Doppelbock: The Lenten Beer That’s Not Just For Lent

So what of this idea of fasting for Lent and drinking doppelbock? Jim investigates.

Before we get into this week's subject I want to hijack the TARDIS and go back in time six days. I have to confess to a can't-see-the-wood-for-the-trees moment, but my excuse is that I almost never drink wheat beers because I don't much care for most of them (Berliner Weisse and lambics being two exceptions).

I duly made some beer pancakes last Tuesday, and when it came to choosing the beer I noticed a bottle of Kona Brewing Wailua Wheat that I'd been given as a sample some time last year. Hmmm, I thought. Pancakes are made with wheat flour so a wheat beer might be a good one to use (cue lightbulb). The perfect beer for pancakes would, therefore, have to be a hefeweizen, with witbier coming in a close second. Although most of the banana and clove flavours in a hefe would probably cook out there could be a little left to enhance your pancakes, and you'd get some extra lift from the extra carbonation that hefeweizens are known for. I also added a little sugar to my batter to make up for the missing milk sugars, after I noticed that the pancakes weren't browning as well as they usually do.

I don't think I'll wait until pancake day next year to experiment with this recipe a little more.

And so to doppelbock, aka Lenten beer, aka liquid bread (and which would also be a good beer for pancakes, I'm thinking). If we're going to talk about doppelbock we'll need to get a bit of background on bockbier in general. Bock is a dark, malty lager which gets its name from a town in Lower Saxony called Einbeck where it was brewed at least as far back as the 14th century. It's a relatively strong beer, traditionally brewed to around 6% ABV, full bodied, with the merest hint of hop character, and although it's often thought of as a sweet beer it can be highly attenuated, meaning that the yeast consumes more of the sugars leaving little residual sweetness but plenty of malt character.

Bock was a lucrative export for Einbeck throughout continental Europe, Russia and even the UK, thanks to its being part of the Hanseatic League. One of its customers was Bavaria who, by the 1500s, was already building the brewing industry and culture that it's now famous for. The ruling Wittelsbach dynasty, the dukes of Bavaria who were themselves a brewing family, noticed how much money was leaving the duchy to buy beer from Einbeck and they wanted to do something to stop it. In the late 16th century Duke Wilhelm V (he founded the Munich Hofbräuhaus and his grandfather signed the Reinheitsgebot into law) had already tried brewing a bock-like beer (an early instance of the 'buy local' ethos, perhaps), but his son, Maximilian I, went one step further and recruited a brewmaster from Einbeck, Elias Pichler, around 1612 so that he could brew his own bona fide bock. The Bavarian accent of the time pronounced Einbeckbier as something like ayn-pock bier, which eventually became just bock beer, and since bock is also the German word for goat, and specifically a male goat, the animal became forever associated with the beer.

Not long afterwards an order of Italian monks, followers of St Francis of Paola, crossed the Alps and made their home at the monastery Neudegg ob der Au near Munich. They became known as the Paulaners, and like so many other orders of monks at the time they took up brewing, but only for their own use at first. Initially they didn't brew a doppelbock – that came later – but they latched onto the bock style, and by all accounts were very good at it. They brewed one particular beer, which is probably the ancestor of the doppelbock, especially for the Feast of St Francis (the founder of the order) which started on April 2nd each year and lasted for eight days, and at that time it was known as Sankt Vaterbier (Holy Father Beer).

There's confusion regarding what happened in the following century. Some sources say that in 1751 the duke gave them permission to let the public to drink Sankt Vaterbier for free during the festival; some say they were already doing it by then without permission and were admonished by the duke, while others say they were given permission to sell it at a reduced price from 1751 onwards but only during the festival, a practice which, understandably, angered local brewers and innkeepers.

Two things that most sources agree upon is that in 1780 the monastery was finally allowed to sell its beer whenever and to whomever it wanted to, and that there was much rowdiness and drunkenness around the monastery during the eight days of the feast. By now it had become much more akin to what we now know as a doppelbock and was widely known as Salvatorbier (Saviour Beer).

There's a story I've seen recounted a few times that the monks felt a little guilty about drinking such a good beer so they sent a cask to Rome for the Pope to try in the hope that he'd give them dispensation to continue brewing it. The beer didn't travel well and by the time it reached the Vatican it was in poor condition – sour and thoroughly unpleasant. The Pope decided that if the monks were drinking beer as ghastly as this it was probably good for their soul, in the same manner as wearing a hair shirt or putting stones in your shoes, so he gave it the thumbs up not knowing just how good it really was.

I don't know if I believe this. Firstly, bockbiers had by that time been exported from Einbeck for two or three hundred years, and over greater distances, which would be unlikely if the beer deteriorated so badly during transport. Secondly, being a malty beer with a relatively high ABV (it may have also been more highly hopped back then than it is today), it sounds to me like a beer that would hold its own on a prolonged journey and maybe even improve, as did another beer that we now call IPA, which made an even longer journey and through hotter climates. It's a good tale though, regardless of its veracity.

In 1792 French revolutionary armies overran Bavaria and Napoleon's policy of secularisation meant that the monastery was disbanded by 1800. Brewing ceased and the buildings were taken over by the state to be used as a field hospital and then a prison until 1806 when a commercial brewer by the name of Franz Xaver Zacherl leased it and began production again. In 1813 he acquired the brewery outright and made a pretty penny off the former monks' beer.

In the first half of the 19th century several other Bavarian and German breweries were making doppelbocks, but at that time it was still mostly known as Salvatorbier, whoever made it. Zacherl died childless in 1849 and the Paulaner brewery passed into the hands of his nephews, the Schmederer brothers, who continued to build the business. At the time Germany had no trade mark legislation, but when such a law was passed in the 1890s the Schmederers wasted no time in registering the name Salvator thus forcing all the other breweries to rename their Salvatorbiers. Several chose to keep the -ator suffix, which became a tradition and is why today there are German doppelbocks with names like Celebrator (Ayinger), Optimator (Spaten), Maximator (Augustiner Bräu) and Triumphator (Löwenbräu).

It's given a few brewers an opportunity to come up with some creative names for their doppelbock such as Boulevard Seeyoulator, as well as various Devastators, Terminators, Annihilators, Liberators and Hoperators, and if there isn't a Rejuvenator out there... well there jolly well ought to be.

In the second half of the 19th century, and in the spirit of those olden times when the local populace would go to the monastery each April to get rat-arsed on Sankt Vaterbier, the brewery began a festival every spring which came to be known as Starkbierzeit (Strong Beer Time), and although the starkbier in question, doppelbock, is strong in terms of ABV (between 7% and 12%), what stark is referring to more than alcoholic strength is the full body of the beer which has a higher quantity of solids than most others because of the amount of malt it's brewed with, which is what makes the brew so sustaining during periods of fasting.

You can still go to the Munich Starkbierfest - in fact there's one just around the corner. Not long after its beginning the festival was moved back into March and now mostly takes place roughly a week either side of St Joseph's Day, March 19th, although it's not as organised as the more well know Oktoberfest, nor as touristy – the locals like to think of it as their own festival and call it the 'fifth season'. The main Munich breweries will each hold their own festival activities at their own bier keller, the most well known being the one at the Paulaner Keller (naturally), aka the Paulaner am Nockherberg, although the Löwenbräu Keller has events this year from February 22nd until March 23rd, and the festivities have already started at the Augustiner Keller.

These days most doppelbocks can be bought year-round, praise be, but one thing I've noticed is that although there are plenty of imported German doppelbocks on the shelves of Austin beer shops, as well as helles lagers, dunkel lagers, Munich lagers, hefeweizens, oktoberfests, alts and pilsners, the only genuine German bock I can recall seeing (and not very often) is Spaten Bock. Curious.

So what of this idea of fasting for Lent and drinking doppelbock? Let's make no bones about this – although fasting is often looked upon as having healthy benefits it's not generally advisable to do it for longer than four or five days without first talking to a physician. Practices such as meatless Monday, no-food Friday or a three-day water and fruit juice detox are unlikely to hurt you if you're in reasonably good health because most of us eat more than we need to and could stand to lose a few pounds of body fat, but going longer than a week without solid food is not recommended, and indeed it probably wasn't necessary for the monks because in most western Christian denominations Sundays are not counted as part of the fasting regime, thus giving penitents an opportunity to replenish some of those minerals, vitamins and proteins that they've missed out on in the previous six days.

You might be familiar with a man called J. Wilson who put this to the test a few years ago by fasting for Lent and allowing only water and four or five 12-ounce drafts of doppelbock to pass his lips each day while chronicling the experience in his blog Diary of a Part Time Monk. He talks about the notion of eating solid food on each of the four Sundays but rejects it because the first three days of any fast are supposed to be the most difficult and he only wanted to go through that once during the project rather than four times. It's an interesting read, and I have to give him kudos for doing it while carrying on his normal family life and not taking time off from his job. I think it'd be far easier to go through with it in the cloistered surroundings of a monastery and with the daily routine of a monk.

You don't have to go to a Starkbierfest to drink doppelbock, nor do you have to go to Munich for a Starkbierfest – here's one that's been held for the past two years at The Common Table in Dallas (although I don't see anything listed in their events calendar this year) and there are others around the US.

So if doppelbock is liquid bread, and if I poured a bottle of Salvator into a blender with a few rashers of bacon and smooshed it all up together, would that be a drinkable bacon sandwich?