By Michael Dawson
Illustrations by Phil Juliano
Citizens: I submit to you that, as residents of the Upper Midwest, are arguably better able to appreciate a good Maibock than anyone outside Germany.
Germany, from whence this blonde scion of the lager family hails, sits at a similar latitude; like here, the sun rises late and sets early during the winter, the long hours of dark are compounded by cold temps and bleak skies for months on end, and the season lasts a long-ass time. Before Seasonal Effective Disorder had a name, before vitamin D supplements and trips to Puerta Vallarta, there was Maibock.
To be fair, Maibock is actually the youngster of the Bock family; what we now call Traditional (aka dunkel or dark) Bock has a pedigree stretching back many hundred years at least to the days of the Hanseatic League, while paler Maibock (which you’ll also find year-round under the name under the name helles or blonde bock) had to wait for the advent of Pils malt in the mid-1800s to be born.
But whatever the color, the idea of a beer built to welcome the spring is good one. Maibock—a helles bock timed to coincide with the end of winter—is brewed with a sunny color and relatively forward hop presence in anticipation of milder, greener days, but with a strong beer’s alcoholic fortitude out of respect for a climate where the average last frost can fall pretty close to Memorial Day. And, since I posit that we sons and daughters of the northland are so uniquely equipped—and, honestly, probably more in need of—a good half-liter of cheering the hell up at this time of year, let’s get after some homebrewed Maibock.
Going By The Numbers
In Germany, you can’t call a beer a Bock unless the original gravity is at least 1.064—that’s the basement for Maibock, with the upper end of the range grazing Doppelbock status at 1.072. After a cool lager fermentation, this will yield a cabin fever-alleviating ABV of between 6.3 to 7.4%. This is a pale bock, but in a family of mahogany-colored beers “pale” is relative—these lagers pour from a deep gold 6 SRM to a pale amber, almost Oktoberfest-y 11 SRM. And this is a hoppy bock—again, very relative when talking about such a malty genre- with 23 to 35 IBU, so we can expect a bitterness level that falls just on either side of balanced.
What Makes It Tick
An analogy I’ve come across explains traditional Dunkel Bocks as an overgrown Munich Dunkel (the everyday dark lager of Bavaria) brewed to Bock strength, while Maibock is a Munich Helles (that city’s everyday blonde lager) that’s had the same thing done to it. In fact, as a side project on brew day you could get some Munich Helles—say, Paulaner Munich Lager or the like—and do some primary research.
While traditional bock and Munich Dunkel are built from a tower of Munich malt, the base for Maibock and its little sister Helles is the much paler, more delicate Pils malt. Instead of amber-to-brown and melanoidin rich, the wort and beer will be golden and flowery, crisp and perhaps with a youthful tang of sulfur. Some of the darker iterations of Maibock use part or all Vienna malt, which is still paler than Munich but darker than Pils—orange instead of gold, toasty instead of flowery/sulfury overtones, a bit more rich than crisp. As homebrewers, we have the luxury of being able to use premium imported malts without adding that much to the overall cost of our batch—and there’s no substitute for the character a good German malt gives this style (I especially like Best Pils and any of the floor-malted offerings from Weyermann); having said that, there are many good domestic options these days—Rahr Pils is great, or check out Briess’s limited-release GoldPils if you can find it.
Because it’s a pale, high-gravity lager, homebrewed Maibock needs a healthy dose of good hops to keep it from becoming flabby and bland. Just as with stout and porter, where dark malts can work to increase perception of bitterness even in low-hopped beers, darker traditional bocks can get by with less in the way of a hop load by virtue of their melanoidins. Naturally, German hops are traditional—love me some Hallertau!—but many of the American-bred descendents of varieties like Hallertau and Saaz will perform very well here.
And, as mentioned, it’s a lager—the great white whale for many homebrewers. A Bavarian-style lager strain is the Platonic ideal here, and in my experience, will give the most authentic-tasting end result… which requires at the very least a really cold basement, or better yet a fridge with an external overriding thermostat. Having said that, there are many workarounds the differently-temperatured can use: a high-temp California “steam” style lager yeast, cheating the temp range with a tolerant lager yeast like Wyeast 2124 Bohemian, or fermenting with a neutral-tasting ale strain.
A Recipe To Try
Let’s get a homebrewed Maibock in the glass by May, citizens. We’ll get it done together. First, your shopping list—you’ll notice with the first bullet point it’s choose your own adventure time if you’re an all-grain brewer: Pils or Vienna? Extract brewers should spring for about 9 to 9.5 pounds of Pilsner malt syrup or dried malt extract. Even in a pale German lager, little bit of Munich malt will add some texture and three-dimensionality to the malt profile. Sterling is a decidedly American hop, a new-generation cultivar with both Saaz and Cascade in its background—I get candied citrus peel and strong spice from it, and I love it for beers like this. Feel free to substitute something more Old World like Hallertau, Saaz, or Tradition—just adjust the amount for the lower alpha acid content in those varieties.
Sterling Pounder Maibock
Target OG: 1.067 • Target IBU: 30
• 11 lbs of your choice of either Pils or Vienna malt (or a 50/50 mix!)—Pils will make for a deep gold Maibock, Vienna will come out pale amber.
• 1 lb. German Munich malt
1 lb. Weyermann CaraHell malt*
• 2 oz. Sterling hops
• Your choice of Bavarian-style (or neutral ale) yeast—I’m using Wyeast 2206 Bavarian Lager
Key Points For Key Pints
• Malty isn’t the same as sweet! “Malty” is a description of the bready, toasty, doughy flavors of grain, so in that sense it’s the opposite of hoppy; but though we want those malt flavors we don’t want our nice Maibock to be syrupy, sugary, sickly sweet—we’ll balance the maltiness with good attenuation through mash temp and yeast health.
• In all things balance! Even though this is hoppy for a Bavarian lager; that doesn’t make it an IPA. Our target IBU of right around 30 will just even out the scales.
• This is not your grandpa’s lagering schedule. Warming basement temps at this time of year plus the desire to drink by May puts the hurt on a traditional aging regimen. We can work with that. Choose a lager strain that won’t throw a lot of sulfur, add a diacetyl rest at the end of primary fermentation by letting the temp come up to about 60F for a few days, then lager for a shorter time at higher temp (say, 40s instead of 30s), and don’t be afraid to hit it with finings.
• Ale yeast workaround! If you don’t feel like going full monty with a lager yeast, try a neutral or malty ale strain (1007 German Ale or 1056 American Ale would be good here) and keep fermentation cool—as close to 60F as you can manage.
To The Homebrewery!
Note: these steps are general guidelines and assume you’re already familiar with the all-grain brewing process. Refer to the instructions for your brew system, and adjust as needed based on experience with your own particular equipment.
1. Make a yeast starter prior to brew day—this is a big beer and will need lots of yeast!
2. On brew day, collect strike water (I use 1.3 quarts per pound, YMMV) and heat to approx. 165°F.
3. Mill the grains, or have it done for you at the shop
Mash & Sparge
1. Add all grains to strike water and mix to achieve a uniform temperature of 151-153°F. Rest the mash at this temperature for 60—90 minutes.
2. While the mash rests, collect and heat sparge water.
3. When the mash rest is complete, heat it to 170°F for mashout.
4. Sparge and collect the wort in the boil kettle.
1. Bring the wort to a boil and shake your fist at the gray sky. Add 1 oz Sterling hops when the wort begins to boil, and boil for 60 minutes.
2. Add 1 oz of Sterling 15 minutes before the end of the boil.
3. Cool it!
Fermentation and Beyond
1. Transfer the cooled wort to a sanitized fermenter, aerate well, and pitch yeast.
2. Depending on the yeast strain being used, aim for a maximum fermentation temp in the low to mid 50s°F. When fermentation activity begins to slow, allow the fermenter to warm up to approx. 60°F for a 2-3 day diacetyl rest. Depending on yeast and temp, this step should be completed in about 10-14 days.
3. Rack to a secondary fermenter and crash cool to lagering temps—no time to be delicate. Lager for 3-4 weeks (or longer, if time allows) and use a fining like gelatin or Biofine as needed prior to packaging.
4. Using a fermentation regimen like this one (which are gaining traction with American craft breweries for their lagers) we can have a Maibock carbonated and ready for patio season; given its ABV, this beer will keep well for many months in a cool, dark place.
Until next time: drink it like you brewed it.
* In the print edition, 1lb. Weyermann CaraHell was mistakenly listed under the hops section. CaraHell is a malt.