The spring tends to be one of the beer industry’s less celebrated times. With the focus squarely on the quantity-over-quality twin holidays of St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, the character of the beers sold takes a back seat to chasing big sales targets. Overshadowed by these commercial giants, the craft beer industry has been slow to try and retake the holiday.
Throughout history, brewers have looked upon the spring as a largely functional time. In the early days of commercial brewing, in the absence of refrigeration, spring served as a final opportunity to produce a few more batches to last through the warmer summer months, when brewing operations had to cease. Moving into a more modern era, the start of spring saw the release of bocks and maibocks or blonde bocks, hearty and malt-forward lagers that help welcome the coming of warmth throughout Germany.
THE NEW WORLD OF MAIBOCK
One of the noblest and most under-represented lager styles, maibock is a spring seasonal that epitomizes sweet, soulful malt goodness. The light-colored maibocks perhaps have more in common with lighter lager styles, such as helles, than it does with its bock brethren. Popular with drinkers at spring festivals in Germany, the style is assertive both in terms of malt flavor and a noticeable hop underpinning, with continental malt aroma and notes giving way to a judicious noble hop balance. Occasionally referred to as heller or pale bock, the style is mild straw to glorious golden in color with a sweet, bready malt aroma. Maibocks are usually medium to full-bodied, with prominent malt flavors and a noticeable noble hop presence, and a robust but not overpowering alcohol level. The beauty of maibock is in the balance of these challenging elements, a feat it manages with grace, resulting in a highly drinkable final product.
Victory Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 7.3% ABV
One of the great American seasonal beers, St. Boisterous is an aptly named spring charmer. With its light pale yellow color and robust off-white head, you would be forgiven for mistaking this strong lager from Victory for a delicate pilsener beer. Instead, the aroma propounds the beauty of malt, with prodigious Munich sweetness, clean toasted expressions and a surprisingly exuberant alcohol note. After the strong malt flavor, the body is surprisingly even keeled, with lighter flavor representations of each of the aromatics, along with a zesty, noble hop balance that makes St. Boisterous among the most dangerously drinkable big beers you’ll ever come across.
Abita Brewing Company
Abita Springs, Louisiana
Alcohol Content 8.O% ABV
With a big, brilliant, and bright golden yellow color, and a beautifully frothy white head, Andygator’s aroma is loaded with Munich malt, bready but not toasted in nature, with a slight sulfur vegetal hint alongside mildly grassy notes. The flavor combines a doughy and yeasty character with clean Munich malt expressions, and a mild yet complex layer of booziness, resulting in a clean natured strong maibock.
Berkshire Brewing Company
South Deerfield, Massachusetts
Alcohol Content 6.5% ABV
A local favorite, this full-flavored beer in the familiar 22 ounce bottle always finds a place in my fridge every spring. This central Massachusetts brewery produces some of the most traditional lagers in New England and its Maibock is no exception. With a deep orange color and substantial white head, this maibock starts with the familiar breath of bready Munich malts but add to that a light alcohol note, slight citrus hints and light yeast bite. The medium-body translates the aroma into liquid form, with the additions of a slight malt tang that helps round out the edges, leaving a clean, consistent and highly drinkable mug of beer.
THE TRADITION OF BOCK
Behold the beauty of the bock family, a horde of sturdy German lagers of robust character ready to fortify and feed you. Invented in the North German city of Einbeck, from which it may derive a garbled version of its name, bocks have a long history dating back to the 14th Century and are associated with goats, an image appearing on many labels. Like a good power hitter, bocks are an exercise in measured strength. Controlled and focused, yet strong, these medium to full-bodied beers should be a rich ruby color and possess a broad malty aroma. A touch of caramel malt may be present but the flavor usually focuses on classic Munich and Vienna malt flavors, not quite toasted or bready, but full, rich and a touch sweet. Hops play little role with Bocks, except to provide some structure and balance. Clean and smooth to the taste despite a six-percent alcohol level or higher, bocks remain drinkable and tempered in the face of a soulful malt experience.
Anchor Brewing Company
San Francisco, California
Alcohol Content 5.5% ABV
With its deep burgundy shimmer and wheat toast tan head, Anchor Bock is a charming number and its nose brims with lush toasted caramel malt sweetness with brushes of brown sugar and a dash of fruitiness. The velvety feel of the medium body rises to meet the aroma, again displaying a bready caramel quality that boasts a complex brush of flavors, from molasses to nuts and brown sugar again. Smooth and clean throughout, Anchor Bock is an excellent spring release.
Alcohol Content 6.7% ABV
Makers of many fine ales and lagers in the heart of Wisconsin, Lakefront pulls out the stops with its bock offering, a scarlet-orange colored beer with a wheat brown cap of creamy foam. The aroma exhibits prodigious amounts of sweet and bready Munich malts mixed with tones of molasses and light earthy noble hop hints. The flavor is dominated by the bready Munich malts, with slight darker touches, all rounded out by molasses sweetness.
THE PROPRIETY OF PALE ALE
Even the most casual beer fan seems to have at least a basic understanding of the India Pale Ale style. Whether it be a love of hoppy beers or an innate fear of bitterness, consumers have some concept of IPA’s. When it comes to pale ales, however, things get considerably more blurry. The style that made American brewing famous is also one of the first ales that many drinkers have ever experienced. But beyond their first craft beer experiences, usually with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, this style has largely been overshadowed by its big, brutish IPA relative.
Ranging from golden to light copper in color, the charming style is more reserved than its boastful brother IPA while refusing to lurk in the shadows. As is the case with many classic lager styles, it is not easy to make great pale ales. The best domestic examples manage equilibrium between citrusy American hop aromas, fruity flavors, and moderate bitterness and mild yet expressive pale malt sweetness. The ubiquitous American pale ale, produced by nearly every American brewpub and craft brewery, remains a very approachable style for novice drinkers. Their British brethren, often lumped in with bitters and ESBs, offer a continental hop character and generally less assertive bitterness. With their lighter touch but remaining hoppy qualities, pale ales make a great transition beer from the heavier offerings of winter to the hoppier ales of summer.
ANDREW’S PALE ALE
Andrews Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 5.O% ABV
Located along a picturesque country road not far from the Atlantic Ocean in coastal Maine, the Andrew’s Brewing Company is a throwback to the days when brewers lived to serve their local communities. From the bottle flows deep amber colored ale, with a soft but ample tan head, and possessing an aromatic mingling of English caramel malt flavors, with touches of earth and woodiness, and pine and citrusy hop additions. A hint of bready malt slips by the piney and earthy hops, with their restrained but notable bitterness. From the first sip, Andrew’s has made a delightfully drinkable ale.
Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 5.O% ABV
A small chain of Maine-based brewpubs, each with their own character, Best Bitter is the epitome of the classic English session ale. Designed to be full of flavor but easy drinking, the flagship Best Bitter pours with an amber-brown color with light beads of carbonation. It possesses a slightly grassy nose imparted by East Kent Goldings hops alongside a pale English malt character. Often served on cask for a stiller experience, the bitter is quite understated in flavor, achieving a delicate balance between its use of English pale malts, a subtle and earthy hop bitterness, a sight yeast bite, and the occasional light and fruity flavors of cider or apples.
ENJOYING ENGLISH-STYLE INDIA PALE ALE
Perhaps no beer style’s heritage is more debated amongst beer geeks and amateur historians than the India Pale Ale. Legend suggests that IPAs were first brewed as high-gravity, highly hopped beers in England to withstand the rough travel to the Indian market during the 17OOs. Some claim the beer accidentally aged on the trip or that it was later watered down, while a growing contingent suggests all of these stories are pub bull session tales. Whatever its history, the style’s popularity in England waned considerably in the 2Oth Century to the point of near extinction. The style has been resurrected and redefined in the United States, but examples of the subtler English style exist. In contrast to the American version, English IPA employs its native hop varieties, which generally place less emphasis on citrus and fruit and boast gentle earthy and even woody flavors and aromas. A moderate bitterness mingles with a style-setting toasted pale ale malt foundation and earthy and flowery hop tinges to create a crisp, dry finish. English-style IPA is another great transition style for spring.
INDIA PALE ALE
Arcadia Brewing Company
Battle Creek, Michigan
Alcohol Content 5.9% ABV
Boasting the Union Jack and an allusion to old British ships, this India pale ale’s label lets you know right upfront that it is English in style. Coolly amber-orange in hue with a lightly sustained off-white head, the IPA’s nose is filled with English reserve. Light fruity English yeast notes trickle over a touch of orange citrus notes and a toffee malt base tease. The flavor starts mildly creamy before building into an earthy yeast note, followed by a toasted malt kick, and finally heading into a long, drawn-out, minty bitterness. A biscuity malt character appears as the beer warms and it ends with a dry, nutty finish.
IPSWICH ORIGINAL ALE
Mercury Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 5.4% ABV
One of the first craft beers I tried upon moving to New England, Ipswich’s Original Ale is still one of the best in the region. Whether enjoyed directly from the bottle on a warm summer day or in a glass from a fresh growler, the dull and hazy apricot colored beer is a raw and thoroughly enjoyable English-style Pale Ale. Full of unfiltered charm, the aroma brims with a melody of toasted malt whispers aside a hop aroma possessed of earthy and woody yet reserved character. The medium-bodied flavor of toasted, biscuity malt notes, often a little grainy to the taste, balances against the very light but keenly hopped earthiness. Original Ale is indeed a New England classic.
COLD HOP BRITISH-STYLE ALE
Boulder Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 6.8% ABV
Pouring a bright golden color and with a soft ivory head and thick carbonation bubbles, this India pale ale is replete with English character, despite additions of German and Czech noble hops. The floral aroma is thick with pine, earth, wood, and an herbal quality that plays on the Marris Otter pale malt and English yeast base. The toasted and slightly nutty British malt character is quickly subsumed by a citrusy and then earthy hop flavor and then another round of tight, slashing hop bitterness, including a funky flavor added by dry-hopping with an unusual New Zealand variety. Cold Hop is a standout product in the Western lands of the United States, which are so dominated by American India pale ale varietals.