Imagine you were looking out over the 4pm darkening sky as the wind rattled bare tree branches together like dry bones. The cold seeps through the window, creating a pocket of chill around you that won't dissipate until May. What you want is something hearty, smooth, and comforting. There are many ways to chase the damp and dark from your spirits, but none surpasses a mug of doppelbock for pure warming potential.
Now, suppose further that you wanted the kind of doppelbock they drink in Bavaria, in cozy, low-ceilinged pubs. You could pick up an import, but I would like to direct your hand instead to that six-pack of Bayern. Not only is it the best domestic doppelbock I've ever tasted, it may be the best Bavarian one, too.
How can this be? Jürgen Knöller. He is the expat masterbrewer at Bayern, and he's been making this doppelbock in the US for exactly 29 years. And he makes it the way he learned how to brew in Bavaria, which is to say in a way they no longer brew. This is one of my favorite quotes of all time, when Jürgen described to me this strange quirk. It is long, elliptical, and amusing, which seems to be typical for Jürgen. Therefore I'm giving you the whole thing.
“I worked for four different breweries in Germany; of those four three are no longer. The first one was Brauerei Schiff—‘ship’—and we had a very traditional brewery. We are talking a four-vessel brewhouse with a falloff tank—whatever that is in English—it’s a fifth vessel. It had a cool ship, it was beautiful. I mean, that brewery did about a quarter-million hectoliters. And what happened was the owner died and the widow couldn’t run it and a brewery from Cologne bought it and they kind of ran it in the ground. The next brewery bought it up and I switched to that brewery and the next one bought this one up and I switched to that one.”A moment later he added:
“We did beers there that I have never really seen being brewed anywhere else. Decoction beers, for one thing. They did one beer there, one day I’m gonna do, they called Pils Extra. They were just terrific beers. \The doppelbock they brewed—they left it in the tank for almost a year. Their doppelbock and their maibock, and that’s what we’re brewing here. Their doppelbock, I mean—I went to school in Munich and we had every Munich bock that was ever brewed, and even then, none of them could come close to what we had.”
“The next brewery I worked for, it was also a very old brewery, they did a really good one, too. It was from the Roden Brauerei. At the Schiff Brauerei we had Pirator—like a pirate—so we called it Pirator Bock. Anyway, what I did, I took from those two breweries, their doppelbocks. When I was looking at the technology available that I had—basically, what kind of machines do I have and what can those things do? You cannot take a Harley and run Superbike with it. You have to run it like a Harley. So what I did was I looked at the—I still had the formulations and everything of both beers—[and looked at my equipment].”
“Some American breweries have a hopjack. Well we had a copper tank, vertical, that had a screen bottom like a lauter tun. All we were using was flower hops—and trust me, I have baled those things, 220 pounds those things, some of them were even bigger—and that was on the fifth story. Oh, and by the way, the brewery was five stories up and five stories down into the cellars. That’s where you’re really lean and mean, running up and down stairs all the time, pushing, and lifting and shoveling all day long. So with all those flower hops, we ran the hot wort over that so the hot break would be on top of the flower hops. Then we were running from there into a [long conjunct German word I couldn't catch], next open mash where we were separating out the cold break and cooling it down in the cool ship. Well, the next brewery didn’t have that, but it had some other interesting things.”
“So then I decided, huh, this is what I have to work with for machines, it’s a fixed parameter, how do I get it across that I come up with the same product with what I got to work with? That’s what we did. Of all the brewers that were brewing that beer, including myself, there are only three guys that are still alive. I took some of those elements but of course I came up with my own—you look at what you have to work with and decide what you can and cannot do.”
“I started brewing beer in 1978; I did my three years as apprentice and got my journeyman’s certificate. I was working for another almost four years and then I got my masters degree--I graduated from Doemans. Now, when we were brewing back in those days back in Germany, I mean the Germans have always been the world-champions in efficiency and over the years—well, put it this way: I’m still brewing the German lager beers from 1985. When you go to Germany you have some of the older breweries that still brew the same way, but the bigger ones certainly don’t do anymore. What’s different between our beers here in general is that they’re all probably a little bit stronger, a little bit darker, whereas in Germany they have gotten a lot lighter.”After all of this, it hardly matters what I say about the beer, does it? You'll want to try it just because the backstory is so interesting. And you should. For my part, I will add that it makes the Sherpa list not because of the story, but the beer. Good doppelbocks are the rare beer that everyone understands. Novices and experts alike can immediately appreciate them. The flavors are accessible and clear: rich, familiar maltiness shot through with the flavors of bread, caramel, and the barest hint of chocolate. The richness is held in balance by the smoothest, lightest finish you'll ever find in a beer this strong. It's an impossible beer to dislike, and so, so easy to love.
"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature. In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer. Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand. In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out? A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop. I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.