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Berliner Bürgerbräu Maibock

A strong springtime beer from the lakes

The city of Berlin is famous for its lakes, much favoured by weekenders fancying a drink in the open-air in spring or summer. One of the most beautiful lakes, and popular spots for a beer and perhaps a picnic, is the Müggel See, in the Köpenick neighborhood, in the former East Berlin. This lake boasts the Berliner Bürgerbräu brewery, restaurant and beer-garden.

This enterprise dates from 1869. It is still in its original premises, which are listed buildings, but has been beautifully restored since the reunification of Germany.

During the Communist period, the brewery produced a Pilsener-style beer. Now, under the ownership of the Bavarian brewing family Häring, it has a full range, including an Export style, pale and dark Bock beers (both at 6.8 per cent alcohol by volume; 5.4w), a Schwarz ("Black") beer and a wheat beer.

If the lakeside weather is chilly, drinkers may warm themselves with the toffeeish but slightly medicinal-tasting Dunkler ("Dark") Bock. On a milder day, they are likely to favor the pale Mai (Maytime) Bock, our Beer of the Month.

This beer has a creamy aroma; a relatively light body for this strong style; a faintly buttery malt character; a grassy, herbal, hop finish. Its crispness of finish is intended to add a refreshing edge to an otherwise quite powerful brew.

The myths and the Maibock

Once, it was impossible to mention Bock beer without being told the same old story: That it was a dark, rich, product that emerged when the vessels at the brewery were spring-cleaned. Today's knowledgeable beer-buffs love to laugh at that story.

For one thing, by no means all Bock beers today are dark, though many are. For another, the color comes from the malt used, not the vessels. More important, most vessels in a brewery are cleaned every time they are used, for fear of any lingering micro-organisms that might sour the next batch.

I join in the laughter, then quietly concede that the old story may have some historic basis - in the days before refrigeration, when the wild yeasts of summer made brewing impossible. At that time, a big brew would be made before Easter, perhaps in March, and laid down as a provision to be drawn upon during the summer. The last casks would be drained ("cleaned"?) at the end of summer, in September/October. Today, we associate that custom with Märzen ("March") and Oktoberfest beers, but I suspect this tradition and Bock have tangled roots.

The time of year when Bock beer is served varies from one region or country to the next, but it is always a season of cool weather. Some people think that the term Bock, which in Germanic languages (and in various spellings) also means a Billy Goat, refers to the month of Capricorn (December 22 to January 20), during which winter strong beers are in season. Others think it is called Bock because it has the kick of a goat - there are several folk tales around this idea. Bock beer often has a goat on the label, but I regard this as merely a visual pun. The more likely origin of the name is that it derives from the second syllable of Einbeck, a famous late medieval brewing town in the North German state of Lower Saxony.

In the days when the major cities of northern Europe operated a "free trade area" called the Hanseatic League, Einbeck was the brewing center. To either side, the Harz mountains and Solling hills provide water; grain for brewing is cultivated between Hildesheim and Brunswick; and even in those days, the town had links with the major ports of Hamburg and Bremen.

In those days, almost all breweries were local. For a town to send beer beyond its boundaries was unusual. There was, after all, no steam power to drive industrial-scale breweries, and distribution was by horse and wagon. Beer to be sent long distances would have been brewed to great strengths, so that it could ferment-out during the journey. The continuing fermentation, and the build-up of alcohol, would to some extent have protected the beer from wild micro-organisms.

Thus Einbeck beer, corrupted to Einbock by the southerners of Bavaria, became the German term for a strong brew. Bock may originally have been a very strong wheat beer (what we would today call a Weizenbock), but in modern usage it is a very potent lager, malt-accented but well-balanced, with the cleanness and roundness imparted by a long period of maturation.

In medieval times, citizens of Einbeck had brewing rights. The city had a public brew-kettle, which was taken to each house in turn. A public lottery on the spring holiday of 1 May determined the order in which it would visit each house. Today, Maibock beers are usually brewed earlier, in order to be ready for that month. They are typically strong in alcohol (6.0 per cent or more), but often pale in colour, with some hoppy crispness and a spritzy carbonation. They fade away as summer warms up, but a darker Bock may appear in October, November or December and an extra-strong (typically around 7.5 per cent) Doppelbock for Lent and early spring.

Published: MAY 1, 2000

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