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Thanking God for a 'precious' beer

A mass to thank God for the world's strongest lager has just been held in the chapel within the brewery where it is made, in Eggenberg Castle, in the Alpine town of Vorchdorf, Austria. The chapel is the private place of worship of the Stöhr family, who own the brewery and live in the castle.

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The chapel in the brewery..."great vintage," says Father Bemminger.
Last year, the chapel was refurbished, and a service held to celebrate its new look, with huge, icon-like, paintings on either wall, as though further to frame the stained-glass windows behind the copper altar. Around the same time, the Eggenberger Castle brewery released its first vintage of the famous Samichlaus, previously made by the now-defunct Hürlimann, of Switzerland. That brewery had been taken over and closed by Feldschlösschen, who had dropped Samichlaus.

For some years, there had been no Samichlaus, a situation that had scandalised many beer-lovers. It had been by far the most interesting beer to come from Switzerland, and I had rated it a world classic in my Pocket Guide. While its unusual strength, of 14 per cent, marked it out, it was also a beer of great roundness and complexity. Real Beer had organized vertical tastings of past vintages in the United States, and several of us had campaigned for the return of Samichlaus.

When the Eggenberger brewery acquired the rights to make the beer, I wanted to see the product being given a more significant send-off. Perhaps they were being modest, or possibly they were worried it would not turn out well; it is a difficult beer to make. In the event, experienced tasters who have sampled the two Eggenberger versions, think Samichlaus has never tasted better. I am one such taster.

Despite not being a Christian, or a believer of any kind, I enjoy the cultural resonance of religious ceremonies. I suggested to the brewery's managing director, Karl Stöhr, that the celebratory service of last year become an annual event, to mark the release of one vintage and the laying down of the next. The event would therefore be held on St Nicholas day, December 6.

This year, I was invited to see my idea put into practice. In truth, I had forgotten it was my suggestion, until Karl reminded me, but it was a pleasure to be there. The half-dozen pews, each accommodating four people, were full. Guests included beer-writers Conrad Seidl, of Austria, and Mikko Montonen, of Finland; and importers from Hungary, Italy and Switzerland. St Nicholas was in attendance (played by the brewery's software specialist, Michael Gehmaier his trainers peeking beneath his red robe).

Parish priest Father Ernst Bemminger turned to the book of Deuteronomy for his text: "For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land of brooks of water...a land of wheat and barley...the precious things of the lasting hills...the precious things of the earth."

"What have the Alpine water and the earth of Upper Austria brought forth?" I asked the avuncular figure as he closed his Bible. "Last year's Christmas beer was good. This is even better," he beamed.

The priest and his congregation then left the chapel by the door that leads directly into the brewhouse, to witness the marriage of Alpine water and barley-malt, the first step in a production of a beer that would be ready for release in a year's time.

As the decoction of water and grain was heated, Father Bemminger was enveloped in a halo of steam. He blessed the union of these elements, and we reflected that God might be encouraged to ensure a yet-better Samichlaus for 2002.

Samichlaus is a dark lager. Its colour is reminiscent of "black" cherries; its flavour juicy, nutty and malty; its body liqueur-like; its finish alcoholic, warming and long. In the castle, we drank it from brandy snifters, with an Austrian Kletzenbrot, a pastry with a pear-accented dried fruit filling. I might venture a small mug of Samichlaus lager with Christmas cake and the Wensleydale cheese of my own good land and lasting hills. See Notes From My Tasting Room.

Published: DEC 15, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

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