Michael Jackson’s first column on Samichlaus was published December 1, 1986 in All About Beer magazine. One of the largest brewing companies of Switzerland, the Hurlimann Brewery in Zurich, first bottled this high strength seasonal lager in December of 1980, when it caught the attentive palate of the Beer Hunter. At the time, this Santa Claus Beer laid claim to the title, “Strongest Beer in the World,” and was served in 33 cl bottles (slightly less than 12 ounces). As a testimonial to its punch of power, Samichlaus was served in a stein the size of an espresso cup, fair warning of its potency.
Switzerland begins the St. Nicholas’ holiday with a December 5th lighting of the iffelen, tall bishops’ mitre-hats that glow with the sparkle of faux stained glass. They are reminders of the legendary bishop who brought food to children and gold to the poor. On the following day, December 6th, parades wind through the streets. The cacophony from cracking sheep whips, oversized cow bells, brass bands and repeated rhythms of cow horns fill the air, chasing evil spirits back to the world of darkness. With the arrival of Samichlaus and his two Schmutzlis on the evening of December 6th, Swiss brewers at Hurlimann found reason to add to tradition by brewing and bottling a beer they called Samichlaus. They lagered this Doppelbock in deep caves for nearly a year, and brought it out for the next seasonal celebrations.
Hurlimann originally crafted a pale and a dark version, but only the dark was available in Switzerland. The pale version had a tendency toward a blushing ruddiness, as it tried to compete with its darker brother, and eventually was discontinued. Both had a firm, malty foundation and the creaminess of silk on the palate. The finish was warm and alcoholic. The strength, always at least 14% ABV, with some batches nearing 15%, was achieved by the skillful development of a yeast strain that stayed vibrant despite the high levels of alcohol that typically paralyze the weaker varieties. In 1990, the Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed Samichlaus as the strongest lager in the world.
When Hurlimann was acquired by Feldschlosschen of Switzerland, production of Samichlaus ceased after the 1996 bottling. As the spirit of Samichlaus fell silent to the brewing world, lovers of the traditional seasonal held their breath in anticipation of a re-birth.
In October, 2000, Michael Jackson announced breaking news of the return of Samichlaus. Eggenberg Castle Brewery of Austria had reached an agreement with Feldschlossen that would re-introduce the world-renowned Santa Claus beer to the discriminating palates of the winter season.
It was crafted using Pilsner and, to a lesser degree, Munich malt in a double decoction mash (and possibly triple decoction, by some accounts). Some of the deep rich color found in Samichlaus is due to caramelization in the mash. The sweetness is tempered by the addition of Magnum and Perle hops from the Hallertau region, followed by Saaz. The same yeast that was cultivated for the original Samichlaus of Switzerland is used in the Samichlaus beer of Eggengerg Castle Brewery. This yeast has been developed to withstand very high levels of alcohol, and “parties-on,” rather than falling asleep like most beer yeast would do. Although the beer is no longer lagered in caves, it is still allowed to mature under chilly storage conditions for 10 months to a year before being released.
Connoisseurs of Samichlaus appreciate the characteristics imparted with vintage storage, and what better time to frighten away evil spirits than in the heat of July? I recently was privileged to sample six vintages of Samichlaus, from both the Hurlimann Brewery of Switzerland and from Eggenberg Castle Brewery in Austria. Each one, although similar in the level of maltiness, matured into their own distinctive profiles of liveliness.
Samichlaus 2002 - (Austria) Beautifully copper, this was the youngest of those tasted. Characteristically malty, with notes of apple cider and caramel, this vintage retained an alcoholic warmth similar to old sherry. Storage may have been compromised, and some oxidation was apparent.
Samichlaus 2001 – (Austria) A clear mahogany body, tinted with a festive orange hue, overpowered the tan head with its potent alcohol level. Aromas of caramel, dried fruit, sherry and spice cake swirled into the air. The tongue gave in to a gentle sweetness, but was reined in with some bitterness in the throat.
Samichlaus 1997 – (Switzerland) This was the last vintage brewed and bottled by Hurliman in 1996. Deep chestnut mahogany, the clarity of this holiday temptress leaves an indelible mark in my memory. Molasses, caramel, fruitcake and bourbon fill the air. Sweetness lays on the lips, as the flavors of cherries, malt, caramel and spice flow in waves through the mouth. It is the embodiment of what Michael Jackson described in his many columns on Samichlaus: The “slug of alcohol,” the bourbon, painted with vanilla.
Samichlaus 1996 – (Switzerland) Age has turned this bottle sweet, like molasses, bourbon, and soft, light-brown sugar. Despite the sweetness, this Santa displays lots of heat, dangerously so. Upon a swirl of the glass, long legs form. The possibility arises that we have achieved nearly 15% ABV in this particular vintage.
Samichlaus 1995 - (Switzerland) Ruby glints of light sparkle through this chestnut body as a thin head sticks to the perimeter of the glass. The profile of sweetness has diminished, but sherry and earth have filled the void.
Samichlaus 1993 – (Switzerland) Darker than the others, her body is a mahogany walnut, but with good clarity. The nose is of malt, sweet cherries and molasses, but is more blended than the others. On the palate, it is satiny and warm, somewhat brandy-like, but less bourbon than some of the others. It has smooth flavors, and a rounded finish - a delicious digestif.
If you allow your imagination to run wild, you may feel the warmth of the hearth as you sip these vintage lagers. Although Samichlaus is no longer proclaimed as the strongest beer in the world - knocked out of the top spot by Sam Adams Utopias Millennium II at 24% -, the distinctive flavor and warm buzz are treasures that will never go out of style.