At this time of year holiday beers are all the rage, particularly here in Ohio where the popularity of Great Lakes Christmas Ale has spawned such a multitude of winter warmers that I would not be surprised if our beer consumption put a strain on the world supply of cinnamon. For my first holiday beer review of the season I’ve opted to go in a different direction and tell you about a special beer that I’ve been saving in my cellar for a couple of years now, Samichlaus from the Austrian brewery Schloss Eggenberg.
Samichlaus, which means Santa Claus in Swiss-German, is a special beer with an interesting history. It was first released in 1980 by the Swiss brewery Hürlimann, who were renowned for culturing unusual strains of yeast. In the case of Samichlaus they managed to reach 14% abv, which at the time secured a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s strongest beer. Nowadays there are many beers with higher abv, but I believe that Samichlaus is still the strongest lager in the world. You heard right, Samichlaus is a 14% abv lager!
Samichlaus is only brewed one day each year, St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), which in Switzerland and other parts of Europe is the traditional day when the holiday gift exchange takes place. To reach such staggering alcohol levels with conventional fermentation techniques the beer is lagered for 10 months, before bottling in time for its release the following St. Nicholas Day. According to beer critic Michael Jackson, the brewers occasionally move the beer from one tank to another to restart the secondary fermentation (click here if you want to read Jackson’s informative 1997 post on Samichlaus).
In 1997 Hürlimann was bought out by Danish megabrewery Carlsberg and production of Samichlaus was halted. Thankfully, it was revived in 2000 when the venerable Austrian brewery, Schloss Eggenberg, purchased the rights to brew Samichlaus and collaborated with former Hürlimann brewers to brew this iconic beer using the original recipe. Because of the high abv Samichlaus is unfortunately not sold in Ohio. The 750 mL bottle in my possession was a gift from my former PhD student, Jenni Soliz, on the occasion of her graduation. Given its strength I figured the beer would improve with some aging, but this year my patience finally ran out.
- Brewery: Schloss Eggenberg (Austria)
- Style: Doppelbock
- ABV: 14.0% ABV
- Availability: Released every Dec. 6, not available in Ohio due to high abv
As you can see in the picture above this beer was bottled in 2009, which means it has been aging for five years.
Ruby brown in color and translucent, Samichlaus pours with a minimal scrim of cream colored head. The aroma leaves no doubt that this is going to be a big, decadent beer. Your nose is greeted by a mélange of molasses, raisin, alcohol, and savory notes not unlike soy sauce. The smell is so enticing I’m in no rush to start drinking, but when I do the flavor does not disappoint. Big, malty flavors of caramel and toffee wash over your tongue. Unlike the nose, dark fruits and raisins are not prominent here, but there is an underlying fruitiness not unlike what you might find in peach or apricot brandy. It’s a sweet, alcoholic sipper of a beer to be sure, but I did not find it to be cloying. The alcohol is enough to keep the sweetness mostly in check, but it does not overwhelm the other flavors and leaves you with a pleasant warming finish. It’s a full bodied beer that coats the tongue and mouth.
In all honesty I wasn’t sure that drinking a 14% abv lager was going to be an enjoyable experience, but my trepidation was misplaced. From reading online reviews, not all of which are very complimentary, I think the aging of this bottle helped round off the rough edges, allowed the alcohol to mellow, and brought out the umami soy notes. I read somewhere that it should be aged for at least three years. I’d be very curious to get comments from people who have tried this beer with different lengths of cellaring. What I can say for sure is that properly aged Samichlaus is a sophisticated after dinner sipper par excellence. It’s classified as a doppelbock, I suppose because that is the strongest style of lager, but in actuality it is quite reminiscent of an English barleywine. So as we enter the dark, cold days of winter gather around the fire with a few friends and loved ones and enjoy what may be the world’s best expression of Santa Claus.
Thanks to Jenni for treating me to this special beer! Thanks to my friends Mark, George, Tom and Josh for helping me finish it and contributing to the review.
Rating scale: 10 = perfection, 9 = excellent, one of the top beers in the world, 8 = very good, one of the top beers in its style category, 7 = good, a solid beer I’m happy to be drinking, 6 = average, not bad but not something I’m likely to buy again, 5 = below average, 3-4 = poor, should be avoided, 1-2 drainpour.