Wednesday, May 06, 2015

More 'craft' lagers, please!

On the second day of American Mild Month, last Saturday, what did I do? I went to a Spring Bock Festival, held outdoors at Mad Fox Brewing Company, a brewpub in Falls Church, Virginia (a town only a few miles outside of Washington, D.C.).

What is bock?

Bock beer might not be the antithesis of Mild Ale, but it's certainly not similar. Mild Ale is, of course, an ale, and of low alcohol. Bock is a lager, and high in alcohol.

But, oh, what splendid things well-made bocks can be! Dark red-brown (not stout-black), rich, alcohol-warming, malt-luscious, and anywhere from 6 to 7% alcohol-by-volume; and, in the case of maibocks (or 'heller bocks'): deep golden-malty, drier than a 'standard' bock, and noble-hoppy.

Doppelbocks are stronger yet, by convention, over 7% alcohol-by-volume, dark brown-red and (not cloyingly) malty-sweet, but some examples can reach 13%.

More 'craft' bocks?

Attending the festival were thirty-six breweries bringing seventy-two beers. Of those beers, twenty-two were bock beers. It's refreshing (pun intended) to find more 'craft' breweries brewing lagers in this age of hyper-hoppy ales.

All but one of these breweries were from the local area: twenty-four were from Virginia, five from Maryland, two from Washington, D.C., three from Pennsylvania, and one from Delaware. The outlier was from Bavaria, in Germany: no personal representative, but two bock biers.

Smoked bock?

Capitol City smoked Honey Bock

Three of the local bocks were made with reasonable percentages of smoked malt. This didn't smack so much of stylistic misinterpretation —such as the assumption by many 'craft brewers' that Scotch Ales must be, ipso facto, peat-smoked— but, rather, as part and parcel of the American 'craft' need to tinker. A 'new' sub-genre?

Cask-conditioned bock?

One bock that afternoon was served cask-conditioned. I wondered, "Why?"

Cask-conditioning an ale can bring an unfettered freshness and clarity of flavor to an ale. (Not all ales benefit, however, and that's a story for another time.) Cask-conditioning a lager, such as a bock, on the other hand, does it few favors.

When a properly lagered beer is re-primed with fresh lager yeast in a cask, off-flavors such as sulfur, green apple, and butteriness —that lagering (extended cold storage) had lessened or removed— are reintroduced into the beer. Of course, an ale yeast could be used for priming, instead of a lager yeast. Created then is some sort of hybrid mess, confusing the flavor and nature of the beer.

A much better practice is racking (transferring) already-carbonated lager straight from a maturation tank into a keg. This is called kellerbier or zwickelbier. And if that lager were racked instead into a cask and served? It still wouldn't be a cask-conditioned lager, but simply a lager served from a cask.

The ill-suited cask-conditioned bock in question had also been infused with peppers, cinnamon, and cloves. Again, why? This will not be, I hope, a new sub-genre.

A good day for bock

Bockfest crowd (02)

Bill Madden, president/brewmaster of Mad Fox, has been organizing beer festivals since the mid-1990s, when he was the executive brewer for another area brewpub, Capitol City Brewing. That experience showed.

Brewers and brewery representatives were present. Brewery tables were organized alphabetically, making beers easy to locate. And all with the cooperation of the weather: 79 °F, under mostly sunny skies, with a mild (there you go!) breeze. Seamless enjoyment.

More 'craft' lagers, please!

  • Noble hop. A term that has an undeniable ring of antiquity and distinction to it, yet is merely a marketing tag, and of recent vintage at that. The term was created in the United States only sometime in the 1908s, and has no technical meaning. It was meant to set apart from the word's hundreds of hop varieties a select few, venerable Continental European ones, with fairly low alpha acid and high essential oil contents. These were initially the German Hallertauer Mittelfruh, Spalter, and Tettnanger, and the Czech Saaz." — The Oxford Companion to Beer: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • More photos of the festival: here.
  • Festival lineup of breweries and beers: here.
  • American Mild Month, its first occasion in the United States, occurs throughout the United States, "to encourage brewers and drinkers in the US to brew and drink mild ale."
  • Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virginia— I sell the beers of The Raven and Ayinger, whose bocks were poured. Any opinions here are mine alone.

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