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Style School: The Hallowed Comforts of Doppelbock

Monkish hospitality and devotion gave way to modern commercialism over a few centuries, but this Bavarian product that evolved along the way still has the power to nourish and amaze.

Jeff Alworth Apr 21, 2021 - 9 min read

Style School: The Hallowed Comforts of Doppelbock Primary Image

Photos: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

In a time before strong beers were common, people must have regarded doppelbocks with awe. They were unusual, and not just for their strength—dark and forbidding, with intense layers of malt, a perfume of leather and chocolate, and the warming tickle they delivered with each swallow. Standard bocks were potent potions, and doppelbocks—double bocks—were mightier still. They were extreme beers before extreme beers were cool.

The story of any beer this strong promises to be a good one, and doppelbocks deliver. Yet there are twists and turns that make it an especially satisfying yarn. Unexpectedly, they aren’t related at all to regular bocks, which were originally a specialty of the Hanseatic city of Einbeck before migrating and being reinvented as Bavarian lagers in the early 17th century. Dopplebocks have a more divinely inspired provenance, and they existed for centuries bearing a different name. Their story solves a curious riddle, and along the way it touches on brewing technique, religious devotion, and the grubby hand of commerce.

Sankt Vaterbier

Doppelbocks trace their roots to Munich, or thereabouts. Their story begins with a flock of monks who moved from Italy to a cloister in the village of Au, which was then outside Munich. In 1651, they built a brewery—a common practice at monasteries across Europe. They presumably brewed ordinary beers as part of their regular activities, but it was a special beer for which they are now remembered. Once a year, they brewed a strange, heavy concoction for a Lenten celebration—the Feast of St. Francis of Paola, honoring the founder of their order (the Minims).

The beer took its name from the celebration: Sankt Vaterbier, or Saint Father beer. The event became popular with the general public, who turned it into a celebration large enough to be compared, by one 19th-century observer, to a world’s fair. The center of their affection seemed less the Holy Father and more the beer. Eventually the name morphed into the simpler Salvator (or “Savior” in Latin, retaining an ecclesiastical resonance). Other breweries, of course, saw the commercial prospect in Salvator, and soon many were making their own versions. Over time, Salvator became a generic style designation, like bock or helles.

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We often associate doppelbocks with Lent, attaching a story that has all the hallmarks of one of those beery “romantic facts.” Pious monks, according to the hoary tale, survived Lent on liquid fasts of nothing more than water and hearty lager. It’s one of those amusing bits of history that’s too good to check, but it doesn’t pass the smell test if you sniff at it for long. Why would fasting monks be swilling 8 percent beer? They’d be drunk by Lauds. It doesn’t seem very ascetic.

Remarkably, it’s probably true—or parts of it, anyway. Looking back at these beers, a key fact emerges: They weren’t actually that boozy. That prolific researcher of historical styles, Ron Pattinson, dug into these beers and found records for a number of 19th-century, commercially available Salvators. Thanks to those records, we can square the circle: The beers were brewed to very high gravities—but they were seriously underattenuated, by modern standards. Of the couple dozen he identified, most had attenuations just above or below 50 percent. They brewed an 1853 Salvator, for example, to 19.5°P (OG 1.081)—but it finished at about 11°P (1.044), leaving it a bit less than 5 percent ABV.

Now it all makes more sense: With all that unfermented malt, Salvator was like a meal in itself—but one that a monk could imbibe without getting too foggy. Liquid bread, indeed.

Salvator, and the Trademark

The story takes a turn in 1799, however, when Bavarian rulers sympathetic to Napoleonic France abolished and secularized the monastery—and with it went the brewery. About seven years later, however, a man named Franz Xaver Zacherl began renting and later bought the monks’ brewery and, at some point, began brewing Salvator again. The 1853 sample referenced above was, in fact, the one made by his brewery at that time.

Zacherl died in 1849, apparently unconcerned about other brewers calling their beer Salvator, too. For something approaching two centuries, the monks and Zacherl had no known objections to seeing other breweries re-create their prized Lenten specialty.

Zacherl’s descendants had other ideas. In 1886, owners reorganized the company under the name more familiar to contemporary drinkers: Paulaner. It recalled the monastic lineage of the friars who came to Au, but it followed a more commercial tack. The company filed a trademark application for the name Salvator and—much to the consternation of brewers who had been making the style for decades—received it. All the other Munich breweries were forced to change the name. That’s why there’s only one beer called Salvator today.

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That’s also how the style came to be called “doppelbock.” The courts could order breweries to quit calling their beers Salvator, but they couldn’t stop them from brewing them. Paulaner’s rivals didn’t let the matter go; instead, they chose names that ended in “ator” to recall Salvator. Thus were born Spaten Optimator, Ayinger Celebrator, Augustiner Maximator, Löwenbräu Triumphator, and so on. Their retaliation had the effect of diminishing the salience of Salvator, which now just sounds like all the other “ator”-ending strong lagers. Paulaner owned the Salvator name, but now all these beers are called doppelbock.

Modern Lagers

Brewers eventually turned doppelbocks into the strong beers we know today, maintaining the starting gravities while pushing the fermentation toward modern standards. Beyond that, however, they have resisted the whims of fashion more robustly than some styles.

By convention, they are usually dark, deep copper to black—though nothing prevents paler interpretations (and there are a few examples of heller doppelbock in Germany). Tip a glass to reveal a shallow edge, and you often see ruby highlights glimmering in the limpid liquid—a brightness achieved through months of lagering. I liken doppelbocks to a powerful car in which the power is felt through a deep purr. With doppelbocks, the alcohol is sensed more than tasted. Instead, what comes through are layers of malt flavors, from toast and bread to chocolate, licorice, and treacle. Many have a hint of roast for balance.

In the United States, modern interpretations hew fairly closely to the Bavarian originals—with a few exceptions. Madison, Wisconsin’s Capital Brewery likes the style so well it does three versions, including the much-lauded Autumnal Fire. Yet they also offer one of the rare pale versions for March release. Pittsburgh’s Penn Brewery, another first-gen craft brewery specializing in lagers, brews the muscular 9 percent-ABV St. Nikolaus Bock Brewers’ Reserve for those who feel 8 percent isn’t quite enough octane.

It’s worth noting that even for a style with relatively narrow parameters and few deviations, one of the most famous examples of all, Ayinger Celebrator, is just 6.7 percent ABV, despite tasting every bit the equal of its contemporaries.

Few beer styles have the capacity to awe modern audiences. We’ve seen too much. And doppelbocks, with their smooth lines and familiar elements, are far from exotic in a world with milkshake IPAs and mixed-fermentation saisons. They nevertheless deserve your regular attention. Few beers warm on winter nights as elegantly and moreishly as doppelbocks. And for those who know, few beers offer a richer lineage filled with more interest than the old Salvators from Au. In that you may yet find some wonder.

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