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Nuclear bomb shelters and the world's strongest beers

With Samichlaus newly revived, a look back at Michael Jackson's first full-length story on the beer, 14 years ago

"Now, would you care to step into the nuclear-bomb shelter Mr. Jackson?"

"Beg pardon?"

"The nuclear-bomb shelter. This way please. Do step inside"

"Nuclear-bomb shelter? But why?"

"Everyone should have a nuclear bomb shelter. We Swiss are very keen about that. We dig them into the sides of our mountains. We have lots of mountains here in Switzerland, you know...and lots of bomb shelters."

"Yes, but why do I have to go in there?"

"Mr. Jackson, we have shown you everything else. You have seen everything here. You have sampled every beer we make. You must have had about ten beers. You have drunk the strongest beer in the world. As a matter of fact, you have drunk two bottles of the strongest beer in the world. Now, please, I think you should visit the nuclear-bomb shelter..."

After that many beers, and such potency, communication can become dislocated, I had stood up well to the tasting, though. I can even remember the interior design of the nuclear-bomb shelter It was painted in bilious shades of yellow and green, and stacked with cans of soup, packets of spaghetti and tins of malted milk There were bunk beds, in groups of ten. It would probably be as good a place as any to be, should nuclear war break out, though the only beer-casks in the place seemed to be empty. I would rather be dead drunk.

That would also have been possible had I not taken the precaution of enjoying only small samplings of most of the beers. The only bottles that I exhausted were those containing the world's strongest beer, and then only in the interests of research.

I was visiting the Hurlimann brewery, in the city of Zurich, in Switzerland. Hurlimann is one of the principal brewing companies of Switz-erland (the other big ones being Haldengut, Feldschlosschen and Cardinal).

Swiss beers are generally clean-tasting, light-to-medium in body, and

gently dry. Hurlimann's have a char-acteristically spritzy finish. Of course, in any brewery's range there tends to be a greater sweetness as the beers ascend in strength.

A Swiss brewery usually identifies its basic beer simply as a lager, and produces it to around 3.8 per cent alcohol by weight. There may then be a de luxe product at just over 4.0; pale (4.25) and dark (4.5) speciales; per-haps a Festival beer at a little over 4.5, for Easter and Christmas; and pale (just under 5.5) and dark (approach-ing 6.0) stark ("strong") brews.

Santa Claus seer

For most breweries, that would be enough, but Hurlimann decided a year or two back to climb even higher, with a beer called Samichlaus ("Santa Claus"). As its name suggests, this is a seasonal brew. Like several European nations, the Swiss have separate celebrations for St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) and the birth of Christ. St. Nicholas' Day is celebrated on Decem-ber 6. On that day, a new brew of Samichlaus is produced for the follow-ing year's celebrations. It then spends almost a year in maturation before reaching its retail outlets on December 6 of the following year.

The original gravity of this product, in the Balling system (as used in the U.S.), has varied between 25.5 and 27.6. By the time its maturation is complete, it has developed an alcohol content of 11.1-2 by weight (13.7-14.0 by volume), which is higher than can be boasted by any other beer in the world.

Samichlaus is produced in a "pale" (actually, reddish-colored) and "dark" versions. In Switzerland, only the dark is available, and even that can be hard to find. In the U.S., both versions are available, though only in limited quantities. After all, only one brew of each is produced per year.

The "pale" version has a very malty nose; a very full, but surprisingly firm, body; a creamy palate; and a warming, alcoholic finish. The "dark" is very similar, but with just a hint of smoki-ness in the nose, and with a quicker warmth in the finish. Either might best be served from a small, wooden cask, suspended round the neck of a St. Bernard dog, at a location high in the Alps.

Hurlimann is an old-established brewery, having been founded in 1836, and its management has been in the same family for five generations (a sixth is currently learning something about American brewing, at Anheuser -Busch). It is a well-respected brewing company, and it has especially devel-oped skills in the breeding of yeasts. Like a number of brewing companies in other parts of the world, it is known for supplying yeasts commercially to its contemporaries.

E.K.U. 28

It was in its work on yeast breeding that Hurlimann developed a strain capable of producing a beer as strong as Samichlaus. Although it is a special yeast, this is based on the normal Hurlimann strain. The first bottling of Samichlaus was in 1980.

Samichlaus has as its closest rival in alcoholic strength a product in the range of the E.K.U. brewery, in Kulm-bach, Germany. This beer, Kulmin-ator "28," already has something of a following in the U.S. Like several very distinctive brews from other parts of the world, it was introduced to the U.S. after having appeared in my 1977 book, "The World Guide to Beer." The all-important figure "28" is an indication of the original gravity, but the alcohol content is a mere 10.92 by weight (13.5 by volume).

A mere jest on my part, of course. There is nothing to dismiss in any of these figures. We are talking about beers whose weights and strengths are almost overwhelming.

Of the two, I prefer Samichlaus, especially in its dark version. Having started with a fractionally lower gravity, and finishing at a marginally higher alcohol content, Samichlaus is by definition slightly better attenuated. Although its alcohol content is only marginally higher, I fancy that factor, too, is evident in the palate, especially in the brandyish finish. Both elements make for a beer that - however massive in body - is just a tad less cloying than Kulminator "28."

However, I would be more than pleased to have access to a stock of either if there were any imminent danger of the world coming to an end. On that occasion, Kulminator would seem the more appropriate.

Demon beer

I suppose menacing names are in order for very strong beers. The small Swiss brewery Boxer also has an interest in a powerful potion, through its French parent Enfants de Gayant ("Children of the Giant"). Les Enfants produce the world's strongest golden lager, La Biere du Demon. This has an original gravity of 21.7 and an alcohol content of 9.6 by weight (12.0 by volume). For its weight, it is a sur-prisingly dry beer, though with hon-eyish tones. In quality, I don't think it matches its rivals, but it is nonethe-less a pleasant and interesting beer.

It is difficult to produce a beer to these high strengths, and exact results will vary from one brew to the next. This no doubt makes life difficult for "The Guinness Book of World Rec-ords." So does the propensity of brewers to try and outdo each other in creating new strong beers.

One of the oldest-established strong brews, and in my view one of the best is an ale from Belgium. In its own country, it is called Bush Beer. Because that already has a familiar ring in the U.S., it is marketed here as Scaldis. I telephoned the Bush people in Belgium to ask them the meaning of Scaldis, and heard the words "une fleur belge," meaning "a Belgian flower." No sooner had I committed this to print then I realized they had, of course, said "un fleuve beige," meaning "a Belgian river." Scaldis was the Latin word for the river Schelde. No mistake, though, about this being - under either name - a deliciously nutty strong ale. Its gravity is around 24 and its alcohol content 9.37 by weight (11.7 by volume) according to the most recent analysis I have seen.

At a tasting in Belgium not long ago, I had enjoyed several potent local brews when my host insisted that we finish with one from my native coun-try, England. He wanted us to taste the strongest regularly-produced brew in Britain, Thomas Hardy's Ale.

This ale was first brewed in 1968, for a literary festival to mark the for-tieth anniversary of Hardy's death. It has a gravity in the mid to upper 20s, an alcohol content of around 9.9 by weight (12.48 by volume), and a lovely, sherryish palate. It is the only one of the brews mentioned here that will improve with age; it has just entered in the U.S. market; and I shall be giv-ing it the attention it deserves in a future issue.

Meanwhile, if you manageers to lay hands on any of these strong brews, stick to one. That's all you need, believe me. I would not drink more than one except in the cause of research, and then with a bomb-shelter in which to sleep it off. Don't even consider driving. That way, we can all have a happy Christmas.

Beer poster

My recommendation for a Christ-mas present to your friends is too obvious to mention here. However, there is more to printed material than books (or magazine subscriptions).

Since the most colorful variety of beers anywhere in the world is to be found in Belgium, there is a special appetite-appeal to a poster featuring all their labels. This was compiled not by some trade organization but by a diligent and enterprising enthusiast, who is also the owner of a specialty beer bar in the Belgian city of Ghent.

All of his competitors have bought copies, so you may have seen the poster, "Belgium, the Beer Land" if you have visited any of that country's bars recently. For lovers of beeriana, or for anyone wanting a visual guide to the brews of Belgium, it is an essential purpose, even at the price necessitated by packaging, postage and currency conversion: $15 for the poster, or (an even better present) $24 for a jigsaw version; checks to Antoine Denooze, at his bar, The Hop Devil, Rokerelsstraat 10, Ghent, Belgium 9000.

This man is a propagandist for beers of quality and variety, and I have no hesitation in encouraging his efforts.

Published Online: DEC 13, 2000
Published in Print: DEC 1, 1986
In: All About Beer

Beer Review - Brewery Review - Brew Travel

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