Back in late 20th-century Ontario, along with buds on the trees and robins in the garden, one sure sign of spring was the arrival of bock beers. Every brewery had one, from the nationals to regional players like Formosa Brewing and, eventually, the new microbreweries. Then, sometime around the mid-1990s, they disappeared.
This year, however, bocks are back – and not just in Ontario. It seems the collective consciousness has shifted, and these strong, malt-forward lagers are now reappearing with surprising regularity.
Latest to the provincial market are Toronto’s Muddy York Brewing and Great Lakes Brewery, but bocks have also been spotted at Niagara’s Blackburn Brewhouse, Ottawa’s Tooth & Nail Brewing and across the country at Love Shack Libations in British Columbia and Born Colorado Brewing in Alberta, among many others.
For Muddy York co-owner and brewer Jeff Manol, his MY Bock – a play on the brewery’s initials and the maibock style of beer – is a way to cut through the IPA madness currently defining Canadian craft beer.
“This is our third year of brewing [MY Bock] and it’s always been a big hit for us,” Manol says. “I mean, there are a lot of breweries making great IPAs, so why just chase that market?”
While many stories surround the naming of the bock beer family – whose members include maibock (May bock) and doppelbock (double bock) – the most credible has the style originating in the northern German town of Einbeck and being fermented to elevated strength for export to the lucrative Munich market. Over time, the phrase Einbeck bier mutated into ein bock bier and the name stuck.
Bock might also be the ultimate beer for a Canadian spring, combining as it does the sunshine-friendly quaffability of a well-matured lager with warming strength for cooler times. Generally lighter and paler maibocks suit our more summery days, while stronger and richer doppelbocks provide comfort during those inevitably chilly nights, with regular bocks falling somewhere in between.
Another beer seemingly designed for this transitional season is the native style of Cologne, Germany, known as Kolsch – often appearing here as “lagered ale” in deference to the name’s EU-protected status. As the latter name suggests, this is a beer fermented with an ale yeast at warm temperatures, but given a long and cold conditioning, as one would ordinarily treat a lager. The resulting golden hybrid beer is as refreshing as a Pilsner, but with the elevated body and light fruitiness you’d expect of an ale.
The North American equivalent of a Kolsch is the cream ale – of indeterminate origin but almost certainly first popularized in the American northeast by established ale breweries seeking to compete with the surging, late 19th-century popularity of the golden lagers produced by German immigrant brewers. Typically somewhat fuller-bodied than their Cologne cousins, these too are fermented as ales and conditioned cold, sometimes including corn alongside barley malt among their ingredients.
And once the hot weather arrives for good, there is nothing quite as refreshing as a properly brewed Pilsner, known in its native Czech Republic as Svetly Lezak.
-brewed examples of this immaculately crisp, dry, lightly floral and appetizingly bitter lager seem to abound these days, including from Toronto’s Godspeed Brewery, Lighthouse Brewing in Victoria, and Les Brasseurs du Petit-Sault in Edmundston, N.B. – but those new to the style might want to first try the original, Pilsner Urquell, or its Czech neighbour, Czechvar.
Muddy York MY Bock
This coppery-orange maibock has orange toffee, dry caramel and a suggestion of baking spices on the nose. Its lengthy cold conditioning allows the malt to shine on the palate – resulting in a beer that is sweet but never cloying, and wonderfully toffee-ish, with a smooth and warming, faintly spicy finish.
7%; $3.10/355 ml, available only through the brewery, with Ontario-wide delivery
Tooth & Nail Invigorator Doppelbock
This rich brown brew offers mocha, toasted grain and a hint of anise on the nose, with a full body holding notes of dark and milk chocolate, allspice and cinnamon, and traces of black licorice. The finish is off-dry, warming and supremely satisfying.
7.5%; $3.50/355 ml, available only through the brewery, with Ontario-wide delivery
Blackburn Brewhouse General Bock
Amber in colour, this is a tribute to the beauty of malt, with a bit of roastiness complementing a full, floral toffee aroma and a sweet-ish, purely malt-driven flavour that combines orange zest with more toffee and hints of spice. Certainly among the province’s best-ever bocks.
7%; $3.50/473 ml, available only through the brewery, with delivery in the Niagara region
Beau’s Lug Tread Lagered Ale
The beer that popularized the “lagered ale” nomenclature in Canada is bright gold in colour with a soft fruitiness on the nose – apricot with hints of orange – and a slightly rounded, but still crisp and quenching palate that ends in a gentle bitterness. Alternately soothing and refreshing.
5.2%; $3.35/473 ml in Ontario; $3.50-$3.75 elsewhere; unavailable in Atlantic Canada
Tool Shed People Skills
Although billed as a patio-style ale, there is little question that this is in fact a cream ale, from its lightly fruity, cereal-grain aroma holding notes of peach and fresh orange zest, to the round but quenching body. A dry and very lightly spicy finish confirms its refreshing and decidedly patio-friendly character.
5.2%; around $3.08/473 ml in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba; available as part of the Tool Box mixed pack in B.C.
The original Pilsner – meaning brewed in Pilsen (or Plzen) in the Czech Republic – this medium-gold lager boasts a wonderfully floral aroma thanks to its signature Czech Saaz hops, and just a hint of buttery malt in an otherwise dry and moderately bitter body that finishes bone-dry and pleasingly grassy. A legend for good reason.
4.4%; $3.15/500 ml in Ontario; $2.19 in BC; $3.69-$4.38 in Atlantic Canada except for PEI
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