Vanishing Eisbock


The romantic in me bemoans that there are few styles of beer that are truly seasonal.  With modern temperature control & preservation methods, brewers can pretty much make any type of beer any time they want, independent of climate or agricultural cycle.  Some styles can be traced back to their more “Earth rhythm” roots – saisons fermenting at warmer temperatures, for instance – & some just make sense based on what people want at a particular time of year.  A dark, boozy, spicy beer just feels right with Christmas.  4th of July barbecue?  Not so much. 

A few styles come to mind as actually being seasonally, meteorologically dependent.  We covered harvest ales, made with freshly picked, undried hop cones, here.  The yeast & bugs that get lambic knocked up have less competition during the cold months, so they’re typically brewed from October to May (thanks,!).  And though, in this day & age, freezers forego the need for naturally freezing ambient temperatures, Eisbock may be the style most connected to its seasonal context. 

Legend (per The Oxford Companion to Beer) has it that Eisbock was born of a happy accident.  A Germany brewery worker was instructed to move a barrel of bock out of a cold part of the building to a warmer one.  He forgot – with delicious results.  The next morning, the beer was found encapsulated in a block of ice, having expanded & busted out of the barrel.  Fearing it was ruined, the brewer tapped into it & tasted the beer inside.  Eureka!  The freezing process had isolated a portion of the water, concentrating the sugars & alcohol & leaving a strong, sweet beer for the taking.  Its nickname is “Bavarian ice cream”, & before modern freezing & refrigeration, could only be made in the frigid winter months.  A very special beer. 

There’s some debate about whether beers that undergo this process can truly be called “beers”, as it’s seen as a form of distillation.  There are those who argue that, for a drink to qualify as beer, alcohol content should be achieved solely through fermentation.  Remember the arms race a few years ago, between BrewDog & a number of German breweries, to brew the strongest beer?  Those were all made with freeze distilling, squeezing out that meddling water & squeezing the ABV higher & higher (60% sounds about right).  Sam Adams boasts that Utopias is still the strongest beer made by fermentation alone.

But Eisbock still fits in the beer family according to most of the so-sayers who write style guidelines: the BJCP, the Brewer’s Association, etc.  It’s a beer most beer folks know about, but I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s had one lately.  Eisbocks rarely show up on our shelves – Schneider’s Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock makes an occasional appearance, & once in a loooong while we’ll get some from Kulmbacher.  Voodoo’s Trapped Under Eisbock came & went a few years ago.  That’s all I can think of.  In my life, I believe I’ve had three, myself (Kuhnhehn’s Raspberry Eisbock was a treat after buying my first house). 

So yeah, it’s strange to see a style so well-known with so little real world representation.  It brings to mind the topic of disappearing styles, & what beers might be on the endangered list or next to go extinct.  Before being resurrected by craft brewers, many styles had vanished from the landscape, presumably by natural selection.  Berliner Weiss, Gose, Grisette, Grodziskie – styles that are making a little bit of a comeback were comprised of just a handful of obscure commercial examples til a few years ago.  Makes me wonder if others will be phased out with time, & fifty years from now some craft brewer or home brewer will read about dry stout or ESB & want to take a crack at reviving this arcane animal.  Part of the beauty of having such a decentralized movement is that people are free to make whatever they want, but there’s definitely some stream-lining, a slow flow toward slightly more conformity (how many kinds of IPAs exist now?).  Some styles may get left behind, or get an identity makeover.  But that’s evolution, right?  I look forward to the day when we’re able to order an Eisbock we haven’t stocked before, but before then it’s up to some brewer to make one. 

Which brings me to a point I meant to make at the get-go – & it’s frickin’ freezing out!  Until someone takes another stab, I guess I could try making my own.     
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