When Capital Brewery in Madison's Middleton suburb opens it outdoor Bier Garten on Feb. 25 for the annual Bockfest, several thousand revelers will celebrate the coming of spring (no matter what the weather) and the arrival of Capital's Blonde Doppelbock. The popular and potent seasonal brew is steeped in centuries of brewing tradition.
Bock beers have heralded spring's imminent arrival since the 14th century, when brewers in the German town of Einbeck began developing stronger, more robust ales to help local monastic orders survive during the weeks of Lenten fasting. In the 17th century, brewers in Munich adapted the style to the then-new lagering process and, due to their Bavarian accents, pronounced result as "ein bock" (literally "a billy goat"). The name stuck, as did the image of the goat, which now appears frequently on bock beer labels.
Today, many breweries produce bock beer. Its richer, malty flavor is an attractive characteristic during winter's waning months. There are several styles of bock, but none quite so compelling as doppelbock, or "double bock," a version that offers a little more of everything that bock beer drinkers have come to appreciate.
The first doppelbock was brewed in Munich by the Paulaner monks, again to provide sustenance during the Lenten fasts when solid food was not permitted. The potent brew, which ranged from 7 percent to 12 percent alcohol by volume or more, became known as "liquid bread" because of its malted grain base. Many a monk saw Easter morning thanks the filling nature and pleasant alcoholic haze provided by his locally brewed doppelbocks.
Doppelbocks are available in far fewer numbers than standard bock beer. Higher alcohol levels require the brewer to start out with more fermentable ingredients, meaning doppelbocks are a little more expensive to brew. But a good doppelbock is richer, smoother, stronger and more fully flavored than its counterparts, making it worth the effort to seek them out.
Here are some recommendations, from Germany and locally.
One of the best is Ayinger Celebrator ($12.49 per four-pack), which is almost stout-like in its dark, opaque appearance. It pours with an aromatic nose and thick, somewhat rocky brownish head. Its rich, creamy finish offers subtle chocolate notes and, at 6.7 percent ABV, Celebrator is one of the tamer doppelbocks available.
The Spaten Optimator ($7.99 per six-pack) raises the alcohol stakes to 7.8 percent ABV, pouring with a similar opacity but almost no nose. The beer has a crisper character than the Celebrator, offering a good balance of malt and hops, a subtle hops bitterness and nice mouthfeel.
Our go-to doppelbock has long been Paulaner Salvator ($7.99 per six-pack), a replica of the original that weighs in at 7.9 percent ABV. The beer pours with a dark copper color and reasonably good head, and the flavor is well balanced while leaning more in the malt direction, as would be expected.
The Primator Double Bock ($2.99 for a pint bottle), new to us this year, arrived from the Czech Republic boasting a whopping 10.5 percent ABV. A blend of five Moravian and Bavarian malts, it pours a deep chestnut color with perceptible alcohol characteristics in the nose and on the palate. But the blend is well balanced and deceptively dangerous, with a slight coffee nose and a pleasantly lingering flavor.
Capital's Blonde Doppelbock is one of the better-known local brands, but not the only one brewer Kirby Nelson produces. The subtle, highly approachable and slightly dangerous beer, is available only in spring. It's complemented in the fall by Autumnal Fire, Nelson's ode to Octoberfest, which stands head and shoulders above the competition.
The brewer also has produced several doppelbock varietals as part of his Square series (about $12 per four-pack), which includes an Imperial Doppelbock, a Weizen Dopplebock and Eisphyre, an Eisbock with an even greater alcohol content due to a process that removes excess water by freezing the brew.
Glendale's Sprecher Brewery also produces a dopplebock (about $9 per four pack) as part of its premium series. The beer pours a dark amber color, offering full flavors of nuts and chocolate, depending on the vintage. At 7.85 percent ABV, the creation of brewer Randy Sprecher's efforts run with the best of them.
Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery doesn't produce a dopplebock, but every spring brewer Russ Klisch releases The Big Easy ($8.49 per six pack), an Imperial Maibock that weighs in at 7.7 percent ABV, just in time for Mardi Gras. Lighter and brighter than a dopplebock, the Maibock still maintains a balance of Munich pale malt and Hallertauer hops for a bold, robust flavor. Just about every other Big Easy six-pack comes laced with Mardi Gras beads.
If the stronger beer doesn't make you the life of the party, then perhaps the beads will.