Yesterday, 6 December was the feast day of Saint Nicholas and that can only mean one thing: the newest batch was Samichlaus bier was brewed in Austria. Samichlaus – Swiss-German for ‘Santa Claus’ – is recognized widely as one of the world’s rarest, finest, and strongest bottom-fermented, or lager, beers. Indeed, it weighs in at a heroic 14% alcohol by volume (ABV). But the special attributes of the beer come from how it is brewed.
The selection you are viewing here was brewed on 6 December 2006 and bottled in October (that’s tea in my mug, not Sami, as this picture was taken this morning – note that the Samichlaus was still sealed.).
Yes, Samichlaus is only brewed one time a year. The 10 months length of its lagering, or cold storage, is unparalleled in the beer world and insures that the beer is fermented cleanly of any residual sugars. Any off-flavors have had sufficient time to subside, leaving a truly heart-warming beverage. I’ll leaves the particulars to the king himself, the late Michael Jackson who wrote:
Of the world’s super-strong lagers, Samichlaus was the most complex and satisfying. It had a reddish chestnut colour; a brandyish aroma; a firm, oily, body; creamy and cherryish flavours; and a warming, spicy, peppery, finish…
…it is creamy, soothing and gently warming.
To me, Samichlaus is an adult version of the barley sugar lollipops made into animal shapes that my sister and I used to share as kids (and still do on occasion.).
Samichlaus is considered a dark lager made in a bock style, high in malty goodness with minimal hop bitterness (well, there are actually plenty of hops in the beer but are drowned out by the malt intensity).
Fermenting the beer is a challenge since most lager yeasts will crap out around 8 or 9% ABV with much more sugar left to be converted to ethanol. Now, one could use wine yeast with a higher alcohol tolerance but, again, Michael Jackson weighs in suggesting otherwise. Instead, the beer, brewed originally by Brauerei Hürlimann AG, in Zurich, Switzerland, is transferred to new fermenting vessels every so often to rouse the yeast and coax them to ferment out to the higher alcohol level. This Swiss interest also has a reputation for selecting strains of both high- and low-alcohol producing beer yeasts. This is a very different process than, say, for Samuel Adams’ Triple Bock: the fermented beer is essentially frozen to form ice crystals that are then removed from the liquid that is then enriched to 17% or even 20% ABV. So, Samichlaus is considered the purest of the strong lagers.
Samichlaus was first made in 1980, when Hürlimann decided to pit its super-yeast against other techniques being used to produce very strong lagers across the German border. The Swiss still seem faintly embarrassed about having entered this unofficial competition, which they saw simply as a bit of fun…
…I had my first Samichlaus of the season in an unlikely place: the fashionable restaurant and “juice bar” Nosmo King, in Manhattan. The juice of the barley was served as an accompaniment to a chocolate dessert. My companion, Florence Fabricant, food and wine writer of The New York Times, felt that no fermented grape could have accompanied the chocolate so well. I was inclined to agree, but had to test her resolve. “Not even a Madeira?” I ventured. “Not even a Malmsey,” she responded.
An aside: I truly miss Mr Jackson’s most vivid and colorful accounts – a scholar and a gentleman we have lost.
There was a very dark time in the history of Samichlaus from 1996 to 2000 when Hürlimann was acquired by Feldschlösschen who ceased brewing this elixir. During this drought, I tried to homebrew my own version of Samichlaus and it was perhaps the finest beer I ever made. Using techniques similar to those of Hürlimann, I got the beer up to 12.3% ABV and it was drinkable for over three-and-a-half years after bottling and actually improved over the years. (For homebrewers, a superb yeast strain resource is Wyeast of Odell, Oregon; they have a page on how to ferment “high gravity” beers – I recommend Wyeast English Barleywine or German Dopplebock strains for this purpose.).
To the delight of beer lovers worldwide, Feldschlösschen struck a deal with Austria’s Eggenberg Castle Brewery (Schloss Eggenberg) to restore this holiday tradition. I was able to score a 4-pack this fall and kept it in the cellar until tonight. I am happy to report that the 2006 Samichlaus is as enriching an ambrosia as ever. My goal is to put aside a bottle or two for another year or two to watch it develop. As I noted with my own faux-Samichlaus, others have aged this beer for six years before noticing any off flavors.
Samichlaus is indeed rare and the best price I’ve seen online in the States is US$20 for a 4-pack of 330 mL bottles (11.2 fl oz). If you have an opportunity to try Samichlaus this year, please do so. I know that I’ll be in the queue next October for the batch brewed yesterday.
[Note: This post was brewed under the influence of Samichlaus - the author is not responsible for any spelling errors or delusional interpretations of the beer's majesty.].