Craft Beer Scene Around Rockford: Samichlaus, the granddaddy of all Christmas brews

By Michael Sears
President, Forest City Brewers

Greetings one and all, and I hope you had a wonderful Christmas!

Since we are in between the holidays of the season, I thought I would stretch out Christmas beers for one more week. This particular beer is the granddaddy of all Christmas brews, and it is appropriately named Samichlaus, the strongest lager in the world.

Few occasions call for such a strong brew, but maybe the stresses and strains of the festive season justify an encounter with this powerful incarnation. Samichlaus, which means Santa Claus in the Swiss-German dialect of Zurich, is brewed under the exclusive license of Feldschlösschen-Hürlimann-Holding, Switzerland.

The Hürlimann brewery developed the specialty of training yeasts to behave in unusual ways. Ironically, they first developed a low-alcohol beer, Birell (0.8 percent alcohol) 25 years ago. Samichlaus was first made in 1980, when Hürlimann decided to pit its super-yeast abilities against others that were producing very strong lagers across the German border.

Switzerland is among those countries that separate the celebration of Santa Claus and the giving of gifts from that of Christmas itself. Brewed only once a year on Dec. 6, which is Saint Nicholas’ Eve in Switzerland, it is laid down to mature in the cold cellars for 10 months before bottling, possibly qualifying as the rarest in the world. It may be aged for many years with older vintages becoming more complex with a creamy warming finish.

For this review, I used a tulip glass and allowed the beer to warm up to more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The pour is a beautiful deep red/amber and is crystal clear, reminding me of well-aged rum or whiskey. Because of the high alcohol, a firm pour is required (straight down the middle) to produce a half-finger head, which fades quickly to a thin whisp of a ring around the glass. Bubbles travel up the sides of the glass, collecting around the lip, even after three years in the bottle. It looks like we are off to a good start!

The aroma is rich of sweet burned caramel and bready malt, dark fruits (rum-raisin, maybe?) and toffee. There is no hop presence and just a hint of alcohol, making this strong, warm and inviting. There is a light cardboardy oxidation, which is expected with aged beers.

The taste is very similar to the aroma with sweet burned/toasted caramel, cherry, dark stone fruit, toffee and ever-so-slight bit of apple lurking in the background. The finish is a bit boozy, which is understandable at 14 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), but with plenty of flavor to back up the alcohol. There is a hint of earthy/mushroom and no hop presence whatsoever. It is reminiscent of a good Belgian Quadrupel, but this definitely has its own flavor profile.

Mouth feel is rich, full and heavy bodied, nearly syrupy. The carbonation is almost a soft, prickly level, which is a perfect complement to offset the heavy body.

Overall, I’m not sure if I am qualified to review such a rare example of brewing art, as this is complex way beyond complex and not a beer for the faint of heart or novice craft beer enthusiast — especially at $20-$24 per four-pack. The Austrians have come up with one unique beer that deserves its classic name and reputation. It has qualities that I don’t particularly enjoy in other beers, but that seem to fit really well in Samichlaus. This is almost a quintessential night-cap for a cold winter’s evening, especially Christmas with a good friend or family. Look out, this one is dangerously beautiful.

Have a safe and happy New Year!

Michael Sears is president of the Forest City Brewers. The Forest City Brewers is a homebrewing club dedicated to the art of finely crafted beer. The club meets the first Wednesday of each month at Rockford Brewing Company, 200 Prairie St., on the Rock River. For more about Forest City Brewers, go to http://forestcitybrewers.org. If you have comments or recommendations, contact Mike at rockfordcraftbeer@comcast.net.

From the Dec. 31, 2014-Jan. 6, 2015, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!