German lager has a reputation for being a little on the rote and plain side—easygoing beers made for pouring into a liter maß and downed without too much thought.
That stereotype has a kernel of truth to it—great German lagers do go down easily—but the whole story, like the beers themselves, is far more complex. It’s a complicated task to make something simple and make it well, and few beer styles exemplify that phenomenon better than the pale bock (or heller bock).
This is a relatively strong lager (typically 6 to 7.5 percent ABV) with a clean yet complex and flavorful malt backbone, often featuring more hop character than you’d expect. It’s also a fantastic and crowd-pleasing addition to your brewing repertoire.
For some advice on how to brew a great one, we caught up with one of the best-regarded traditional lager brewers in Franconia: Stefan Zehendner, owner and third-generation brewer at Brauerei Zehendner, producer of the Mönchsambacher beers.
Notes from the Pro
This brewery has been in the village of Mönchsambach since 1808 and in the Zehendner family since 1938. While locally popular among aficionados, the brewery also enjoys a strong following among lager enthusiasts abroad. The Mönchsambacher thumbprint includes ample, bright malt flavor, well attenuated and balanced by a bit more bitterness and hop flavor than you might expect. (Our managing editor Joe Stange describes the beers like this: “deep burnished gold, with a fresh-sweet-malt center that can stand up to its ample bitterness, topped with typically lush white foam that stays through the end of the glass, leaving stripes of lace all the way down to mark each gulp you’ve taken.”)
Mönchsambacher produces two bocks, both pale and both seasonal: the Maibock at the end of April, and the Weihnachts-Bock (literally, Christmas Bock) in December. Zehendner says the starting gravities range from 17.5° to 17.9°P (or 1.072 to 1.074)—with only locally malted pilsner from Bamberger Mälzerei, no specialty malts—aiming to finish around 3.5°P (1.014).
The mash schedule begins with a rest at 113°F (45°C) before a saccharification step; a later step brings it to 161°F (72°C), when a third of the mash is separated for a single decoction. Zehendner says this decoction provides more body and color without adding too strong a flavor. The long boil of 115 minutes also further develops deeper color, flavor, and body. Another contribution to the soft, full mouthfeel is the “well-integrated CO2,” he says, which comes from at least 12 weeks of lagering. The beers are unfiltered and unpasteurized.
“For me,” Zehendner says, “a well-balanced heller bock is when the balance between sweetness and hop bitterness is right, and it is easy to keep drinking. We accomplish this in our bock by using only pilsner malt, striving for low residual sweetness, and adding a lot of aroma hops.”
Translation and Application
As a traditional brewery in Upper Franconia embracing some relatively less-modified malts, Zehendner leans more into process than I do at home. Yet we have the same goal in mind: a bock that shows off malt character while also adding complementary hop flavors and evident bitterness on the palate.
This is a pale beer but not a light one, and at these strengths, the alcohol will add some warming properties as well as subtle spice-and-perfume flavors that accentuate the malt and hops. Attenuation is key because too much residual sugar both impacts the flavor and makes the beer less digestible—and the goal here is a dangerous kind of drinkability. Likewise, long conditioning in the tank or package helps the flavors to harmonize—though Zehendner doubles my own lagering period of six weeks!
Regarding that mash step at 113°F (45°C): It might be viewed as a protein rest or a beta-glucan rest; it’s also at the upper end of the acid-rest zone. This is widely viewed as old-fashioned these days, but it’s noteworthy that Zehendner prefers the relatively less modified malt he gets from nearby Bamberger Mälzerei—and that he likes the fermentability and foam he gets when combining those malts with that lower rest as well as decoction. Meanwhile, he views modern, more highly modified malts—ready-made for infusions—as overly processed for what he wants to achieve.
As brewers, we have a choice here: Some pros report positive results—for example, with foam stability—when they try a protein rest using some German base malts, while many others (even in Germany) find it superfluous. Depending on the malt you’re getting, it’s almost certainly unnecessary—but if you want to try it, go for it. The difference may be negligible, but who knows? It could be what takes your bock to the next level.
Then we have the decoction. This, too, should be considered in the context of Zehendner’s malt. Even a single decoction will turn up the biscuit, grain, and melanoidin flavors in your beer in a way that you’ll find beneficial if you’re relying, as Zehendner does, on 100 percent pilsner malt.
My homebrewed bock diverges here—my recipe uses a blend of pilsner, Munich, and Maris Otter; I want those grainy, lightly toasty malt flavors without a wholesale change to my brewing process. I have no problem believing that a decoction has the potential to outperform that shortcut—but since I’ve always been looking to make the best beer for the least effort, I tend to avoid decoctions and use whatever means are at my disposal.
However: This is certainly a style that’s likely to benefit from decoction, and if you’ve never tried it, this beer is the perfect place to start. (For more on the technique, see “Why Decoction Matters,” beerandbrewing.com.)
Lastly, on hops: Zehendner says he adds a lot of aroma varieties, and there’s no question that they can support this style. You may not notice the hops as much if you’re used to imported bottles, but fresh heller bock in Germany tends to have some significant floral and sweet-herbal notes—and Mönchsambacher has more than most. In my bock, I get there using Mt. Hood, but classic German varieties such as Hallertau Mittelfrüh, Tettnanger, and even Perle make great choices. Adding them late in the boil or even in the whirlpool adds an outstanding flourish to this style.
You can’t go wrong with a great German bock, and making them fresh, for yourself, is often an education in both practice and enjoyment. There are few styles that make this big an impact with so few ingredients. Especially when approached patiently, it produces a strong lager with surprising complexity. Pale beers in this ABV range aren’t often found outside the IPA categories, but once you try one of these for yourself, I think you’ll end up adding it to your regular rotation.