Where Have All the Bockbiers Gone?

A glance at the figures for bockbier production in Holland over the last ten years might make the question posed in the title of this article nonsensical. Bock beer is booning. Every year more and more 'bock' is sold, but how much of it really deserves to bear that name? How many of the beers are true bocks and if not, why aren't they?

What is a True Bockbier

The tale with which discussions of bock usually start, is the one of how beer from the North German town of Einbeck, or Einbecker beer, was exported to Bavaria. They got a taste for the strong dark beer, corrupted the name to 'Ein Bock' and started brewing it themselves. I must say that this story has always sounded a bit dodgy to me and doesn't seem to be backed by much in the way of contemporary documentary evidence. It strikes me that a goat ('Bock' in German) is also a pretty obvious symbol for strength and virility, so why look for any more complicated explanation of the name?

Whatever the origin of the term, from the 16th century bockbier was well-established in Bavaria as a seasonal strong beer. In fact the seasonal nature of bock is one of the few consistent characteristics it displays in the various countries where it is brewed. In Bavaria, the season is in March. Christmas and Easter are when bocks usually appear in Austria. Holland plumps for October and November, though I'm not sure of the precise reason for the choice. (A guess would be the first brew with the new season's malt and hops.)

Let's continue with the specific qualities which a Dutch bock should demonstrate. These are what I would consider its defining characteristics:

That doesn't sound all that demanding, does it? No outlandish flavours, no exotic ingredients required, no special, complicated brewing process. So why do so few of the beers given the name bock fail to fit this specification?

Between 1988 and 1995 production of bockbier increased from just under 30,000 hl to a little over 85,000 hl. Increased interest in beer in general and the European-wide fashion for seasonal beers were no doubt both factors in bock's success. No brewery can afford to miss out on the extra publicity and attention the annual release of the new season's bocks generates. All the established lager brewers have had a bock in their porfolios for a good few year. Not wishing to miss out on the fun, the small micros soon followed with bocks of their own.

Now this was all very well, but the small breweries had a problem: bock is a bottom-fermenting style but they only had the equipment to top-ferment. No problem, just brew a top-fermenting version then. Well, it isn't quite that simple, as the often bizarre results have demonstrated. As time has gone by, microbreweries have made less and less effort to mimic the traditional style. Which leaves us in the current situation, where these beers bear almost no resemblance to the classic bock. Dark and 6.5% alcohol are about as much as most can manage, but not always even that.

The lager breweries, who had had a fairly good grip on the basics of the style started to lose the path in a different way. No doubt encouraged by the success of the once untypically sugary Grolsch Bokbier, they began to increase the sweetness of their own beers. Where once achieving a bitter-sweet balance had been the objective, now producing a beer version of Pepsi was the ai. Same colour, just as sweet and without any of that nasty bitternes that makes beer so unpleasant.

The Class of 1997

Purely in the purpose of scientific research and at great personal sacrifice, I've tried pretty well all of this season's crop of bocks. And pretty hard work some of the tasting was, too. I've swilled around my mouth a good deal of disgusting liquid in the process, thaough I have to admit that there were some rather pleasant beers hidden amongst the vinegar. Where possible, I've conducted the tastings 'blind', that is without knowing the identity of the beer I was evaluating. When this was not possible - such as at the Bokbier Festival - it is indicated in the table below.

This is a list of all the bocks I've tried this year, in descending order of the score I allocated them.

Too sweet? True Bock? Alc Infected? Taste Blind? Score
N N 8.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: cloves, biscuit, honey, ginger
N 75
Amstel Bokbier
N Y 7% N Taste: Sweetish/bitterish
Aromas: smoke, liquorice, fruit, espresso
Y 74
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweet/bitterish
Aromas: liquorice, coffee, toast, toffee
Y 69
Drie Ringen
N N 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: Orange, coriander, toffee, spice
Y 68
Us Heit
N N 6% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: Coriander, ginger
Y 66
De Halve Maan
N Y 8% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: burnt, coffee
Y 58
N Y 7.5% N Taste: Sweet/bitterish
Aromas: Biscuit, black toffee, liquorice
Y 58
N N ?% Y Taste: Bitterish
Aromas: herbal, smoke, burnt
N 58
Bock Ros
N N 6.5% N Taste: Sweetish/bitterish
Aromas: ginger, biscuit
N 55
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: Fruit, chocolate, raisin
Y 54
Wildebok (bottled)
Y N 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: orange, coriander, toffee, spice
Y 53
Drie Ringen
N N 6.5% N Taste: Sweetish
Aromas: spicy, liquorice, caramel
N 51
't Ij
N N 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: burnt, toast
Y 49
Y Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: raisin, black toffee, burnt
Y 49
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweetish
Aromas: raisin, caramel, chicory, toffee
Y 47
Hertog Jan Bokbier
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweetish
Aromas: raisins, caramel, black toffee
Y 46
Y Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: toffee, burnt, raisin, liquorice
Y 44
N N ?% N Taste: Sweetish/bitterish
Aromas: apple, milk, herbal. Green
N 42
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweet/bitterish
Aromas: sugar, smoke, black toffee
Y 41
De Vaete
N Y 8% N Taste: sweetish
Aromas: coffee, caramel
Y 41
Bokbier (draught)
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweetish
Aromas: toffee, apple, biscuit, hop
Y 40
Y N 6.5% N Taste: Very sweet
Aromas: caramel, black toffee
Y 37
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: toffee,caramel, sugar
Y 37
Horn's Bock
Drie Hoorne
Y N 7% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: toffee, caramel, coffee
Y 36
Utrechtse Bock (draught)
Oude Daen
Y N ?% YN Taste: Sweet
Aromas: toffee, malt, apple. Green
N 36
Utrechtse Bock (bottled)
N N 6.5% N Taste: neutral
Aromas: odd herbal flavours
Y 35
Jopen 4 Granen Bock
De Schaapskooi
N N 6.5% YN Taste: Sweet
Aromas: celery, biscuit
Y 35
Y Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: bitterish, burnt, black toffee, fruit
Y 35
N N 6.5% Y Taste: Sweet
Aromas: toast, orange, burnt
Y 32
Bock (draught)
N N ?% N Taste: Sweetish
Aromas: apple, plum, chicory
N 32
Wildebok (draught)
Y N 6.5% N Taste:
Y 29
Y Y 6.5% YN Taste: Very sweet
Aromas: raisins, black toffee, sugar
Y 28
Bock (draught)
Het Wort Wat
Y N 7.3% YN Taste: Sweet
Aromas: apple, toffee, honey. Green.
Y 27
Utrechtse Bock (draught)
Y N 6.5% YN Taste: sourish/sweetish
Aromas: sweet, alcohol. Green
N 24
Y N 6.5% N Taste: Very sweet
Aromas: toffee
Y 24
Y N 6.5% N Taste: Very sweet
Aromas: sugar , toffee
Y 24
Schiedamse Dubbelbock
N N 8% Y Taste: Sourish
Aromas: smoke, burnt.
Y 21
Y N 7.5% N Taste: Very sweet
Aromas: caramel, sugar, fruit
Y 17
N N 7.5% N Taste: Sweet
Aromas: cardboard. Far too pale a colour.
Y 15
N Y 6.5% N Taste: Sweetish/bitterish
Aromas: toffee, boiled sweets, coffee
Y 12
Ganze Bock
N N 7.5% Y Taste: Sour/sweet
Aromas: burnt, biscuit
Y 10
Gelserse Bock
Onder de Linden
N N 7% Y Taste: sour
Aromas: sour, bitter, infected.
Y 8
Super Strong Bock
Y N 8.5% Y Taste: Sweet
Aromas: Infected, sour.
Y 6


As the sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed, I consider only a small minority of the beers I have tasted to be truly in the Dutch bokbier style. This is not to say that the other beers were bad, just not in the correct style. There were some excellent beers amongst the top-fermenting pseudo-bocks, but some shockingly bad ones, too. The bottom-fermented beers are displaying a disturbing tendency towards excessive sweetness, but overall the standard was reasonably good.

This is a summary of the results:
Beers tasted Too sweet True Bock Not a True Bock Infected Too green True bock with no other faults
43 15 (34.88%) 16 (37.2%) 27 ( 62.8%) 6 (13.95%) 5 (11.62%) 11 (25.58%)

The percentage of beers in the true bock style, as you can see, isn't exactly high. The number of infected beers wasn't ridiculously high, but the breweries involved should still have known better than to sell beers in such a state. The 'green', or insufficiently matured beers were all draught, so perhaps the cause was connected in some way with this. Possibly, the beer was kegged in the same state as it was bottled, but did not condition in the keg. Whatever the reason, I had several beers at the Bokbier Festival which were woefully immature.

Highest Score Lowest Score Average Score
75 6 40.4

Looked at this way, the standard doesn't seem bad at all, as I count 40 as a decent, drinakble beer with no great faults. Not madly exciting, but good enough. My subjective impression had been that the standard was lower, but I suppose the truly awful beers had a disproportionately large impact upon me. I shouldn't really complain, as the average is far better than that other beer styles would manage. (Pils, for example, would be unlikely to rise above the mid 20's).

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© Ron Pattinson 2001 - 2010