When you start seeing bock beers, you know winter isn't far from over. Traditionally, bock beers are brewed in fall and released in the spring. In Wisconsin, bocks usually start turning up in February and linger well into warmer weather.
Two Madison brewers who do the style very well are the Great Dane's Rob LoBreglio and Capital Brewery's Kirby Nelson.
Both brewers say that one of the most prevalent misconceptions about bock beer is that they're made with what's left over in the bottom of the vat that gets cleaned out once a year. Bock beer is anything but the bottom of the barrel. Bocks are smooth, clean lagers that emphasize the caramel and biscuit tones of malt; they're deep copper to dark brown in color. The medium-bodied bock beer generally falls between 6% and 7.5% ABV, though some more robust versions, like doppelbocks, can be stronger. Several local events mark the arrival of LoBreglio's and Nelson's seasonal releases.
The Great Dane's Blessing of the Bock happens on Feb. 21, Fat Tuesday, when LoBreglio will release the seasonal versions of bock at all Madison-area Great Danes. The party at the downtown location will feature six bock beers: a traditional one called Velvet Hammer; Dominator Doppelbock; Caramel Weizenbock; Eisbock; Uber Bock; and LoBreglio's favorite, John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt's Doppel Dunkel Hefeweizen, which he modeled after a German beer called Aventinus. (He fell in love with it while traveling in Germany, long before he became a brewer.) The beers are tapped following a ceremonial "blessing." This is a free, first-come, first-served event.
Capital Brewery's annual Bockfest celebration takes place on Feb. 25, when Nelson marks the release of his Blonde Doppelbock. This year he's also unveiling the annual version of his Mai Bock (May Bock). One of the highlights of Bockfest is when Nelson stands on the roof of the brewery and throws frozen chubs to the thousands of drinkers in the beer garden. Revelers who catch an intact fish head can redeem it for a prize. This year, Nelson is a little disappointed because chubs were in limited supply, so he's substituting herring.
Bockfest VIP tickets are already sold out; general admission tickets are $10. But you'll have to get in line. Beginning at noon, the brewery allows additional attendees to come in (around 500, depending on how many of the 2,500 VIPs actually show up; capacity of the beer garden is 3,000).
Nelson and LoBreglio will go head-to-head at the finale of the seasonal bock release at Boxing of the Bocks, which takes place at Vintage Brewing Company on Feb. 29. Four beers from each brewer will be compared in a tasting; Vintage brewmaster Scott Manning will be the referee. It's sure to be an entertaining evening, since Nelson and LoBreglio are known for quick-witted exchanges. Space is limited, and tickets are required ($15 advance, $20 at the door).
Other bock beers you'll likely see this time of year include Berghoff Bock ($5 per six-pack) and New Glarus Honey Bock ($7.50 per six-pack). At Vintage, Manning is currently offering Alpentraum, a smoked weizenbock ($4 per pint). Later this spring Capital Brewery plans to release its dark doppelbock, a beer that hasn't been around for several seasons. In the summer it intends to bring back its weizen doppelbock.