In Germany, this time of year is known as Starkbierzeit or "strong beer season." It's part of the tradition created centuries ago by Paulaner monks, who looked to stronger, maltier brews to provide nourishment through their fasting during the Lenten season. The style of beer that emerged was the bock.
Here in Wisconsin, bock season certainly has arrived, and it's easy to find numerous selections ranging from local breweries to German imports. Each winter sine 1997, Hinterland of Green Bay has offered its local twist on the style with its Maple Bock, a limited-release beer accented with syrup from the brewery owner's family farm.
What is it? Maple Bock from Hinterland (Green Bay Brewing Company) of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Style: A common myth is that bock beers are made with whatever remains in the brewing vats and fermenters at the end of winter. That's pretty far from the truth; bocks are now among the most planned beer styles. While you'll find them year-round, bocks and doppelbocks appear in abundance between Christmas and Easter.
The traditional German bock has an emphasis on moderate to strong malty aroma and flavor. Some light toasted tones from the malts are also common, but they shouldn't be overly burnt or roasted. There is a mild hoppiness, but it is generally low in bitterness. Bock beers are copper to dark brown in color, medium-bodied, and, while the higher-alcohol versions can offer some warmth, they often range from 6% to 7.5% ABV. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin's early German immigrants made it a popular brew, and a beer style that the state continues to be known for today.
Background: The 2013 edition of Hinterland Maple Bock was actually brewed last September, and preparations started long before that. Each year, usually in March, the maple sap that goes into this bock is harvested from brewery owner Bill Tressler's farm near Green Bay. Poor conditions over the past three years have meant that the brewery has needed additional sap from another area farmer; however, most is still harvested from Tressler's trees and turned into maple syrup in a sugar shack his parents built on the farm many years ago. Once the sap is cooked into syrup, it's stored in cans until needed in the fall. The maple syrup gets added into the boil during the early stages of brewing.
"The great thing about maple syrup is that it adds so much -- like body, a light smokiness and some woody flavor to the background, but it's not the sweet maple flavor that you might expect," says Hinterland brewer Joe Karls. Because it's made with maple syrup, it wouldn't fit the strict style description of a German bock. However, Karls does offer a nod to Bavarian brewing traditions with a recipe that also includes Munich malt and Hallertau hops.
Karls made about 250 barrels of Maple Bock this year. About a third of it was shipped to southern Wisconsin, and it started appearing on store shelves in mid-January. It can be found in four-packs of 16-ounce bottles for $9-$10. Hinterland Maple Bock was designated "World Champion Bock" by the World Beer Championships in 1997. It is moderately strong at 7% ABV.
In mid-March, Hinterland will be set to release its 2013 version of a barrel-aged Doppelbock. That beer offers maltier flavor, more alcohol and the smooth sweetness of bourbon and oak from six months of aging in the barrel.
By the way, in Germany the height of Starkbierzeit occurs around St. Joseph's Day on March 19. Even though it is traditionally a day of abstinence, in Munich it often coincides with a strong beer festival that for some rivals Oktoberfest.
- Aroma: Malty. There's a light toastedness or hint of smokiness as the head dissipates.
- Appearance: Deep black color, translucent with bronze highlights. A thick soft, brown head.
- Texture: Full-bodied and round.
- Taste: Begins with a smooth caramel maltiness. The hints of light smokiness are way in the background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Mostly malty. There is faint semi-sweet maple flavor that lingers in the light smoky tones. However, the malts continue to shine.
Glassware: The stemmed tulip glass with its curved body will show off the vivid black color of the beer, while the inward flare to the lip focuses the malty and light toasted-maple aromas.
Pairs well with: The solid medium maltiness of Maple Bock gives it versatility. Mildly sweet stews, dishes with roasted meats and vegetables, and even wild game will go well with the light touch of toasted-woodiness from the maple syrup. However, if you really want to sense the maple accent to this beer, go with a mild-flavored entrée.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Get beyond the image of syrupy-pancakes -- this beer is not like that. With Hinterland Maple Bock, the syrup adds a hint of toasted-smokiness to the flavor's background and finish and works well with the overall maltiness of the brew. While the beer has lots of body and mouthfeel, it's not too thick or sticky, another impression that might be associated with the name. In fact, if the label didn't say maple on it, you might find it difficult to discern any syrup flavor at all. But allow it to warm slightly while drinking, and those malt tones and touch of toasted maple become even more apparent, blending with the overall caramel and chocolate tones one looks for in a bock.