Bock Beer is King! Part One of Three

By Charles E. Fort

The story of Bock Beer begins in the German state of Lower Saxony in a little town known as Einbeck along with its famous Einbecker Brewery. The many people of this town are proud of their beer heritage and will be the first to exclaim that this is where Bock Beer was born. This is most evident in the Einbecker slogan which states “without Einbeck, there would be no Bock Beer.” As this may be true in spirit, it is somewhat misleading since Bock Beer was not brewed in Einbeck until well after the style of Bock had been well established elsewhere. Never the less, there is no doubt that this city played an important role in the development of this style, as well as making major improvements in brewing techniques.

And so Einbeck is where we’ll start to tell the story of Bock beer going all the way back to the 13th century when it was little more than a small resort town for the nobles of Hamburg. Einbeck had also become a beer center with the oldest receipt of sale dating back to the 28th of April 1378 for 2 tonnes of beer for the City of Celle. At this time in Europe there was a new federation of cities that were banning together to form a trade alliance called the Hanseatic League. For the city of Einbeck, this was the beginning of an economic boon, as well as the beginning of a new kind of economic power which challenged the more traditional forms of power such as the church or some local medieval ruler. With this new power, Einbeck would prosper for the next 200 years.

Einbeck was lucky in another way because it sat right in the middle of a huge hop producing region back in the times when hops were first being added to beer. Before hops, brewers were bittering their beers with propriety blends of spices that were kept secret and only passed down by word of mouth. Thus, it is hard today to reproduce these beers from the past, but it is clear that hops must have been far superior for bittering when you look at the speed and completeness with which hops replaced spices in brewing beer. So there was Einbeck, sitting in the middle of a very fertile region with all the resources it needed to make good beer including, water that was low in carbonate, grain, and best of all, lots of hops.

Gambrinus painting, origin unknown

This bit of hops history runs counter to Johannes Turmair’s (aka Aventinus) bizarre Bavarian legend of King Gambrinus, a Bavarian ruler who married the Egyptian goddess Iris. Together they supposedly went on to show the world how to brew hopped beer. It sounds to me like Aventinus may have been under the influence when he wrote this story, but I could be wrong. There was also a big boozer of a Duke born around 1250 named Jan Primus who some claim may have been inspiration to the King Gambrinus story, but he lived in Flanders (present day Belgium) which is nowhere near Bavaria. I agree with most historians who believe that hops were probably first used in the hop growing regions of the north and probably by multiple brewers.

In any case, the beer gods were smiling on brewers of Einbeck as they began taking advantage of the Hanseatic League’s trade routes. As a testament to how good this northern beer was, many of the leagues’ ports had separate depots just for Einbeck’s Beer. Furthermore, this beer was shipped all over Europe and as far away as Jerusalem in a time before railroads and refrigerated beer cars.

During the 1500s Historian Heinrich Knaust described the Einbeck beer:

“Of all summer beers, light and hoppy barley beers, the Einbeck beer is the most famed and deserves the preference. Each third grain to this beer is wheat; hence, too, it is of all barley beers the best . . . People do not fatten too much from its use; it is also very useful in fever cases.”

Thus the original Bock was made from at least one-third wheat malt in addition to barley. Other sources tell us that it was top-fermented (Ale yeast) and well bittered with a high alcoholic content to help it travel well. Anyone who is familiar with Bock Beer knows that this is description is about as far away as you can get from the traditional Bock style. In fact, it would probably be over 100 years before the term “Bock” would be used to describe this beer.

Einbeck enjoyed its beer dominance all the way up until the beginning of the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 and went for some number of years (I can’t remember). At this point, the wheels began to fall off and the trade routes of the Hanseatic League began to crumble. Competing economic alliances from Holland and Poland, as well as foreign powers like Sweden, Prussia and Denmark began to impose their power and influence over these old trade routes. Without the Hanseatic League, Einbeck’s beer couldn’t be shipped, and with the onslaught of war, the entire town of Einbeck was burnt to the ground. This was a virtual death blow for the Einbeck brewers who rebuilt several times during the war, but who were never able to recover to their pre-war glory. A couple breweries did survive until the 1920’s when they combined to form the current Einbecker brewry that we know and love today.

Munich and Bavaria

If we want to follow Bock Beer’s story we must leave war torn Einbeck back in 1618 and take a little trip to Bavarian city of Munich. The expert brewers in this part of Europe were the Roman Catholic Monks who were well educated and very meticulous. Their expertise goes back to the 9th century when monks started up the world’s oldest continually active brewery, “The Weihenstephaner Brauerei” in the year 1014. The monks, as well as the people of this region, brewed beer at home for immediate consumption since it tended to spoil quickly and didn’t travel very well. This was usually a job for the woman of the house, and she usually bittered the beer with some blend of herbs and spices. This all began to change in the 1400’s when hops replaced other spices as a bittering agent. It turned out that hops were also a natural preservative thus making it possible for the first time ever to ship beer and keep it fresh. At this point in time, brewing began to shift from the home to larger commercial breweries who were trying to compete with that good northern beer that was now being shipped in from Einbeck. In an attempt to increase the quality of Munich’s beers, Duke Wilhelm IV decreed the “Bavarian Beer Purity Law” in 1516 (the Reinheitsgebot pronounced “Rine-Hites-gaBoat”), allowing only “barley, water and hops” as ingredients (yeast being not considered as an ingredient at that time). This also helped to protect the wheat crop since it was in short supply and was needed to produce bread. This law pertained only to Bavaria until 1906 when it went nation wide.

Throughout much of the Middle Ages, Einbeck’s beer was enjoyed in Munich and was much the preference over any of the other local brews. This wasn’t a problem until the Thirty Years War came along and interrupted the flow of the good northern beer. Some Munich residents were known to say “we have an entire town full of beer and nothing to drink.” Well, something had to be done and Duke Maximillian was the man to do it. He came up with the idea of inviting the Einbeck brew master (Elias Pichler) to come to Munich and visit with the brew masters at the Hofbräuhause. Well, with the Hanseatic League collapsing all around him, Elias packed his bags and headed to Munich for a short visit. Things got worse for Elias during his stay, and while the city of Munich welcomed him with open arms, it seemed he wasn’t so welcome to leave. At some point Elias must have realized that the only way he was going to get his freedom back was if he could make a good beer in Munich using the local resources. Two years later Elias Pichler was brewing a very rough (much darker) approximation of his Einbeck beer at the Hofbräuhause München.

Of course, the original recipe could not be reproduced precisely. The malts made in Munich were darker, and wheat malts could not be used by regular breweries due to the Reinheitsgebot, thus the Munich beer was darker than the Einbeck original. In addition, the high calcium carbonate levels of the Munich water produced a harsh bitterness in hoppy beers, so the hopping levels were substantially dropped, resulting in a malt-balanced beer. Finally, lager fermentations were common in Munich by this time, so the bottom-fermenting yeast was used. The only common, and very important, trait between these two beers was the high alcohol content. This beer also had to be lagered (stored cold) for a few months to smooth out the flavor and reduce the initial sweetness, but this wasn’t a problem in the cooler higher altitudes of Bavaria. Cold storage was also made easier with the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”, which ran from the 16th century to the mid 19th century.

Although the Munich version of the Einbeck beer had little in common with the original, the resulting beer was still named after the city that inspired it. In the Bavarian dialect, it was called “Ainpoeckish Pier.” (pronounced “Ein Bockish Beer”) The beer was enjoyed by the people of Munich and would soon save the city from ruin. In 1632, during the Thirty Years War when the Swedes occupied Munich, they struck a deal with the city: in exchange for not pillaging and plundering the city they were given 1,000 buckets of beer from the Hofbräuhaus, including 361 buckets of that “Ein Bock” beer. By now Einbeck was no longer brewing due to the Thirty Years War and the name of this new Munich brewed beer began to change as people got lazy and didn’t want to pronounce so many syllables.

Lets just call it ‘Bock’ and be done with it.

Stay tuned for Part Two:  Where Did the Goat Come From?

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