In the scope of my beloved beer universe, two things stand out to me starkly in a world consumed with hop obsession and bitter bite. Those are the twin brilliances of malt and gravity. In malt, we find a profound form of flavor, unlike much else to be found in the way of food or drink, which stands as something of a testament to the ways in which sweetness, bitterness and strong yet delicate intricacy can combine to form a flavor profile.
In gravity, naturally we find a pleasure. Alcohol – for all of the demonization it may face at the hands of legitimate criticism for its affects on human behavior – is a wonderful dance partner in situations both social and private. To be sure, as with any dance, one must not step on toes or lose his sense of rhythm and place, but in the event that even balance is struck between the intoxication of this chemical byproduct and the earnest sense of self one should always ascribe to manage, a bit of true wonder can be found.
In this offering from Sam Adams, called simply the Double Bock, we find both of these characteristics in fine and equal measure. Possessed of the malty and bready quality that one typically expects reserved more for imperial stouts, the scent of those malted sugars that does so very splendidly alert the other senses as to just what kind of experience they are in for, wafts from the mouth of the bottle to the nose before the first drop is even poured. As the scent is inhaled again upon the first sip from the glass, it combines with the palate-dominating flavor of such bitter sweetness, to fill the sinuses and mouth with a sense of fullness and robust character.
Darker brown in color, the seemingly light tone of the beer to the eye is almost deceptive as its hearty character is only fully realized as the first taste slowly diminishes in a somewhat boozy burn, resulting in the palate demanding another.
In this double bock, with its aggressive 9% abv, the history of the style is easy to recognize and see how by virtue of dedicated effort, travel-weary happenstance and good old religious guilt that such was seemingly destined for such a righteous place in the spectrum of brewery potions and beer lover enthusiasms. The story behind the style starts, as so many beer styles do, in Belgium.
A variant on the Belgian monk’s “liquid bread” lager creations, the double bock or “dopple-bock” first appearing in the 1600s when – while attempting to make a special brew for Lent, in which as monks, no solid food was allowed to pass through their bodies – the brewers sought to create something new. In their dedicated efforts, this darker, heavier and more robust creation which we now call the double bock, was created. However, the story doesn’t end there.
As double bocks tend to be on the higher end of the alcohol per volume ratings, with the average double bock coming in somewhere between seven and fourteen percent, the monks in their piety worried that, between the rich and heavy flavor of the brew and the pleasantly intoxicating nature of it, it may be too ‘decadent’ or ‘indulgent’ for such a holy time as Lent. And so, seeking the approval of the Pope himself, the monks loaded their creation onto a horse-drawn carriage which was sent to the Vatican for approval.
During the long journey from Belgium to modern day Italy, over rocky mountain terrain and in the midst of a brutal beating sun, the casks were jostled, tossed, bounced and cooked, leaving their contents all but entirely spoiled. Upon reaching the Vatican, this now destroyed and undrinkable brew was soon imbibed by the Pope, who, upon tasting it, regarded its then awful nature.
However, rather than shunning the brew for its broken and difficult flavor, the Pope – in all of his seventeenth century Catholic adoration of hardship – dictated that the brew which he had sampled would be good for the souls of those involved to, not only make as much as they could for Lent, but also consume it as well as a test of their fortitude. To be sure, the brewer monks, upon receiving such word, were not entirely hesitant to follow his command and the “doppel-bock” was born.
Even now, sipping upon this Boston variant of the old and blessedly mistaken nature of the double bock, it is quite clear that this was not only an astounding creation by the monks of seventeenth century Belgium, nor a righteous commandment by the unwitting Pope, but altogether a fine and brilliant balance of nerve-affecting alcohol along with rich and flavorful malt and spice. The double bock is a filling and satisfying brew which properly carries on unto this very day.
In this tradition, Sam Adams has done a fine job in preserving the nature of this beast, while offering it up in such proportions and to such a volume that few, if any, dark beer drinkers will have an ill word to say about this old goat.
Nicholas Goroff is a beer lover, writer, actor, ex-political professional and devoted anti-ideologue. Follow him on Twitter @wizardofcause.
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