Note: For the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, the Bock category has been removed and the individual styles have been split up among other categories, or in the case of the Traditional style, removed altogether. Maibock or "May" Bock is a controversial style in that it has disappeared in the style name but remains in the description of a Helles as an identical beer. Here are the new styles per the 2015 Guidelines:
Bock beers (Bockbiers in German) vary in color from pale (or Helles) to almost black (those beers brewed for the winter solstice). They are mostly brewed in Bavaria, but historically, got their start in northern Germany in the town called Einbeck. The entire town was involved in the brewing of beer and their major export was a strong dark ale. The beer was so popular, and so much of it was being imported into Bavaria, that the rulers of Bavaria decided to brew their own version. Not only would this keep a large portion of the coffers from going north, it would also bring new jobs and revenue to Bavaria.
The beer became so popular that the Duke Maximilian I wooed a brewmaster from Einbeck to Munich in 1612 to make a version much closer to the original. The strong ale of the north changed into a strong lager brewed in the south, and is what we now call Bockbier. The name comes from the way Bavarians pronounced "Einbeck", which was more like "Einpock". The pronunciation eventually became "ein Bock" which means one Bock.
Bockbiers are truly seasonal beers in Germany. When the last of the Oktoberfest was finished and the new malts were in the breweries, it was now time to brew the strong beers (starkbiers) for winter. The winters in Bavaria were brutally cold, and the people preferred to sip strong beers by the fireside. The various bocks were brewed for different parts of the cold season. Each type of bock had a different color and strength. Typically bocks were brewed to about 6.5% ABV, but some could get as high as 13% ABV. All bockbiers tend to be strong and malty but very smooth beers to drink. The bitterness is gentle and subdued with almost no hop aroma. The beers brewed for Christmas and Easter tend to be darker than the traditional bockbiers. As summer came closer, the beers start getting lighter and lower in alcohol. The helles bock is sometimes compared to a Munich Helles brewed to bock strength.
In 2008, the BJCP recognized four beers as distinct styles. Currently, the Traditional Bock category has been removed and Maibock combined with Helles Bock as an identical beer. The styles as listed in 2008 were:
The Germans recognize a few more styles such as a Weihnachtsbock or Christmas Bock, a Dunkelbock which is like a regular bockbier but brewed with roasted malts for a darker color, a Fastenbock or Lenten bock which is brewed only during lent, G'frornes which is a type of Eisbock, an Urbock which is a bockbier brewed in the city of Einbeck, Weizenbock which we Americans put into a different category altogether, is brewed with at least 50% malted wheat and an ale yeast, Weizendopplebock which is a very strong Weizenbock, a Weizeneisbock which is a Weizenbock that has been frozen like an Eisbock, and Winterbock which is a specialty beer brewed to dopplebock strength.
One thing all these beers have in common is that they all have to be lagered for a period of time, usually several months, to mellow the flavors into the typical bock profile. When September and October roll around, it's time to start brewing bockbiers to enjoy by your own fireside.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the page on Bockbier from The German Beer Institute, The German Beer Portal for North America.
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