By Stephen Beaumont
Growing up in Montréal in the 1970s, I quite vividly recall a springtime ritual in which my father would annually engage. Right around the time winter showed the first signs of relenting in its grip upon the city, my dad would hop in the car and head across the Ontario border to Cornwall, in search of cheaper gas and mini-kegs of bock beer.
If that surprises you, well, it shouldn’t. Back in the days when Ontario was served by all of five or six breweries, spring bock was a revered tradition and its release much-anticipated. Each of the three national breweries – remember Carling O’Keefe? – made a seasonal bock, as did Formosa Springs. As the beers of Northern Breweries were at the time sold only in the north, I cannot be sure they joined in the fun, and neither am I certain that Henninger, which bought a brewery in Hamilton in 1973, participated, although given that it was a Germany-based company, that would seem logical.
When Brick Brewing – now Waterloo Brewing – joined the Ontario beer market in 1984, their first seasonal release was a bock. Upper Canada Brewing’s first or second seasonal was one, too.
Nowadays, of course, bocks are as rare as hen’s teeth in Ontario, and indeed, throughout much of Canada. A search of ‘bock’ in the LCBO’s database reveals all of nine results, exactly one of which is Ontario-brewed, although we are admittedly a fair distance from springtime. British Columbia’s Liquor Stores site is even more dire, with one BC beer among the three bocks listed. In a true testament to how dire things have become, the winning bock from this year’s Canadian Brewing Awards is identified as a “Seasonal Strong Ale” – true bocks are lagers – and doesn’t make it to the Archive section of the brewery’s website.
Why people no longer wish to drink bocks is a mystery. Is it because of the generally dark colour? Because it’s a lager rather than an ale? Because it’s not an IPA? Because brewers don’t want to devote the tank space necessary to their lengthy conditioning period?
None of those make sense to me, since dark beers no longer carry the stigma they once did and lagers seem to be in growth mode these days. Nope, fellow beer drinkers, I fear the fault lies solely at our feet. As a brewer from Cincinnati once told me, that city’s yearly Bockfest is a great week during which everyone drinks bock, until it ends, and nobody drinks bock.
But there is a lot about bock to love! It comes in strong and stronger and strongest versions; it is malty and lovely without being thick and heavy; it can be dark with rich toffee flavours or golden with a more honey-ish predisposition; and it is the perfect beer style for early spring drinking.
It is time, nay, well past time that we rise up and politely request – hell, we’re Canadians, not savages! – that brewers bring back our spring bock tradition. And while they’re at it, we could use a märzen or five around October, and maybe few more year-round brown ales, as well. And perhaps a few other severely underproduced and underappreciated styles, too, like proper oatmeal stout, mild ale and English style IPA.
And if you’re thinking, “Why bother, bock beer is a relic and who cares?”, then I have a suggestion for you. Imagine that we’re at the tail end of winter rather than its start, with that first glimmer of warmth in the sun and the receding of the snow banks well underway. Wouldn’t a strong-but-not-insanely-strong beer go down a treat, especially one without the sugary malt of many a strong ale or the over-hopping of many double IPAs?
I’m pretty certain it would, and will. Now let’s make it happen!