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The German Monks’ Lenten Beer Diet: 40 Days of Doppelbock

Brewer Tony Lubold adds hops to a doppelbock he is brewing at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

Brewer Tony Lubold adds hops to a doppelbock he is brewing at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

There’s a diet that I’d love to try if only I thought my liver could handle it.

It involves drinking beer, specifically the style known as doppelbock, every day for about six weeks. Nothing else except water.

I’ve been told that people have done this before and survived just fine. But then, those people were monks with significantly more divine capital than me.

When it was first brewed more than 300 years ago, the rich and malty style known as doppelbock sustained German monks as their “liquid bread” through the Lenten fast. I doubt that monks in Munich still adhere to this practice, but I like the idea of beer as sustenance, even if it shouldn’t be a person’s only food source. (A journalist in Iowa actually tried the doppelbock diet two years ago. He lost 15 pounds in the initial 23 days and was sick of beer after the first week.)

Maybe doppelbock isn’t for everyday drinking, but these toasty high-alcohol lagers are perfect for the slushy transition into warmer weather.

“It’s just a springtime beer,” said Tony Lubold, the brewer at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon.

I recently stopped in on Lubold early one Wednesday morning as he was brewing his take on this German classic.

When I arrived around 7:30 a.m., Lubold had already been at it for more than three hours. The brewery smelled of fresh baked bread as he boiled the viscous sweet liquid that would become his doppelbock.

Lubold’s taste preference is for hoppy India Pale Ales, and so this beer was something of a change for him. Doppelbocks have a low bitterness and often feature dark stone fruit flavors, raisin and caramel. Occasionally, there will be a light chocolate flavor.

Lagers, particularly high-alcohol lagers like doppelbock that range from 7 to 10 percent, can be laborious and time-consuming to make, taking months to properly ferment and age. (The word “lager” is a derivation of the German “lagern,” or “to store.”)

To speed things along, Lubold is departing from tradition to have the beer ready sometime in early March. But he still hopes to stay true to the fundamental flavors of the style.

“I’m looking for almost a cherry malt,” he said. “Not sweet, but nutty. Just a hint of hops.”

Doppelbocks can also have traces of grape flavors, which when combined with peppery alcohol lends a vinous characteristic that I’ve found wine drinkers enjoy.

Commercial examples of doppelbock can be tough to find up here, but there are several that I’ve seen on shelves that are worth picking up if you’re looking to explore what these beers are all about.

The granddaddy of them all is Paulaner’s Salvator. The beer’s roots go back to 1634, when Benedictine monks on the eastern outskirts of Munich began brewing it for their personal consumption, according to The Oxford Companion to Beer. But by 1780, the monks went commercial and started selling the beer to the public as “Salvator.” It became so popular that other breweries began copying them and to this day, many have adopted the suffix “-ator” in naming their doppelbocks in homage to the original.

Goat imagery is prevalent in the label art. In fact, Ayinger Celebrator is sold with a white plastic goat draped like a necklace around each bottle. Lest you worry that the monks strayed into Satanism, the goat references are purely secular. The word “bock,” whose origin remains uncertain, also means “billy goat” in German. Commercial doppelbocks aren’t as prevalant in stores as some other styles, but you can still find a few if you’re looking to get acquainted with them. I’ve seen Salvator sold locally, as well as Ayinger Celebrator and Spaten Optimator. I’ve also recently seen an Italian doppelbock, Moretti La Rossa Birra Doppio Malto, which I do not enjoy as much as some of the others, but which is decent enough.

U.S. brewers have produced a few doppelbocks worthy of attention. New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewery created a nice one several years ago called S’Muttonator. The last time it was on shelves was back in 2010, but I cross my fingers that we’ll see it again. Samuel Adams also has a “double bock” that is not bad.

Troegenator, from Troegs Brewery in Pennsylvania, is among the finest doppelbocks I’ve tasted from a U.S. brewer, though I’ve not seen bottles of it available locally. And forget about finding it on draft. In fact, I haven’t seen any of these beers on local tap menus.

Which is why I’m eager to see how Lubold’s doppelbock comes out. Its arrival will come a bit late for the start of Lent, which began last week. But if it resembles anything like the rich malty flavors of Salvator or Celebrator, it could become a staple of my liquid diet heading into spring.

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Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.