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A Lenten bock

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My German-descended grandmother was wary of Greek cooking. She warned my mother to stay away from food cooked in "that funny-smelling oil," with the result that my mother was in her 30s before she discovered the joys of olive oil.

Similar suspicion—turned against the Germans this time—must be behind the myth that German brewers made their seasonal bock beers from the gunk left behind in the barrels after the annual spring cleaning. Not only is that dead wrong, but it keeps otherwise rational folk away from a marvelous flavor experience.

Bock beers, in all their variants, are strong, malt-accented lagers. Rich, sweet and potent, made from all barley or barley and wheat, bocks are springtime treats brewed in winter that see us through the last of the year's chill.

The name "bock" is probably a corruption of the name of the northern German town of Einbeck, a renowned brewing center in the Middle Ages, whose brewers brought their refined brewing techniques to Munich. There, in the 1600s, monks created a strong version of bock. The devout fathers of the order of St. Francis of Paula, who had relocated from Italy to Bavaria, were required to fast from time to time. Their strong beer gained a following as "liquid bread" that provided nourishment (and pleasure) during the fasting of Lent.

The beer came to be known as a doppel (double) bock: It was stronger than bock beer, though not doubly strong. The original doppelbock, from the Paulaner monks, was named Salvator ("Savior") and established the tradition of doppelbocks carrying a name ending in "-ator." So, look for Optimator from Spaten and Celebrator from the much smaller Ayinger Brewery, a world classic.

Of course, when American wags got a hold of the style, the naming possibilities were wide open: Procrastinator. Escalator. Infibulator. Fornicator. Alligator.

Bocks come in several varieties. Besides those listed above, look for Einbecker UrBock. The "Ur" denotes "original," a title it may deserve, coming as it does from the city of Einbeck.

American brewers also attempt bock beers. The best known is Shiner Bock, a respectable popular American bock from the century-old Spoetzl Brewery in Texas. Boston Beer—which seems to brew one of every style—offers its Double Bock, which is rich and true to style (unlike its bizarre Triple Bock, which is an intriguing invention).

From Colorado, Tommyknocker Brewery's Butthead Double Bock sports dueling rams on the label as an excuse for a crude name, an unnecessary device since the beer is very good and doesn't need the gimmicks.

Italy, not usually associated with fine beer, brings us La Rossa from the Moretti brewery. It's a deep red bock beer with an Italian accent. Dutch brewers also produce seasonal beers in the bock style, but they carry the name "bok."

A lighter version is the maibock, named for the month of May when palates want something a little lighter. Fans of the popular Dead Guy Ale from Rogue Ales have already discovered the appeal of this malty, rounded style—although, since the brewer at Rogue has dubbed this an ale rather than a lager (bock beers are lagers), its provenance is muddled.

Here in North Carolina, beer lovers await the annual release of Spring Bock, an authentic maibock from Carolina Brewing Co. in Holly Springs. This lush, toffee-ish lager is available on draft at a handful of locations in the Triangle and in bottles from the brewery.

The bock family also embraces beers made with wheat. Munich doppelbocks and the strong wheat beers from brewers such as Georg Schneider may have little in common taxonomically, but the weizenbocks (wheat bock beers) and dunkel weizenbocks (dark wheat beers) are a mouth-filling combination of strength and depth of flavor with the spiciness of wheat.

Finally, eisbocks or eisbiers are the technologically weird outliers of the bock group. Like ice wine and ice cider, these ice beers (not the American and Canadian "ice beer") rely on freezing temperature to concentrate alcohol and flavor. In the case of the wine and the cider, it is the fruit that is frozen—and its sugars concentrated—before fermentation. In the case of eisbock, the fermented beer is chilled and the frozen water removed (alcohol having a lower freezing temperature) to produce a stronger, smoother beer.

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Since this amounts to a sort of reverse-distillation using cold rather than heat, American brewers can't produce proper eisbocks and still call their beverage beer. But there are a few imports on the market that appear to be the real thing. Famed wheat beer brewer Georg Schneider is now offering Aventinus Weizen Eisbock, as well as its Aventinus Wheat Doppelbock. Most other brewers, such as Kumbach, are coy about whether they use freezing or not.

In our attempts to carve out new beer territory, American brewers and drinkers have turned their backs on German beer styles, the progenitors of modern American mainstream beers. But German brewing traditions offer many delicious possibilities: Settle down to a comfortable fast this Lenten season with a satisfying bock.

Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, which is based in Durham. Beer Hopping appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at editor@allaboutbeer.com.

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