For reasons I can’t fully explain, I love brewing bocks. It might be because when people (me included, once upon a time) think of lager, they think that there’s only pale and Pilsners. Then you learn about Oktoberfest and Schwarzbier and Munich Dunkel. And before you know it, you’re learning about all kinds of odd lagers with odd names, including one that seems to have something to do with goats—and thus we discover bocks. While doppelbocks might get more attention and Helles bocks (or Maibocks) might be seasonal offerings that you tend to notice popping up on beer lists in the spring, that “middle child” in the bock family—the traditional bock (or Dunkles Bock)—is also worth your time and attention. It doesn’t have the same kind of PR team that the others do, but when you get tired of the nonstop onslaught of coriander and orange peel and wheat in the spring seasonals, you’re going to be very glad you have this dry, malty strong lager in the refrigerator.
Traditional bock is best thought of as a kind of “strong Marzen.” It mirrors a lot of the same flavor characteristics: richly malty, plenty of toasty melanoidin-derived flavor, bitterness to balance, and a dry finish. However, this beer typically checks in between 6 and 7 percent ABV, where the Marzen hovers around 5 percent. This does more than create alcohol heat—it also adds alcohol sweetness, and a common fault that I’ve noted in competition is that too many bocks are under-balanced by bittering. Interestingly enough, I’ve also tried a version of this recipe with no hops and instead balanced sweetness with lighter chocolate malt roast, but it’s a much harder target to hit, and I don’t really recommend trying it! We’ll stick with hops here and shoot for a strong, warm, malty, dry, medium-brown lager.
Your war on sweetness will start in the grist. A two-to-one ratio of Munich to Maris Otter will start you off on the right track. I avoid Pilsner malt in beers where sweetness is a concern (unless I know I’m going to hammer it with bittering hops) because of a honey flavor in Pils malt that can come across as sweet. Here, we want rich and bready, and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of Munich and 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of Maris are great base grains for that. To increase malt complexity but avoid sweetness, I recommend half a pound (227 g) each of Caramunich and Briess Special Roast (130L) and a quarter pound (113 g) of Cara Rye. These will add melanoidins, toast, and a malt flavor that stops just short of “roasty” in flavor (but still adds a roasty dryness), and combined with your base grains, you should land at an OG of about 1.076. That’s high within the style, and it’s pretty dark, but when people claim it’s too much like a Doppelbock, just point out that it’s dry. And it will be (at least, it will be if you ferment it out fully, but one thing at a time).
Hops are easy here: 30 IBUs of anything, added at the start of the boil. Again, that’s high, but it helps ensure that there’s not excess sweetness. If you think it’s too bitter, you can always just wait it out and hold off until the IBUs drop out of the beer!
Yeast choice here is easy, too: Wyeast 2206 (Bavarian Lager) is perfect for this beer. It attenuates well (up to 77 percent) but doesn’t have the same “crisp” lager character that we get from the 2124 (Bohemian Lager). We don’t want that here—we want malty, and the 2206 delivers. It does have one commonly cited weakness, but we’ll deal with that next.
If there’s one thing you want to avoid here, it’s diacetyl. This is a lager, so esters are a no-no, but I’ve actually had estery versions of bock and, believe it or not, they hide out pretty well under all that malt complexity. Diacetyl, though, is a killer—it will make your beer seem slick and sweet, which is the antithesis of what we’re shooting for. One downside of 2206 is that it’s oddly prone to diacetyl, but that’s nothing to worry about if we take appropriate precautions: time and temperature.
Start your fermentation low. I mean, like, really low. Alarmingly low—45°F (7°C) low. Don’t worry if it takes a while to get fermentation rolling (up to 48 hours), but the colder you start this one, the better off you’ll be, so chill your wort, refrigerate it to below 50°F (10°C), and then pitch and take it the rest of the way down, if you’re not there already. Once fermentation starts, wait 4–5 days and then start slowly raising the temperature by a degree or two per day, until you hit 60°F (15°C). If that seems high, it’s because it is—we want to ensure a thorough cleanup of any and all diacetyl and precursors. Once you’re at 60°F (15°C), wait until activity in the airlock stops, and then yank the beer and leave it at room temperature for 2 weeks before crashing the temperature to near-freezing for packaging (2.25 volumes of CO2 is fine here, but you can go up to 2.5 if you like a little more mouth-filling carbonation). Time and temperature. Don’t rush, stay cool, and finish warm, and you’ll get an excellent strong and dry lager.
Great bocks are almost as much fun to smell as they are to drink. Luxuriate in the richness of the malts, which have no real competition in the recipe. This is a grist showcase. Enjoy it! And take your time drinking it as well as making it. Bock will keep, so wait at least 6 weeks before drinking your first, and if you store it in a cold and dark refrigerator, you can enjoy it for a year or more.