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Farewell, Santa Claus

Classic Samichlaus felled by accountants and marketing men

Tomorrow will be a day of protest on the worldwide web over the apparent death of Santa Claus. Obituaries are being published, and net-users invited to sign a book of condolences. Before I send any child to bed crying, I should explain that this is an adult matter. The protests are appearing on the growing number of sites linking beer-lovers internationally.

Santa Claus, as rendered in the Swiss German of Zurich is Samichlaus, and this is the brand-name of a Christmas lager with an international reputation among beer-lovers.

This extremely strong (14 percent), creamy, peppery, warming, brandyish, chestnut-coloured lager originated from a brewery founded in Zurich in 1836 by the HŸrlimann family. Samichlaus was launched in 1980 by Martin HŸrlimann, a man who loves the culture of beer and the creation of unusual brews. His company was known throughout the world of brewing for its skill in propagating unusual yeasts.

He used one of these cultures in an successful effort to make the world's strongest lager while avoiding the extremes of syrupy stickiness and solvent-like alcohol flavours found in some extra-potent brews. Its roundness of flavour was made possible by a lagering (maturation) of almost a year. The beer has been brewed on St Nicholas' Day (December 6) every year, and released 12 months later, with a "vintage" date on the label.

In 1996, after his retirement, the brewery was acquired by a rival, Feldschlšsschen, in the spa town of Rheinfelden, near Basel. As its name suggests, Feldschlšsschen's 1890s brewery is designed to look like a castle (Schloss, in German). Inside, it adopts a more cathedral-like style, with a brewhouse supported by marble pillars, decorated with mosaic tiling and lit by stained-glass windows.

Unfortunately, this spectacular, monumental, brewery has fallen into the hands of accountants and marketing men of stony blockheadedness. Wishing to concentrate on their mass-market beers (lagers of no distinction whatever) they have decided that the batch of Samichlaus brewed in 1996 and released in 1997 will be the last example of this speciality. They claim that sales are uneconomically low, but seem to ignore its following outside Switzerland. At least one other brewer in Switzerland would like to revive Samichlaus, but no agreement has been reached. Beer-lovers wishing to speak out for Santa can do so on

Five-hundred cases of the last vintage were bottled with labels suitable for the U.K. market, and all of these have bought by Safeway, where the beer is currently on sale at £1.75 per bottle. Safeway does not accept that the beer is uneconomic. "It will be a great shame if one of the world's landmark beers disappears for ever - for no good reason," comments buying manager Glen Payne.

More Christmas beers now in the shops:

From Belgium:

St Feuillien Cuvée de No‘l: Named after an Irish missionary (he would sound more familiar as Foley or O'Faolain). This strong (9.0 per cent alcohol) ale has a deep, claret, colour; a marzipan aroma; and flavours reminiscent of nuts, dates, lemon peels and cinnamon.

Abbaye des Rocs Spéciale No‘l: Named after a former monastery in the same part of Belgium. Produced in a tiny brewery established by a former tax inspector. This ale, also 9.0 per cent, is similar, perhaps more fruity and port-like. Try it with cheese.

Barbar Winter Bok: A pinkish-brown, sweet, honey ale of 8 per cent, with flowery, vanilla-like notes.

These brews are distributed by Beer Direct, Stoke-on-Trent. Phone and fax: 01782-303823.

From Britain:

Winter Holiday: From the Lakeland Brewery. Ruby to dark brown. Smooth, very dry, almost oaky. Very big for a beer of a modest 5 per cent. Distributed by James Clay, of Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire. Tel 01422-822659.

Robert Cain's Christmas Ale: From a fine Victorian brewery in Liverpool. This bright, pale amber, ale, at 5 per cent, has a fine bead; a toasty palate; and a lemony finish. Try it before Christmas dinner. Available at Asda.

Fuller's 1998 Vintage Ale: From the famous Lodon brewery. Varietally-labelled as being made from Alexis malting barley and Wye Northdown hops. Lovely amber colour. Malty but beautifully balanced, at 8.5 per cent. Can be laid down. Available at Tesco.

Shepherd Neame Vintage Christmas Ale: From Kent hop country. Deep amber. Perfumy. Laced with cherry brandy, providing a hint of peppery dryness in the finish. 6.7 per cent alcohol. Available at Sainsbury's.

From the United States:

Anchor Merry Christmas: Ruby to dark brown. Creamy, toasty start; dry, spicy, grapefruity, finish. 5.5 per cent. From The Beer Shop, London, 0171 739 3701 (mail order available).

Published Online: AUG 11, 1999
Published in Print: DEC 5, 1998
In: The Independent

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