My wife and I began a new Christmas tradition a couple years ago, and we’re trying to spread it.
There is a beer – a very remarkable beer – that’s named after the season’s favorite saint: Samichlaus .
Every year on December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, the good beer brewers of of Austria begin crafting a treat that is on a par with anything made at Santa’s Workshop. On that day – and only on that day – the elves at Schloss Eggenburg (Eggenburg Castle) brew a batch of Samichlaus Bier that will take the better part of a year to finish.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The beer is a unique and complex treat, and well-suited for consumption on special occasions. Its flavor profile sometimes reminds me more of a cognac than a beer, and at over 14% alcohol, it’s got more potency than most wines (and is noted as one of the strongest beers in the world). It’s creamy and sweet, with a tongue-coating mouthfeel and hints of carmel and sugarplums and brown paper packages tied up with strings…I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s one of a kind.
Noted beer reviewer Michael Jackson (no, not that MJ) has this to say about the unique brew (which was formerly crafted in Switzerland, before the recipe and technique moved to Austria as a product of Schloss Eggenberg brewery):
Switzerland is among those countries that separate the celebration of Santa Claus, and the giving of gifts, from that of Christmas itself. December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ Eve, and that is when each new batch of the potent brew is made, at Zurich’s Hürlimann brewery, and laid down to mature in the cold cellars.
It takes almost a year of slow secondary fermentation to develop the full strength of Samichlaus. I can think of no other beer that has such a long period of cold storage (in German, lagering). Nor could the location of the cellars be more appropriate. The whole of the brewery is set into the foothills of the Alps, where the technique of lagering was born (though that was, it must be conceded, on the more easterly side of the mountains in Bavaria).
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. In the event, the fun caught the attention of beer-hunters worldwide, and Samichlaus has established a place in their hearts. Originally, the brewery tried to make both a pale and a dark version. Trouble was that a beer so dense (original gravity 1228) can hardly be pale, and the Samichlaus interpretation had a markedly ruddy complexion.In recent years the brewery has accepted the traditional view that Christmas and winter beers should be dark.
It seems to have done this almost reluctantly, still using more pale malt than dark, although it employs three different kilnings of the latter. Two varieties of hops are used. Although nearby Bavaria is the most convenient source of barley for malting, and of hops, some of the latter are grown in Switzerland. This may be little more than a patriotic gesture, but the Hürlimann family are quietly proud that they introduced it. Their corner of Switzerland has a long history of beer-making: the abbey of St. Gallen, founded by an Irish monk after the Dark Ages, was once one of Europe’s greatest brewing monasteries. St. Gall would surely have been pleased with the brew of St. Nicholas.
My wife and I like to have some on the feast of St. Nick, as well as on Christmas Eve, as we’re placing presents under the tree. At $15.99 a four-pack, it’s a bit of a luxury, but it will definitely help to make the season bright.
Look for it at specialty beer stores. I’ve found it at Total Wine & More, Whole Foods, and Wegmans.