The rise and fall of mighty bock

IMAGE THE SCENE:

The winter has ended, the sun is shining and the sidewalks are packed with milling crowds. A stream of beer trucks parades down the avenue. Celebrities judge a beauty pageant for goats in the city park. Brass bands play Strauss in outdoor gardens.

And a quarter-million barrels of strong, dark, malty lager are about to be tapped across town.

Munich at its finest?

No, New York City, circa 1934.

It was the first spring after the end of Prohibition, and — aside from the frantic days immediately after the enactment of the 21st Amendment four months earlier — this was perhaps America’s grandest beer celebration:

The return of bock beer.

The style — or, at least, the name — is ancient, tracing its roots to the 15th-century Bock beer lithographnorthern Germany town of Einbeck (pronounced in the dialect of Bavaria as ein-bock.). “It is a delicious, famous and very palatable beverage and excellent beer,” wrote one German historian, “wherewith a man, when partaken of in moderation, may save his health and his sound senses, and yet feel jolly and stimulated.”

The style evolved as a spring beer, brewed in the winter with extra malt and aged ’til it would be enjoyed during Lenten fasting — a tradition that was continued as German brewers emigrated to America throughout the 19th century.

We didn’t know how much we loved bock ’til it was taken away from us. During Prohibition, grown men would rhapsodize about the aroma to their sons who’d grown up without even a whiff. Even non-drinkers mourned the absence of the finely colored lithographs of playful, stein-hoisting goats (the traditional symbol of bock) that had once advertised various brands of bock.

So, when he first March after Repeal rolled around, American brewers were ready. A huge stockpile of bock had been brewed over the winter months, and the New York Brewers Board of Trade officially declared that March 15 would be Bock Day.

The New York Times and other newspapers, recognizing bock season as a cultural touchstone, published dozens of reports. There were contests and parades and goats — both on posters and real ones grazing in Central Park. One of the critters, a black-bearded ruminant named Pretzels, was selected by a panel of well-known artists as “Mr. Bock Beer 1934.”

An astounding 250,000 barrels — equal to about 10 pints for every man, woman and child in New York City — would be delivered and drained within three weeks.

A bartender, explaining the appeal of bock, told one newspaper reporter simply, “It makes a feller feel good sooner.” With up to 7 percent alcohol by volume, bock was enough to put a smile on your face, even in the midst of the Great Depression.

The following year, the United States Brewers Association made plans to brew one billion bottles nationwide. Bock was back.

It would be a short-lived return.

In 1942, patriotic brewers nationwide — citing the extra barley, trucks and gasoline required for the special lager — agreed they’d make no bock until Hirohito and Hitler were defeated. When America emerged from the war, its fondness for dark beer had faded and bock was a pale shadow of its former self. The goats were still on the bottles and cans, but inside the alcohol content reached barely 5 percent.

It would take the microbrewery revolution of the 1980s to bring it back to its traditional strength, and even push its limits with increasingly more potent doppelbocks. But even with more than 1,500 separate varieties served across America today, bock is nowhere near as celebrated as it was in that hopeful spring of 1934.

 

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