plants in snowA few weeks ago, a well-known and storied prognosticator delivered yet another of his dire predictions about the condition of the world as we know it.  We will be locked in a state of stagnation, he said, a period characterized by frozen assets, low averages, and very little growth. Moreover, he gauged, this predicament would continue for at least the rest of the quarter.

And once again, his prophecies have proven to be accurate, and the reactions to his words have been telling, as always, at least (and especially) here in the Mid-Atlantic region, where I live. People around these parts were disappointed but not defeated, resolved to hunker down and huddle together to ride this out. And though clearly tired and somewhat depressed by what had been forecast, they also seemed hopeful if uncertain that better days will soon arrive.

The “he” I’m speaking about, of course, is Punxsutawney Phil, the great “Seer of Seers,” whose annual seasonal soothsaying, pronounced on February 2 — “six more weeks of winter” — has come true once again. (Of course, except for the town boomers, politicos, pundits, and other punks in Punxsutawney, everyone else knows that not matter how you slice it there are always six weeks of winter between Groundhog Day and the Vernal Equinox, which occurs on March 20.) What’s worse, we are only half-way through this dark period of discontent, and judging by the unusually cold air that continues to seep in over much of the country, spring is decidedly not “just around the corner.”

I guess I don’t really care what some circus act posing as a weather report has to say about my future. I’ve decided to start spring early anyway. I’ve earmarked some upcoming lacrosse and baseball games to attend. I’ve started planning what to plant in the flowerbeds. And — and this is the best part — I’ve started buying and tasting new seasonal beers. My attitude is, who cares what the calendar says, it’s time to think (and “drink”) spring!

Seasonally speaking, the traditional spring beer is a bockbier, a style that originated in northern Germany. Because these beers were brewed and aged during the winter months, in a cold region, they developed slowly, creating a distinctively richer, maltier, and heartier quality than beers made in more temperate climes. They are also distinguished by a moderate hop bitterness, a coppery brown color, sweet (toasty, roasty caramel) flavors, and a slightly higher alcohol content (6-7%).

There are several kinds of bock beers, including hellesbock, eisbock, and weissbock, and they range widely in terms of flavor, color, and intensity. One sturdy variant, known as doppelbock, has become quite popular with brewers as a springtime offering. It sprung from the monastic tradition of brewing and the monk’s need for a beer that would provide nutrients and sustenance during the 40 days of Lent, when they were allowed no solid foods. As Garrrett Oliver writes in his essential book, The Brewmaster’s Table, a good doppelbock “smells just like a loaf of dark bread, fresh out of the oven.”

Not surprising, bock beers can be a little too hefty for some drinkers. So many breweries, especially American ones, have begun experimenting to create other types of beers to roll out this time of year — everything from piquant red ales, less malty brown ales, and sweet pale ales. The opposite can happen, too, with beermakers pulling out all the stops to create big, big brews, with an even richer, maltier mix and higher alcohol content.

Although it’s still a little early, there are a number of spring beers now on the market, with many more on the way. I picked a representative handful, both traditional and otherwise, gathered a few friends together to help sample them, and gave it a good shot to get the season underway. Here’s what we found.

Optimator, Spaten-Franziskaner-Brau. Its name may sound like the title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but there are no special effects here. This is the real thing, and with its heraldic red shield and double white spades on a bronze label, this beer symbolizes the traditional doppelbock. Optimator was the first of its kind I ever tasted, several years ago, and I always look forward to having a glassful at the table this time of year. We all enjoyed this beer. It’s smooth, with a ruddy brown color, lots of sweet caramel flavor and a dry, slightly hoppy finish. Try one and you may hear an ominous voice say, as you empty the glass, “I’ll be bock.”

Eisbock, Kulmbacher Brauerei. Details vary about the origins of the eisbock style, but the main story goes like this: A tavernkeeper discovers his last cask of bock beer has frozen but serves the contents, which have been essentially distilled, removing some of the water and intensifying the sugar and alcohol content. Not surprising, it was a big hit. And, this being my first taste of an eisbock, I can see why. It’s dark ruby in color, syrupy, sweet with a very bready bouquet, and a palpable tinge of alcohol (9.2%). My fellow tasters were split: some enjoyed the complex flavors (Matt, whose nose always knows, noted hints of cherry and other fruits), while others were turned off by the strong aftertaste. I enjoyed it, and the next time I want a good after-dinner sipper, I will think, “eis-eis, baby.”

Eisenbahn Vigarosa, Cervejaria Sudbrack, Ltda. I grabbed this bottle because the label said “unfiltered wheat doublebock” and had a cool picture of a locomotive bursting through the jungle. And it reinforced my theory — you can judge a beer by the bottle. This delicious, effervescent brew, made in Brazil, indeed has a head of steam and is bursting with flavors. We smelled everything from bubble gum and bananas (typical wheat beer aromas), to floral essence, chocolate, and even model glue, which Matt said was typical of Sauternes or dry Chardonnay. I’m not so sure about the latter flavor (my beak is weak), but I can say this wine-dark brew was satisfying.

ESB (Early Spring Beer), Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. I was really looking forward to tasting this hybrid seasonal. I had read about it here, which got the juices flowing, and I was not disappointed. According to the brewery, this ale, which pours a very lovely copper color, “combines the very best of English tradition with West Coast style.” A British bitter, which usually has a low alcohol content (5.9%) and a lot of hops bitterness, is no substitute for a bock beer. But somehow this atypical ESB works as a springtime quaff. It’s certainly sweet and malty, like its Teutonic counterparts, and offers a sour and mildly funky aroma (one reviewer said “wet dog,” and we all agreed) that would pair equally well with a slice of ham or some marshmallow Peeps.

Copperhook Spring Ale, Redhook Ale Brewery. The labeling is so understated and unassuming, with its straight-ahead lettering and earthy turquoise and brown color combo, that I almost passed this beer by as I scanned the shelves. That would have been a big mistake. Upon opening the bottle, I discovered this “liquid goodness” is anything but subdued. Bright, golden coppery in color, with mild but assertive bitterness, a medium malt base, and plenty of carbonation, the real star is the pungent and spicy citrus aroma that fills the glass, and the nose, with every sip. It’s a harbinger of spring, for sure, and I’m definitely hooked.

Shiner Bock, Spoetzl Brewery. The word “slightly” is the key with this American take on the classic Bavarian bock. As in, slightly spicy and sour; slightly malty, with a bit more toasted than sweet caramel in the flavor; slightly brisk and bready; slightly brown but almost golden in color; slightly hoppy and, thus, slightly more pilsner than bock. I found this to be an enjoyable and highly drinkable beer, certainly with much more character and body than your typical mass-market brewery’s offering. But as a bock, especially in the company of the beers we tasted, this Shiner was a bit dull.

1888 Bock, J. Leinenkugel Brewing Company. All the beers I’ve tried recently by this brewery have a cloying, overbearing fruitiness that gets in the way of enjoyment. Unfortunately, this new release, reportedly brewed from a 120-year-old family recipe, was no exception. After a few sips, the beer started to taste a little like a cross between a bottle of bock and a bag of Sour Patch Kids. And although it was dressed in dark colors and had a slightly malty sweet disposition, this beer couldn’t hide the fact that it was essentially an all-too hoppy lager in disguise.

Mardi Gras Bock, Abita Brewing Company, and Blackened Voodoo, Dixie Brewing Company. I threw in these two from “Loosiana” in honor of the Big Hangover that’s overtaking the Big Easy right about now. Mardi Gras is the unofficial tailgate party for springtime, so it seemed appropriate to include Abita’s contribution, which has lots of libido and allure, both in the glass and on the tongue. There’s a musky, malty quality to it that’s familiar and a sweet, orangeish aftertaste that sets it apart. Its kinsman, Blackened Voodoo, is a dark lager along the lines of an old-world German dunkel beer. But there’s a subtle spiciness to it that’s unique — and by “spicy” I don’t mean Christmasy cinnamon or nutmeg, but zesty and biting, like Cajun seasoning. Combine either beer with jambalaya or a po’ boy sandwich, and it will have you shouting, “laissez les bon temps rouler!”

So, there you have it, a few suggestions for a welcome, warming treat at the end of a cold day, near the end of a cold season. At the very least, drinking a spring beer can revive the spirits, chase away dark thoughts about the groundhog (and his groundless reportage), and rekindle your hope for the fair weather that lies ahead.

And for those of you about to give up drinking beer for Lent: take a cue from the wise old men in the monasteries and dump something less valuable, like bread. Eat your ham and Swiss with a fork, and get your dose of grainy nutrients from a glass of yeasty, malty, fresh-baked bock beer instead.

As always, leave a comment and tell me what you think of my selections. There will be quite a few spring beers out this year, so tell me what I missed. Cheers!

Originally posted on February 24, 2009.

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