On the trail of Santa's brew
The agricultural tradition of winter and Christmas beers has enjoyed a revival in recent years
If you look hard as Christmas approaches, you might just find a rare bottle of Samichlaus ("Santa Claus" in Swiss German). For years, this was the world's most potent lager, at about 14 per cent. Alcohol content does not equal quality. Some strong brews are fermented so quickly, and have so little maturation, that they taste like the proverbial paint-stripper. Samichlaus was made one Christmas and released the next, rounding beautifully in its year-long lagering. Even then, some timid souls found it too heavy and warming. What did they expect in beer that strong? It tasted like a rich, russet, malty whisky.
Had I ever found it in a bar, I would have expected it to be served in a whisky-taster's copita or a brandy snifter, and perhaps to be offered only after dinner, like a television programme that is deemed too sexy, frightening or corrupting for the kids.
Samichlaus would have tasted even better from a small wooden barrel, suspended from the collar of a St Bernard rescue dog, half way up a snowy mountain. Instead, you are most likely to find it this year, in a 1996 vintage-dated bottle, in a speciality beer shop. Because of its immense strength, this beer will last several years in the bottle, while a lager of a conventional strength usually tastes lifeless or stale months before its sell-by date. Indeed, the flavours of Samichlaus may meld and mellow in the bottle. This is just as well, as it has not been bottled since 1996.
The brewery, a folly-like castle with a spectacular Jugendstil interior, fell into the hands of cost-accountants and marketing men who imagine they can conquer the world by making just one mainstream beer.
The brewery, a folly-like castle with a spectacular Jugendstil interior, fell into the hands of cost-accountants and marketing men who imagine they can conquer the world by making just one mainstream beer. It's called Feldschloesschen. Heard of it? The Swiss have, and many are mightily bored with Feldschoesschen beer. Some people close to the company think that Samichlaus should be brought back. Every volume-car maker owns a smaller enterprise making a luxury marque; every mass-market brewery needs a speciality, to keep it in touch with the art of making great beer.
The agricultural tradition of winter and Christmas beers has enjoyed a revival in recent years. Most are rich, malty and strong: winter warmers.
In Germany, many brewers make a strong, dark-brown, rich, long-lagered, Doppelbock, at around 7.0 to 8.0 per cent, for Christmas. Producers of wheat beers may offer a Weizenbock. This is a delicious style, combining the rich sweetness of dark malts with fruity spiciness imparted by wheat-beer yeasts, and the pepperiness of the alcohol. the great German wheat-beer brewery Schneider has a year-round Weizenbock that is readily available in Britain. It is named Aventinus, after a bishop, a historian, a street and a hill.
The Nordic countries tend to be slightly more modest in alcohol - also in the unrelated of colour and body. They typically produce Christmas lagers in the range 5.0-7.5, with an orangey amber colour and a lightly nutty flavour. For a couple of years, Carlsberg offered a Christmas lager of that type in the British market, but do not seem to have one this year.
The view seems to be that British lager-drinkers are so conditioned to the pale-coloured, light-bodied and bland-tasting that they can handle nothing else.
If consumers can enjoy that degree of diversity, perhaps they should be encouraged. People will drink ales if the products are presented with confidence, and Fuller's ability to sell flavoursome, characterful products should be an example to all its competitors.
There may be some truth in this, though it could also be a self-fulfilling prophesy. A young customer in a pub once commented to me (not knowing of my professional interest) that the greatest beers in the world were Corona and Fuller's ESB. If consumers can enjoy that degree of diversity, perhaps they should be encouraged. People will drink ales if the products are presented with confidence, and Fuller's ability to sell flavoursome, characterful products should be an example to all its competitors.
Fuller's has seasonal specialities throughout the year, and the introduction of each focuses interest anew on the brewery, its products, and the very notion of beer as a natural product capable of great variety of style. Fuller's Old Winter Ale, at 5.3 per cent alcohol by volume, is soothing, with nutty, vanilla-like malt notes. It is available on draught and in the bottle. The company's year-round 1845 Celebration Strong Ale, at 6.3, is also a contender for winter and Christmas. It is sherbety-tasting, with lemon-pith notes (from the hop variety Goldings), and perilously drinkable for its strength. The pale, flowery, honeyish, malty barley wine Golden Pride, at 8.5, is available year-round in the bottle but also on draught around Christmas. At the same strength,, the brewery has its year-dated Vintage Ale, with a secondary fermentation and yeast sediment in the bottle. This is hugely complex, with rooty aromas and flavours that are almost gin like (probably from the Target variety of hop).
The new season's barley and hops are used in a vintage-dated Harvest Ale released each November by the Manchester brewery John Willie Lees. Other brewers add Christmassy fruits or spices. In Kent, Shepherd Neame last year used cherry and this year has opted for almonds.
When you can drink them, who needs a saucer of nuts on the bar?
Published Online: SEPT 13, 2000
Published in Print: DEC 1, 1999
Search The Real Beer Library For More Articles Related To:
, Fuller's, Hurlimann, Samichlaus