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Mine's a pint of Santa Claus

Try this Michael Jackson chooses a powerful Swiss lager as his Beer of the Month

The strongest lager in the world is called Samichlaus, which means Santa Claus in the Swiss-German dialect of Zurich, where it is made. Its precise potency will vary slightly from one batch to the next, but Samichlaus always has at least 14 per cent alcohol by volume; and has on occasion almost touched 15.

Few occasions call for such a strong brew, but perhaps the stresses and strains of the festive season justify an encounter with Santa Claus in his most powerful incarnation.

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).

The brewery is coy about this, but the fact is that conventional methods will not easily make a beer so strong.

Every now and then, I believe, the brew is moved from one lagering tank to another, in order to restart the secondary fermentation. The brewery is coy about this, but the fact is that conventional methods will not easily make a beer so strong.

All fermented drinks are subject to their own self-regulation: as the fermentation creates alcohol, this stuns the yeast, slowing and eventually stopping the process. The types of yeasts that cause the fermentation of grapes, apples or barley malt each have their different tolerances, and the latter start to become extremely drowsy after having created a beer of about 9 per cent alcohol.

The Hürlimann brewery has made a specialty of training yeasts to behave in unusual ways. Paradoxically, its first trick was to produce a pioneering low-alcohol beer, Birell, 25 years ago. Today, Samichlaus and Birell (0.8 per cent alcohol) are better known internationally than the more conventional lagers produced under the Hürlimann name.

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 recent years the brewery has accepted the traditional view that Christmas and winter beers should be dark.

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 H¨:rlimann 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.

The Samichlaus brewed a year ago yesterday is now in a smattering of pubs and wine merchants in Britain, and it is my Beer of the Month. It has a reddish-brown colour and a malty aroma and taste that remind me of Horlicks with a slug of alcohol added. At such a high gravity, it would be overwhelmingly cloying but for its smoothness (thanks, no doubt, to the long maturation) and that kick of alcohol. Instead, it is creamy, soothing and gently warming.

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.

Is Samichlaus, then, a fortified wine of the beer world? I am still inclined to think of it as a restorative, to be served from a wooden cask suspended from the neck of a mountain rescue dog.

While the Swiss make the strongest lager, the British produce the most potent ale: Roger and Out, which has been known to reach 16.9 per cent, brewed at the Frog and Parrot pub in Division Street, Sheffield.

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: DEC 7, 1991
In: The Independent

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