A brewer who began his career at the Ortlieb brewery in Philadelphia in the 1960s once told me an old brewmaster's tale. Every year brewers would clean out all the vessels in the cellar, and bock beer was created by blending all of the bottoms of the fermentation tanks.
Apocryphal stories aside, bock’s mythology is often more intriguing than its facts. This article outlines the bocks made in the District today and contrasts them to their historical counterparts.
The Beer Judge Certification Program’s style guidelines describe bock as “a dark, strong, malty lager beer.” Its cousins include the paler maibock, the stronger doppelbock, and the much stronger (through the power of ice!) eisbock.
The earliest mention of bock beer I could find in DC comes from an Evening Star article published December 1,1857. This article was a reprint from Hunt's Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review, Volume 37. Garrett Peck, in Capital Beer, traced the first written record of lager in DC to 1855, only two years earlier. The 1857 article says of lager: "A superior variety of this is called bock-bier. It is very strong, and said to have derived its name from causing those who drink it to prance and tumble about like goats or bucks. It contains a large proportion of sugar and dextrine for its hops, and is very luscious and deceptive."
Source: Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 20 March 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1916-03-20/ed-1/seq-5/
The article discusses "quantity of alcohol" in different varieties of beer. Bock beer is cited as having 4% alcohol, though whether by weight or volume is unclear. If alcohol by volume (ABV), 4% is quite low by modern standards. If the author intended 4% ABW, that would be 5% ABV, which is also low compared to the modern-day bocks brewed in the District. Today's bocks are much stronger and are often aged longer than most other beers.
Another historic article, published in The Washington Critic on April 9, 1888, states that a gentleman "dallied the amber colored beverage, and has been 'knocked out' by the 'bock,' or buck, as it is in English." The bocks in DC today appear darker than the "amber" description of 1888. The article notes, "Almost every German is fairly familiar with the etymology of the term and will explain to the inquirer that 'bock bier' contains more malt than the ordinary lager beer, and a certain quantity of it will have a more decided effect than the same quantity of lager beer." This–"contains more malt"–is certainly true of modern bocks.
Modern bock strengths vary but are much higher than those referenced in the 1857 article. Bluejacket's Nowhere Lullaby is 8.5% ABV. The Senator, District ChopHouse's bock, is 8.6% ABV. Gordon Biersch Navy Yard’s is 7.6% ABV, and Gordon Biersch 9th St.’s clocks in at 7.8% ABV.
Of the 12 breweries in DC, only four offer bock bier: Bluejacket, District ChopHouse, Gordon Biersch 9th St., and Gordon Biersch Navy Yard. Though Port City recently offered a doppelbock as part of its rotating lager series.
Source: Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 01 Dec. 1857. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1857-12-01/ed-1/seq-1/
District ChopHouse Head Brewer Barrett Lauer describes his bock as having "a beautiful ruby brown color [that] releases aromas of fresh baked dark bread. Upon tasting, malt sweetness and chewiness dominate with a touch of fruit sweetness similar to raisin or fig. It then finishes with a moderately dry toasted biscuit and slightly burnt caramel flavor. This is from the dark malt and touch of hops, which help dry out the finish."
While the names of these last two brewpubs are the same, "[The beers] are never the same," says GB Navy Yard Head Brewer Travis Tedrow. "It was aged seven weeks before the tap date, and continues to age gracefully, one of my favorite batches over the last several years," says the award-winning brewer.
Ro Guenzel, Director of Brewing Operations at Bluejacket writes of their Nowhere Lullaby: "This is the longest lagering of a beer to date for me at Bluejacket. We even used the horizontal conditioning tank and transferred with a little residual [sugar] to allow for a nice slow secondary [fermentation]."
"Unfortunately most of the doppelbock we get here from Germany has seen a bit of abuse, making them taste sickly sweet and caramelized as a result of oxidation, warm temps, and possibly pasteurization. This beer hopefully comes close to what you might find in a beer garden," says Guenzel.
It is DCBeer's strong recommendation that you get out and try the bocks in the District today. Even if you've had imported German bock before, you're in for a treat and a pleasant surprise at any of the four locations mentioned above.