Liquid Bread – The Perfect Easter Drink
So today’s the end of Lent – a conclusion to the period of deprivation that ultimately leads faithful Christians to Easter Weekend. For devout believers it’s a time to live their faith in solidarity with the suffering of Jesus, while for others it’s an opportunity to challenge one’s character in giving up some humanly luxury or vice for an extended period of time. While I didn’t actually give up anything this year, at least not intentionally, an obvious choice for me would have been craft beer – right? Well, in actuality, it isn’t that obvious a choice at all. Believe it or not, beer and Lent go together like Simon and Garfunkel or cake and ice cream.
To say that during the Middle Ages European monks observed Lent more strictly than most would today is a bit of an understatement. During a time when the Catholic Church was all-powerful in Western Society the most devout would engage in a period of penance and prayer for the 40 days that led up to Easter. As if the almost six weeks spent quietly reflecting and ‘saying sorry’ wouldn’t be tough enough, this challenge was often taken on with an empty stomach. Many purport the reason for Lenten fasting was not just to test one’s self-discipline, but also so that the faster’s spirit would be lighter, not weighed down by heavy food, when praying to God.
Now before you start feeling too sorry for those poor monks, they didn’t have it all that bad – they could still drink water after all. That said, the condition of water in the Europe of the Middle Ages was a bit suspect at best. In truth, due to the sheer difficulty of finding clean drinking water, it was generally avoided. Enter beer.
Beer, as well as wines, ciders and mead became very popular during the Middle Ages. Despite being made from the very same dangerous water, beer was safe to drink. Because the brewing process calls for bringing the wort to a boil, the contaminants in the water are effectively eliminated. Of course, at the time they didn’t understand that the same process could be applied to purifying water – and in some ways, it’s a good thing they didn’t.
So it begs the question, if you couldn’t drink the water and weren’t allowed to eat, how in the world could you survive for 40 days? Simple; they drank the beer.
As the story goes, the monks felt guilty that they were allowed to ‘enjoy‘ such a wonderful beverage during a time of solemn self-containment. The only ethical thing to do, they decided, was to travel to Rome and let the Pope decide whether or not beer should continue to be ‘enjoyed‘ during Lent. So off to Rome they went, cask in hand, on to receive a hugely significant judgement in the history of beer. During the long journey, long before the Intercity-Express ever sped through the Alpine-passes, the beer spoiled. As you might imagine, the euphoric characteristics the monks had come to feel shameful of were not shared by the Pope. So disgusted with what he had drank, he not only allowed the consumption of beer during Lent, but he encouraged it. His rationale being to drink anything that repulsive must surely be good for the Lenten soul.
…drinking all that beer on an otherwise empty
stomach would have definitely helped lighten the spirit!
So Lenten beers (sometimes known as Fastenbiers or fast-beers in Germany) continued to be consumed in lieu of solid foods and the term ‘liquid bread’ was coined. With time they became stronger and stronger. The beers increased in alcohol content as the amount of grain used in each batch also increased. Why more grain? More grain means more calories and more energy.
The style of beer that has become most closely tied to Lent and Easter is called a Bock. The basis for the style orginated in the German town of Einbeck before eventually being mastered by the great Munich brewers who prounounced Einbeck as ‘Ein Bock’ (similar to a billygoat) in their dialect. Bock is a style of strong lager. There are number of sub-styles of Bock, but Easter-time is really the time of the Doppelbock.
So if a Bock is a strong lager, then is a Doppelbock twice as strong as a Bock? Well sort of. A Doppelbock usually ranges from between between 7-10% alcohol, whereas traditional Bock beers clock in between 6-7.5%. Doppelbocks range in colour from golden and clear to dark brown. Darker versions may posses dark and dried fruit flavours and a bit of a roasted grain character, whereas lighter versions will be predominantly rich and malty.
Interested in seeing what all the fuss was about? The beer I’m pairing Easter weekend with is Amsterdam Brewery’s Spring Bock. This Doppelbock reminds me a lot of Paulaner Salvator, a great example of the style and one of my all-time favourite lagers. It is extremely grain forward on the nose with a good balance of roast. Smooth chocolate and toffee notes with a bit of a vinous fruity character. Much of that carries through to the flavour. The liquid-bread moniker rings somewhat true as there really is a breadiness to this beer. A good amount of spice and a surprising amount of yeasty-freshness linger, rounded out by a nice caramel and light cherry. Though the alcohol is definitely present in taste and sensation, there is a litheness to it – it doesn’t really attack.
This is a great beer for Easter dinner; it would pair really well with a lamb and rosemary, dark turkey meat or smoked ham (though you may want to limit yourself to just one with dinner). It would also compliment a nice hot cross bun, if that’s what you’re into, or better yet a hearty slice of Black Forest Cake. Hosting a small gathering this weekend? Try this with a smokey cured meat and creamy cheese like brie.
If you’re apprehensive about enjoying a Doppelbock this weekend, don’t be! This is a Pope-sanctioned beverage! It’s like drinking history! If and when you do enjoy that Doppelbock, or really any other beer this weekend, just remember how during a time when the Catholic Church was trying to make everything a whole lot less fun, they inadvertently made Lent a whole lot more fun.