Spring is a time of renewal, not only for the landscape but also for the beer lover’s palate.
As readily as some of us enjoy the taste of a nice stout or barleywine during the cold winter months, the shift to lighter, more refreshing offerings when the snow thaws is a welcome one. Yet from a historical standpoint, these stylistic preferences had much more to do with traditional brewing cycles and technical limitations, as opposed to what people felt paired well with a nice selection of early spring greens.
“The seasons were really what dictated when brewing could take place,” said Michael Agnew, founder of A Perfect Pint and a certified Cicerone, the beer world’s version of a sommelier. “Beer makers couldn’t brew in the summer because they didn’t have refrigeration to keep temperatures relatively cool and even for fermentation. There were also too many wild things in the summer air that could infect and spoil the batch.”
Consequently, the months of October, November, and December became the high point for brewers in Northern Europe who would typically brew a variety of beers of gradually increasing strength, store them in cool caves to ferment, and offer them up at various times throughout the coming year. Brewmasters observed that the higher the alcohol content, the better chance a beer would keep through the warmer months and ward off any bacterial issues when the temperatures rose. Thus, lighter, more refreshing beers became associated with spring, while stronger, more robust beers such as Oktoberfests and doppelbocks were brought out toward the end of the year.
Today, competitive pressures and technological advancements, such as the cutting-edge concept of refrigeration, have made seasonal brewing largely irrelevant. Imperial stouts are offered up in the middle of spring, while Belgian wits hit store shelves in the dead of winter. But many brewers still celebrate the spring season as they did generations ago with several traditional springtime styles, most notably the German maibock and French bière de garde.
Bocks originated in northern Germany in the 14th century, originally brewed by regional monasteries as a means of sustenance for the monks during Lent. The word “bock” itself means male goat in German, and it’s no coincidence that the astrological sign for Capricorn is represented by a prancing goat drunk on the euphoria of an early spring day. Bocks have since grown to encompass a handful of variations on the base style, notably the maibock, which originated in the German town of Einbeck in the 16th century.
Maibocks (also known as “helles” bocks) are lagers defined by a golden, amber body, and creamy malt flavor that can range from full-on graininess to more complex notes of biscuit, caramel, and toffee. Maibocks also have a more pronounced hop aroma and bitterness than their stylistic brethren, typically coming in between 15-30 international bittering units, and employing traditional Noble hops such as Hallertau or Tettnanger to give it an herbal, sometimes minty nose. They usually range between 6 to 8 percent ABV, and — if you get a good one — they’re deceptively quaffable and easy to drink.
Einbecker Mai-Ur-Bock, brewed in the same German locale where the maibock originated, is considered by many to be the benchmark of the style. Boasts a very clean herbal hop aroma mixed with a sulfuric lager yeastiness up front, paving the way for a big caramel malt base that balances out the relatively light levels of bitterness well. Creamy smooth from start to finish, with the tiniest bit of alcohol heat to remind you this isn’t your average pint of lighter lager. It’s relatively hard to find, but may be around on draught or at better beer stores if you look.
Capital Brewing out of Middleton, WI offers a very nice maibock that blends Munich-style malts and traditional Noble hops to deliver earthy, herbal aromas balanced by biscuit, nutty flavors and a light bitterness. St. Paul-based Summit Brewing’s Maibock comparatively trends more to the grainy side of the malt equation, with a nice golden color, grassy hop spiciness, and bready flavor that make this an enjoyable beer.
“It’s just a nice damn beer to thaw out with,” said Mark Stutrud, CEO of Summit. “We first brewed our Maibock back in 1988 partly as a way to commemorate the little 1930s era brewhouse we acquired from a small German village. While we could produce the beer year-round, brewing a seasonal is really a way to celebrate the traditions of the past.”
Also check out Schell’s MaiFest, a very clean offering filled with Noble hops and creamy malt. On the brewpub front, pay a visit to Minneapolis Town Hall to try out their version (right), a crisp and smooth lager with loads of toffee malt flavors, as well as St. Paul-based Great Waters Sturm Und Drang, a maibock as interesting in complexity as its German literary-inspired name suggests.
Bière de Garde
On the ale side of the spectrum is bière de garde, one of the rare French offerings to the beer world that — similar to the German “lager” — literally means “beer for storage.” The romanticized story is that bières de garde were “farmhouse ales” brought out in the spring and summer to provide farmhands a refreshing drink to quench their thirst (and provide a little buzz) while they worked the soil and planted the season’s crops. While there may be a kernel of truth to this, bières de garde as we know them today were largely born out of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 when the Germans took over parts of Northern France and forced the relatively unsophisticated local brewers to improve their technical capabilities and make stronger, maltier beers more suitable for German tastes.
Like its geographically close relative the Belgian saison, bières de garde can have a very wide swath of variation in taste and aroma from one example to another. But unlike saisons, noted for their light, dry peppery spiciness, the rustic bière de garde generally possesses a sweeter, more toffee-based characteristic with a relatively yeast-forward quality and sometimes funky, musty aroma.
Ommegang Biere de Mars (left) out of New York is a fantastic American example, defined in part by its use of Brettanomyces (aka “Brett”), a wild yeast strain used during fermentation that gives it a distinct musty, “horse blanket” quality. The beer pours a beautiful amber coloring with loads of fine carbonation, and right up front you get the Brett aromas mixed with fruity esters and hops. The malt profile is exceedingly complex, at the same time delivering a sweet, toasty maltiness punctuated in the finish with a tart sourness akin to drinking apple cider.
Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland walks the subtle balance of malt and hops with its Garde Dog, but with a much fruitier quality throughout that’s more reminiscent of your standard Belgian-style ales. Abundant yeast up front in the nose with a nice aroma of pears, apples and light hops. Flavor is relatively sweet, with notes of butterscotch and toffee mixed in with a slightly alcoholic finish.
Like Flying Dog, Two Brothers in Chicago delivers a more subdued version in their Domaine du Page. Not as funky as Biere de Mars, it offers a similar tartness that tones down some of the caramel flavors in the malt. Not much in the way of hop aroma, but balanced by a nice dry bittering quality and carbonation that coats the mouth in its thickness.
If you can find it, also check out Jenlain Ambrée, one of the prototypical examples of the style.
Aaron Masterson is the author of local craft beer and homebrew blog, The Captain’s Chair.