquell. It was a revolution, and consumers went crazy for it. Joseph Groll himslef left Pilsen after his contract had expired in [], but since Pilsen was located on a trade route, the new beer soon made it across Europe and in 1871 across the ocean to America. New technology (steam, electricity, railway) all contributed to the popularity of Pilsner Urquell.

Gate of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery

What’s in a Name

The name Pilsner was originally only used for beers brewed in Pilsen, but soon was used for many light beers brewed in the style (or just being similar).  Today, we generally distinguish between three Pilsner styles:  Bohemian (or Czech) Pilsner Straw to golden in color, medium body, the flavor is balanced between a complex maltiness and a pronounced, yet rounded bitterness. Some diacetyl can be present in small amounts.  German Pilsner Clean, crisp flavor. Bitterness is less rounded and more lingering, body is medium to light. Drier and crispier than Bohemian Pilsner. No diacetyl present.  Classic American Pilsner Malty but light, due to the presence of adjuncts. Medium to high hop bitterness. Grainy sweetness can be present.  

A Moment In Time

For me, the tapping of the first Pilsner in 1842 is one of the great moments in beer history. Whenever I pour a glass of

Source: wikipedia

Pilsner and see the light color and the white, foamy head, I try to imagine how the citizen of Pilsen felt, on that day in November, when they saw it for the first time. It must have been something so new that I want to compare it to the first time somebody saw a smartphone with a touchscreen. Yes, there had been phones before, but this was new and not anticipated.  They must have felt immediately that this was not only a beer that would benefit their own palates, but a new delicious product that would be desired and drunk all over Europe – and would create profit for them. Today, Pilsner is a beer style that can be found all over the world. As we have seen above, it has been copied and modified to regional tastes. Next time you are craving a Pilsner, order a Bohemian (or Czech) style. and when you pour it and admire the light color and the white creamy head, try to imagine the surprise and joy of the citizens of Pilsen, when they tasted it for the first time.

Sources

(1) Garrett Oliver: The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press 2011. p.140 (2) Peter A. Ensminger: The History and Brewing Methods of Pilsner Urquell. In: Brewing Techniques. May/August 1997. (3) Miltus Teich: Bohemia in History.Cambridge University Press 1998. p.130 (4) Ray Daniels: Designing Great Beers. Brewers Publications 1996

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