USED TO BE, spring beer meant one thing, and one thing only: bock. Darkish, sweet, mildly strong, full-bodied lager meant to brace you against the last vestiges of winter and welcome the daffodils.
It was liquid bread, the beer of Lent, of happy, dancing goats celebrating the verdant early days of the season. Paulaner Salvator . . . Ayinger Celebrator . . . Dock Street Illuminator . . . Anchor Bock . . . and so on.
Bock beer is still alive and kicking but, lately, American beer makers have been giving us a whole ‘nother take on the season – a lighter, spicier version of spring beer.
Where bock is sweet and smooth, this new spring breed is spicy and herbal. It seems aimed less at giving Ol’ Man Winter a kick in the butt and more as a concession to the inevitability of global warming.
Call it Spring Beer 2.0.
You see this new lighter in the likes of Magic Hat Pistil, an herbal ale made with oats and dandelion petals. Or Evolution Sprung, made with honey, hibiscus and chamomile. Locally, Philadelphia Brewing welcomes the Phillies’ Opening Day with the brilliantly named Fleur de Lehigh, made with rhubarb, ginger and cardamom.
Remember Sam Adams Double Bock? Don’t look for it in Boston Beer’s annual spring case; instead, this year’s box was loaded with the likes of Alpine Spring, a citrusy, unfiltered lager, and White Lantern, a peppery Belgian-style witbier.
And check out Victory Brewing.
Traditionally, it welcomed spring with a pair of classic bocks: St. Boisterous, a bright, clean yet robust heller bock “designed to combat the chill of early-season beer garden” temps; and St. Victorious, a doppelbock that reflected the founders’ German-influenced brewing chops. Both were perfect warmers during those late-March showers that make you wonder if winter will ever end.
They’re still alive, but you’ve got to hunt a little harder for them. Victory reduced production of Victorious and eliminated bottles of Boisterous altogether. (The latter is still available on draft.)
More notably, it came out with a new brand: Swing Session Saison. It’s light and spicy with lots of hops and a lemon zing. It rings in at just 4.5 percent alcohol.
When I asked Victory president Bill Covaleski about the new springtime tactic, he said it was driven mainly by the company’s aim to brew “something refreshing and springlike, and very low in alcohol. . . . It fascinates us to try to deliver big flavor at low alcohol volumes.”
Does that mean that high-octane bock is dead?
“No, we’ll never give up on bock beer,” Covaleski replied. “But bock is kind of a no-growth style these days. That in itself drives us to start looking in the opposite direction to excite the audience.”
Covaleski knows I’m such a huge fan of Victory’s lagers, I’d walk out to Downingtown and wring his neck if he ever stopped brewing bock. But I can read between the lines, and I suspected that “opposite direction” was a gentle way of telling me that I need to change with the times.
Bill, are you trying to tell me bock is an old man’s beer?
“I’m not sure it was ever anything but that,” he replied.
Sigh . . . Chalk up another victim of global warming.
Not all bock is dead, of course. In fact, one variety is thriving more than ever: maibock.
It’s a light-colored bock with about two-thirds the body of a conventional doppelbock. Narragansett Bock and Rumspringa Golden Bock are both maibocks, and they are quite nice in aluminum cans.
For a fuller taste, though, I recommend stepping up to a double bock. Troegs Troegenator, from Hershey, available all year round, is now regarded as a benchmark. This year, I rediscovered the joy of the original doppelbock, Paulaner Salvator, from Munich.
My favorite this season, though, was Consecrator, from Michigan’s Bell’s Beer, a brewery that’s not particularly known for lagers. I served it at a few private samplings where guests were blown away by its smooth, yet utterly complex malt profile – the product of an extra-long conditioning (or lagering) period.
But who am I kidding? It’s 80 degrees as I write this, and I’m sweating because the grass already needs mowing.
Sigh . . . I don’t think spring is coming bock.