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A devilish Christmas in Austria

Brewer Spatzenegger helps dispel evil spirits at Augustiner
Grotesquely masked as monsters and devils, and accompanied by the red-robed figure of St Nicholas (otherwise known as Santa Claus), a troupe of children were causing a commotion in the huge, arched, beer halls of the Augustiner brewery - not the famous one in Munich, Germany, but the very imposing namesake in the city of Salzburg, Austria. Both of these breweries were founded by Augustine abbeys, and the one in Austria is still part-owned by monks, albeit of the Benedictine order.

The presence of the masked children was intended to frighten away any evil spirits before Christmas. Like many "Christian" rituals, this Austrian custom surely has pagan origins.

One "devil" cosied up to Augustiner's head brewer Christian Spatzenegger, a hefty man in the midst of enjoying a half litre of his sweetly malty Bock. He smiled indulgently, gave the child a small donation, and was rewarded with sweets and nuts.

Enter Samichlaus

The devil departed, and Christian offered more beer to those of us at his table. Instead of an answer, he received another gift, from a "rival" brewer. A case of the world's strongest lager, the 14 per cent Christmas beer Samichlaus (also otherwise known as Santa Claus) was brought to the table by Karl Stöhr junior, whose family own the Eggenberg brewery, in the country countryside 50-60 miles east, about half way to Linz, second city of Austria. Brewers like to give each other such gifts, and they are invariably appreciated, but the case of Samichlaus was especially well received. Its revival after four years is clearly a matter of great pride to the Stöhr family and their brewery.

"We have been working on the beer for the past year. We kept quiet about it because we were not sure how it would turn out," confesses Karl. "Fortunately, we think we have got it right. I find it a little estery in comparison with past vintages but it is difficult to judge a fresh beer against one that has been evolving in the bottle for several years. As it happens, I like that estery fruitiness. I wonder how it will develop.

Meanwhile on December 6, the Samichlaus for next year was brewed. It is produced from an original gravity of 27-30 Plato, largely from Pilsner malt, with a some Munich 25 EBC. The brewery already uses a decoction mash for some of its products; the density of Samichlaus has in these early efforts called for double decoction. With such a high density, there must be some caramelisation in the kettle, and that will influence both color and flavor. There are two additions of hops from the Hallertau, first Magnum, then Perle, and a third with the Saazer variety.

It's not the brewing itself, or the primary fermentation, that takes the time. Among the key features of the production are a secondary fermentation with a highly alcohol-tolerant yeast bred by the beer's original brewers, the now-defunct Hürlimann brewery. This is followed by many months of lagering.

I have already reviewed the revived Samichlaus in my tasting notes (6 November, 2000). That sampling followed my story (4 October, 2000) breaking the news of the beer's revival. It sounds over-dramatic to say that this story was a world exclusive, but subsequent response indicates just how much interest there is in this product. The last vintage of Samichlaus was the 1996. I first wrote in detail about this beer in 1986, after a visit to the Hürlimann brewery, where it was then made.

Both Eggenberg and Hürlimann have been commendably open about their procedures in making this extraordinary beer but, understandably, neither wishes to reveal every last detail. In my 1986 story, I hazarded a guess that the brew was transferred between tanks during maturation to aereate the wort and rouse the yeast. I still feel that there is an element of slow, controlled, "positive" oxidation, and that this contributes to aroma and flavor, as it does with some great Champagnes and malt whiskies.

My own enthusiasm for Samichlaus has always rested not only on its strength but also on the care with which it has been made. Many very strong lagers, especially those produced farther north in Scandinavia, have an unpleasantly candy-like raw sweetness, suggesting an inadequate maturation. Samichlaus is much more complex, rounded and long in flavours. I wanted to be sure that Eggenberg were treating it with the same care, and not just being opportunistic in picking up the product. "This has been very exciting for us, very emotional, but even we did not realise the depth of feeling about this beer," Karl jr told me.

The chapel and the brewhouse

On my visit to Austria this month, it quickly became clear to me that the release of the new Samichlaus was one of the year's highlights for Eggenberg. Another came when the capacity of their copper brewhouse was expanded by the addition of (unfortunately, rather ugly) new stainless steel vessels. A third was the refurbishment of the brewery's chapel, with icon-like paintings, (compensatory?) copper sculptures on the altar, and stained glass windows, all created by family members. All three events were solemnised at a service in the chapel.

The brewhouse and the chapel sit to either side of a shared entrance hall decorated with family portraits, framed documents and photographs on the history of the brewery.

the brewery
Not a new Pope, just a new brew: the chapel at Eggenberg
When the kettle is boiling, the steam curls round the little spire of the chapel, and obscures the gilded figures on the clockface. Not every brewery has its own chapel. This one might, I suppose, be equally regarded as the family's own church. It has eight small pews, each with room for four people. The next service there could be the Christening of Charles V. In his own language, he will be known as Karl. That is to assume that a boy will be born to Ines, wife of Karl Junior. She is expecting a child, but does not yet know whether she will have a first son or second daughter.

The brewery, its former maltings, the chapel, the brewmaster's apartment, and the owners' home, form a square of buildings painted in the "imperial yellow" of the old Austrian empire. They enclose a courtyard 70 or 80 yards square. Most of the structure was rebuilt 120 years ago, after a fire, but the site and brewery were acquired by the Stöhr family near 200 years ago. Parts of the structure are thought to be 800 years old.

Karl junior's father, who has the same Christian name, showed me several family heirlooms. One was a certificate confirming the qualification of an earlier Karl as a brewmaster in 1813. There was also a "wander book", signed by various brewers for whom this earlier Karl had worked as an intern. I have seen such passport-like documents before, but it was an affecting experience to peep into the youth of someone long-gone. He had internships not only in Austria and Germany, but also in the Belgian brewing cities of Liège and Leuven. The book pre-dated photographs, so his identity was affirmed by a verbal description: Tall; oval face; brown hair; high forehead; blue eyes; good teeth; small mouth. The must have lost height over the generations, but the facial features were evident in the two Karls as they scrutinised the description of their forebear in the dense Gothic handwriting of the Wanderbuch.

Eggenberger leaders
Emotional: Karl Stöhr jr (right) with export director Thomas Lörinczi
There has been commercial brewing at Eggenberg since 1681, and beer has probably been made there since at least the 1100s. At one stage, the site accommodated the castle of a knight. A moat survives vestigially as a pond and a swimming pool. In another period, Eggenberg belonged to a Benedictine monastery. It was on the border of the domains of the rich and powerful archbishops of Salzburg and Passau.

Berg means hill. This small hill was a defensible position on the river Alm. Like many brewing sites, it has a Celtic history. There was salt-mining here 800 years before Christ. The hill overlooks the village, or perhaps market town of Vorchdorf, in the county of Salzkammergut.

A short walk from the brewery, I tasted unfiltered versions of Eggenberg's perfumy Hopfen König Pils and crisply malty Festbock (7.3 per cent alcohol by volume) at the Gasthof Hinterreitner. My lunch, pork tenderloin, was cooked in Eggenberg's Urbock (9.6 per cent alcohol, from 23 degrees Plato).

White Lightning

There was also a dinner at Gasthof Grünberg, an Alpine-style hotel in the town of Gmunden, the county seat. This time, I was taken through a range of Eggenberg's principal beers: Hopfen König with a trout-like fish called Reinanke; the whisky-malt Nessie (not as smoky as I would have liked) with wild boar; the spicy Urbock with a clove-tinged nut soufflé in a beer sabayon; and Samichlaus as a digestif.

An impressive meal, I thought, but there was one more element to come. With the petit fours, came the peppery Eggenberger Bockbierbrand. Yes, as if their range of strong brews were not strong enough, they actually distill the Bock into a white lightning.

Published: DEC 11, 2000
In: Beer Hunter Online

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