When we think of seasonal “spring” beers in America, the field is decidedly mixed. Some breweries put out extant winter releases, like a Russian imperial stout or a double IPA, while others release a beer on the summery side of the palate, like a blonde or a pilsner. However, the German Maibock is the kind of beer that spans the gap between the warmth of spring and the cold of winter.
Maibocks (which are also known as Helles Bocks) have a wonderful place in the seasonal drinking canon. As the German Beer Institute explains, the Maibock, which is a lager, has a “warm golden hue” but is “more aggressively hopped than other bocks” making it the perfect transitional brew between seasons. It retains a bit higher ABV, “but its brightness and bitterness already foretell the perpetually blue skies of summer.” While bock beers are traditionally brewed for various seasons (traditional bocks in winter and doppelbocks for early spring/Lent) the Maibock fits neatly into a season that’s post-doppelbock but pre-autumn festbier.
The true history of the Maibock is fuzzy, but there are some indications that once pale malts came to the fore in the last 200 years, German brewers began using them in their beer as a replacement for the generally dark grains commonly used. As All About Beer magazine notes, “it is generally accepted that the paling of bock coincided with the general trend of chic pale lager production in the mid-to late-19th century.”
However, Munich’s Hofbräu, the supposed originators of the style, contest this claim, explaining that in 1614 the “royal household” was dissatisfied with the offerings Hofbräu presented and wanted something similar to the beer from Einbeck, which was malty and strong. In response, Hofbräu brewed a beer in the Einbeck tradition, which they called a “Maibock.” According to Hofbräu, in keeping with tradition, “the first barrel of Maibock is tapped at the Hofbräuhaus in the last week of April, in time for the merry month of May.”
While never making a ton of headway in the American lager market, breweries are turning to this traditional spring beer as another offering in their seasonal canon. Here are a couple of American examples to try, but if you want the original, look for Hofbräu’s version.
Rouge Dead Guy Ale: While not a traditional bock beer (or even a lager), Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale was likely one of the first introductions many Americans had to anything resembling a Maibock. Dead Guy is clean, malty, and has a nice hop bite without being overpowering. Try it if you’re looking for one of America’s standard bearers on the craft beer scene.
Tröegs Cultivator: Tröegs Cultivator (which they call a Helles bock), is as close to a German Maibock as you can get. Made with Bohemian Pilsner malt and two German hops, Cultivator is as traditional as it comes in brewing a bock beer. Refreshing and clean, the higher alcohol is subdued; instead the graininess and light hoppiness take the starring role in this beer.
Jack’s Abby Maibock Hurts Like Helles: If you find yourself in the Boston area in March or April, check out Jack’s Abby Brewing’s Maibock “Hurts Like Helles” (despite its punny name). Just like Boston springs (which aren’t known for their warmth), this beer clocks in on the low end of the ABV spectrum at 6.5% ABV, but still packs enough of a punch. It also has the standard Maibock characteristics of a deep golden maltiness and light hop profile.
So as spring arrives and you put away your 12% ABV Russian imperial stout, and opt instead for something lighter that tastes of spring, consider reaching for a Maibock the next time you’re at your local liquor store. There’s years of tradition in the beer you’re drinking, and you won’t have to drink IPA until midsummer. That’s something we can all drink to.
Salvatore Colleluori is a political writer by day and a homebrewer and beer enthusiast by night. He holds a degree in Political Science from the George Washington University and enjoys reading about alcohol, history, and foreign relations. He is also an avid music lover, specifically jazz and the Grateful Dead.
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