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Santa Claus upstaged by new Eisbock

The 2002 vintage of the world's most celebrated Christmas lager has just been released - sharing the spotlight with a new strong lager, an Eisbock, from the same brewery.

All cosmopolitan beer-lovers will know that the Christmas lager is Samichlaus ("Santa Claus" in the Swiss-German dialect of Zurich).

St Nick
St Nicholas asks the parish priest what he would like for Christmas. "I dream of my own brewery," the cleric responds.
In his beery incarnation, Santa Claus famously defied death after vanishing for three years when his brewery, Hürlimann, closed. Santa moved across a national border to be revived at the Austrian brewery of Schloss Eggenberg. The prefix "Schloss" indicates a castle or château. The castle stands on a hillside called Eggenberg, above the village of Vorchdorf, between the cities of Salzburg and Linz, in the northeast of Austria. There has been a castle on the site for 800 years, but most of the present buildings, in the style of a grand manor house, were built in the 1880s.

Samichlaus is brewed each winter on St Nicholas Day (December 6). After primary fermentation, it is lagered for the best part of a year, then released on the following December 6. Two different yeasts are used, one bred at Hčrlimann, the other at Eggenberg. The two yeasts, and the long maturation period, help the beer reach 14 per cent alcohol by volume, making it the world's strongest lager.

When Eggenberg launched its first vintage of Samichlaus, I noticed that the castle had a family chapel. Better still, the chapel is next door to the brewhouse, with a linking door. I suggested that a small service be held each year to bless the brew. Austria is a traditionalist Catholic country, and this ceremony seems appropriate even to me as an atheist of partly Jewish origin.

After this year's service, the brewery's owners, Karl Stöhr senior and junior, entertained me to a tasting of the last Hürlimann vintage and the three that have been produced by Eggenberg. Of course, vertical tastings tell only a part of the story. Even if the barley and hops are of the same variety each year, their flavors may vary with the weather. The same is true of the barley's dormancy period, and of malting. Likewise the drying of the hops.

These are very small differences but, as each impacts on the next, they have a cumulative effect. It night have been possible to gauge that if each of the vintages could have been tasted at one year old, side by side, Instead, a vertical tasting also brings into play whatever has happened in the bottle. However careful the bottling and storage, some changes will take place. Even the tiniest presence of oxygen will have its effect (in my view, not automatically negative).

The last Hürlimann vintage, from 1997, seemed substantially darker in its chestnut color, and more nutty. I believe those characteristics were part of the house style, but they could have been heightened by very slight oxidation. The first version from Eggenberg, released for Christmas 2000, demonstrated at this tasting more malty, cereal grain, pancake-like, flavors. The 2001 vintage seemed sweeter and creamier; this year's fruitier and livelier, with the typical "cherry brandy" character. All of those elements are found in all vintages of Samichlaus, but their relative prominence seems to change, as though the elements were jockeying for position

Those of us who campaigned to save Samichlaus are delighted that it has settled so well in its new home. Eggenberg had the advantage of being something of a specialist in strong lagers. These already included two pale examples, both at 7.3 per cent alcohol by volume: one being a Festbock, quite crisp for its gravity and potency; the other, called Nessie, rendered lightly smoky by a proportion of "whisky" malt. A third pale beer is the very estery (citric?) 23° Urbock, at 9.6 abv.

The Iceman Cometh

Now, emboldened by its success as a revivalist, the brewery has looked at a dark (Dunkel) Bock. It did have a beer in this style in the 1890s. There is speculation that this may have been an ''ice beer", but there is no surviving evidence. Eggenberg has nonetheless taken up the challenge of that style. Its new beer is labelled Eggenberg Urbock (the first syllable means "Original"), with in smaller type the legend Dunkel Eisbock.

Its grist comprises Pilsner, Munich and roasted "color malt", in a single decoction mash. The bittering hops are Magnum and Perle, as extract. The aroma varieties, as pellets, are Tettnang, Saaz and Malling [see below].

Boiling is for a conventional 90 minutes, and the brewed wort spends ten days in the primary fermentation vessel, followed by three months in a separate lagering cellar. It is then moved to a third vessel, which contains refrigeration tubes. The beer is refrigerated to a point where about ten per cent of the bulk is frozen. left behind as frozen water. The ice also contains unwanted proteins and tannins, the precipitation of which is said to remove harsh flavors.

The removal of water is effectively a concentration. A beer with a starting gravity of 20.8 is more like one of 23.1. A bitterness of 32 has been sharpened to 36. A color of 40 EBC has darkened to 45. Alcohol content has been boosted from 8.8. by volume to 9.8. The beer has a distinctive dark walnut colour; the aroma of exotic fruits; a firm, smooth, body; flavors reminiscent of figs, coffee and anis; a touch of.quinine dryness in the finish; and a long afterglow.

I tasted it alongside the best-known example of this rare style, Reichelbrau Eisbock, from Kulmbach, Bavaria, Germany. Again, there was a question of different "vintage", the Kulmbacher being some months older,

The similarities, especially in color and coffeeish character were much more striking than the differences, but the Eggenberger seemed slightly more flowery and sweet, the Kulmbacher slightly more medicinal.

Now to compare the two with the peachy Eisbock of Niagara Falls Brewing and the drier style from the Southampton Brewpub in the town of the same name on Long Island, New York.

Hopping across Europe

In reading the story above, how many beer-buffs were stopped by the reference to Malling hops? In writing the story, I was surprised to encounter a hop that was new to me. The Malling is a little-known variety which must surely be named after the town where the Golding hop was first identified by a farmer of the same name in the county of Kent, England. The Malling in question is grown in Mühlviertel, north of Linz, Austria. This rustic region is between the Danube and the Czech border. It is described as being "off the beaten track" by The Hop Atlas (Joh Barth, Nuremberg, Germany). The Atlas identifies the Malling as a bittering hop, but it was use in this instance for aroma.

A link between hop-growers in Kent and a quiet corner of Central Europe might seem remote, but the Styrian Golding is a better known example. Northern Styria is in Austria; Southern Styria across the Slovenian border. There was apparently some confusion when this variety was introduced. Its parent is not the Golding at all but the other famous English hop the Fuggle (another variety considered by some users as a bittering hop, others as a source of aroma).

Published: DEC 17, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

Beer Review - Brewery Review

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