If you’re craving a typical light, fizzy lager for the impending holidays, stop reading this now – Samichlaus is certainly not that lager. This formerly Swiss, now Austrian-made monster of a beer boasts about a 14% ABV and resembles an American light lager about as closely as the Swiss Alps resemble the speed bump in the parking lot of your local beer mega-mart.
In case you’re not sure, that’s not much at all.
Samichlaus (Swiss-German for Santa Claus) is one of the most unique beers in the world. Not only is it unique for obvious reasons (hello? A 14% ABV lager!) but it is also unique because it’s only produced one time each year. On Christmas Day? Maybe Christmas Eve? Nope. The Swiss actually celebrate the whole Santa Claus thing, complete with the giving and receiving of gifts, on the 6th of December each year – it’s called St. Nicholas’ Eve. This is the day that Samichlaus is brewed at the Schloss Eggenberg Brewery and then laid back for a long maturation process (lagering) each year. By long, I mean nearly an entire year in cold storage. This is extremely unusual for a lager and the brewery obviously has developed some very unique techniques to keep the secondary fermentation process active for such a long period of time, at such cold temperatures. The original brewery, Hurlimann Brewery in Zurich, was settled right at the foothills of the Alps.
The mere fact that a lager yeast is able to stay alive and active for so long is mystery enough, but the greater mystery might be how in the world the fermentation process for a lager yields such a high gravity beer? Most yeast strains, especially those designated for lagers, don’t do well at all once the alcohol content of a fermenting beer reaches the upper single digits (8-9% at the top end). Somehow, possibly through the exchange of the fermenting beer into new secondary tanks and the process being repeatedly re-activated with new yeast(?), the original Hurlimann Brewery (it’s founder Albert Hurlimann was a world-class yeast specialist) is able to produce one of the world’s strongest (maybe the strongest?) lagers. Given the fact that the beer has been produced since 1979 – 1980, I guess they’ve had ample time to perfect their craft and create some sort of Uber-yeast.
I’m lucky enough to have a bottle of the December 6th, 2006 “vintage” of Samichlaus in the cellar. Now the question is, “when do I open it up?” Do I enjoy it now as a lead-in to the Holiday Season, wait for Christmas Eve or Day, or possibly save it until New Year’s Eve to see 2007 off in style?
Let me know what you think! I’ll post my formal review of this one-of-a-kind lager once the bottle is empty … at 14% ABV, I’ll assuredly be feeling the Holiday spirit in full force!