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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Old American Bocks: A Study in Change

The 20th century was not kind to style diversity in the United States.  Lagers were in ascent even before Prohibition, and then industrialization and mass production after the great experiment continued a trend toward homogenization.  A few styles did survive, though.  One was bock.

Styles change for lots of reasons--war, taxes, trade, and trends--but one of the most powerful agents is other styles.  When marzenbiers first entered the Munich market in the 1840s, they had to contend with the dominant style, dunkel lager, and so were on the dark side of amber.  Over the years, dunkel lagers lost market share to those pretty pale lagers that swept the globe, and now marzens have followed fashion and are now on the pale side of amber.

The same thing happened in the US.  With the arrival of lagers and especially pale lagers, other styles did their best impressions of the king.  We had cream and steam beer, sparkling ales, extra pale lagers, and so on.  Bocks, which ranged in color from the pilsner-pale to porter-brown, were always strong and rich.  In Germany they are by law starkbiers--or strong beers.  As America was turning to very light-bodied, low-to-medium alcohol pilsners, bocks were finding themselves out of step with the trends of the day.  So they started to slim down in an effort to appeal to the modern market.

When I was writing about bocks for the book, I had to contend with that tiny remnant of a style that had evolved to fit older tastes.  Call them old American bocks, I guess--Shiner, Huber, Genessee, and Yuengling.  They range in strength from 4.4% to 5.5%, and three of these four are 5.2% or lower--in many cases weaker than standard American pale lagers (Budweiser is 5%).  Obviously, nothing stark about that.  But they are a kind of uniform dark amber, and I think that's what once communicated strength.  It's hard for younger drinkers to imagine, but back in the 70s and 80s, people reflexively assumed dark beers were strong.  Guinness, people would regularly tell you, was a titan.

(It led to bizarre myths, like the one that said that bocks were produced by scraping the dregs off the bottom of the barrel.  Modern brains, familiar with the brewing process, don't even know what that means.  I certainly don't.  But I think it goes to show that anything that wasn't pellucid and straw-colored was suspect.  Look at grandpa's crazy dark beer--eww!)

But now these beers are trapped on a vanishing island of misfit styles--too weak and insipid to attract people who want a real bock, too old-timey and "strong" for people who want a lite beer.  Their market must consist of a dwindling number of old drinkers who remember the beers fondly.  I suppose they could be rehabilitated via retro nostalgia (the funny old goats on labels are poised to beguile), but as an extant style, my guess is it's not long for this world.  Go get your Shiner Huber Bock [see comments] while you still can.


  1. In the UK, the corresponding suspicion was that dark mild contained 'slops'. (There's some justification for that, too...)

  2. You are forecasting the demise of Shiner Bock?

    Spoetzel Brewery production was 36,000 barrels in 1990 and is more than a half million now. And Bock accounts for more than 80% of production.

    Somebody seems to be drinking it.

  3. Agree with Stan. I think our deep, beery introspection can sometimes be prohibitive when it comes to fully grasping the reality of the beer market and drinking trends.

    Stan already mentioned the success of Shiner Bock, but as for Yuengling and Genny Bocks, they're seasonal products that are hardly relied upon to be the anchor of each brewery. Just novelty spring beers that people do seem to enjoy.

    I'm also not quite sure how bocks such as those would put off people seeking a "real" bock, as I'd imagine most people don't really know what a "real" bock is to begin with, or how and why it might be different from the old-time bocks they're acquainted with.

    Generally, these bocks have a few simple characteristics: they're a little sweet, light, and taste of caramel. I can't imagine that at least some portion of palates would ever tire of those attributes.

  4. Stan, I'm focusing on the demise of this runty style, which for the purposes of this discussion I'll call old American bocks. As Chris points out, except for Shiner, the others are mostly already in fast retreat. (I don't know what Huber's status is, but even as recently as the early 90s when I lived in Wisconsin, it was quite an important beer, and I know it's not anymore. No numbers, though.)

    So we're left with Shiner Bock, which is effectively a brand. It may well survive--who knows. But I would still place this style on the "critically endangered" list. I should probably have finished my flourish with Huber bock, not Shiner, but I would still like to hear how you and Chris think this style has long-term viability.

  5. I do regret using Shiner as the example, though, as we're now debating a toss-off line at the end of the post rather than the post itself. Ten years blogging and you'd think I'd have learned that lesson by now.

  6. I suppose it depends on how long-term viability is defined. If you're suggesting that Bock can't re-assume its place as America's (distant) No. 2 beer style, then I certainly agree.

    But you don't need me to tell you it's a different world now. Many beer styles roam the terrain, and many co-exist peacefully. You might say that Genny and Yuengling Bocks are in fast retreat, but on the contrary, I'd say they have merely fallen in line with their contemporary counterparts, and re-positioned themselves as seasonal novelty beers just like any other, in response to how the market has changed. A far cry from what they were, perhaps, but still alive and breathing.

    So why can't a beer such as that hang around for the foreseeable future? It may never be one of the most popular styles, but I hardly believe it deserves a place on the Endangered Styles list, either.

  7. Shiner Bock was my gateway beer in the mid-80s. We marvelled that the cheapest beer on tap at the UT student union was also the best-tasting.

    Of course, at some point Gambrinus bought Spoetzl and quickly raised the price as a way to signal quality. It worked! And a small-town brewery that was at risk of passing away found new life.

    I love that beer, but I'm not sure it was ever a bock in the Old-World sense. In about 1985 or 86, some of us were in the tasting room, and a couple of elderly longtime employees told us that caramel color was the main difference between Shiner Bock and Shiner Premium (now known as Shiner Blonde). They said they remembered Mr. Spoetzl himself adding caramel color to Shiner Bock. (If any of this is true, and it is an old memory of hearsay, then those guys had been working at the brewery for about 40 years -- Kosmos Spoetzl died in 1950.)

    Another 1980s tasting-room tidbit: People in the town of Shiner thought of Shiner Bock as what black people drank, and the lighter colored Shiner Premium as what white people drank. Until all these white kids in Austin started drinking the Bock.

  8. Jeff - I was only commenting on Shiner Bock itself, which hardly seems endangered. I hesitate to bring the BJCP guidelines into the conversation (they are meant to be used only at homebrewing competitions), but they classify Shiner Bock as a dark American lager. And bock is a totally separate category.

    But to the importance of the "real" bock - it's a style a lot of brewers really care about. It does well at the brewpub level - not as a regular beer, but one that gets special attention when it is released.

    I sure wish Doug Hoverson would get the Wisconsin history book (kin to his Minnesota book), but I suspect that will contain a lot about the style's cultural importance to Wisconsin.

    And, yes, it is a shame about Huber bock.

  9. Re Bock as a sustainable beer style.
    I was reminded today that Gordon Bierch Brewing Co. produce bock beers. They have three variants on their beer list; Blonde Bock, Maibock, WinterBock.

    They produced ~40 kbbls in 2011. Their beer list is predominated by lagers.

    Perhaps, not your grandfather's bock; but, Gordon Bierch bocks will likely be available for the foreseeable future.

    btw: I have never ordered their bock. I would not be a good judge. I enjoy their Czech Style Pilsner on draught. I have found it good to very good. Never had it bottled.

  10. Just to clarify, I'm not talking about the bock styles as brewed in Germany--of which there are many US examples. Just the strange old "bocks" that are caramel-colored 4.5% beers.

  11. Yuengling Bock disappeared between the late 1970's and 2009 - so isn't really a "survivor" as such. Supposedly, Dick Yuengling Sr. once told a drinker at the Yuengling brewery bar who inquired about it's disappearance that their final version of their bock was merely a blend of Porter and Premium - and proceeded to make one.

    Their "new" bock is a new recipe (no old recipes could be found) and included dry-hopping.

    The "bottom of the barrel" bock urban legend in the US is very old - I've found newspaper articles that mention it in the early 1900's.

    Bock in the US had it's ups and downs in popularity, but several times during "down" periods brewers blamed the lack of them on other brewers for "rushing the season". Some brewers' organizations and states even had agreed upon "Bock release" dates.