What? There’s no more Samichlaus?

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Here’s some lousy holiday news that will bring tears to beer-loving boys and girls around the world:

Santa Claus is dead.

More precisely, Samichlaus – the Swiss version of the jolly old elf – has kicked the bucket. His annual visits were a widely anticipated event among those of us kids who believed in the powerfully high-octane magic of the holiday lager that carried his name.

Samichlaus, if you’re unfamiliar with the legend, was brewed once a year – on Saint Nicholas Day, Dec. 6 – and then lagered till the following autumn, when it was bottled and sold as a delicious holiday treat. Its brewer, Hurlimann of Zurich, packed it with lots of malt and hops, then fermented it with a special yeast for up to two weeks to produce what was once the world’s highest-alcohol beer, at 14 percent.

Hurlimann sold out to Swiss brewing combine Feldschloesschen last year, and the new guys didn’t bother to crank up the brew kettles on Dec. 6, 1997. Unless the corporation suddenly gets religion, it won’t be brewing Samichlaus on Saint Nicholas Day, 1998 – which happens to be the day after tomorrow.

George Saxon, president of Phoenix Imports of Maryland, the U.S. agent that imported Samichlaus, said he hasn’t gotten a straight answer from Feldschloesschen about its reason for killing Samichlaus.

“We placed our order last November, just as we did for the last 13 years,” Saxon said. “We never got a confirmation. They’re difficult to get to.”

Like most things in life, the decision likely had something to do with money.

Crafting a beer with expensive ingredients just once a year, and then aging it for 11 months before the first bottle is even sold, had to be a hassle for Feldschloesschen.

On the other hand, we’re talking about the death of a one-of-a-kind beverage that brew guru Michael Jackson, among others, has crowned as a world classic. Capable of taking the chill out of the alpine air, a few sips of Samichlaus had you yodeling Yo-Ho-Ho.

In an attempt to fill the void, Phoenix has produced a case of vintage Samichlaus bottles, left over from 1995, ’96 and ’97 (about $70 at better distributors). I tasted a few this week and found the beer ages quite nicely, with the stiff alcohol taste mellowing into a plum-like sipper.

In the words of Doug Stetler, the manager of Rader Beverage in Boyertown, Pa., which was the major importing distributor for Samichlaus in the Philadelphia area, “It’s not Coors Light anymore.

“It’s a distinctive-tasting beer that had its own cult following,” Stetler said.

There are plenty of suitable alternatives – Joe Sixpack offers a list below – so life will go on without Samichlaus. But there is something disturbing about losing a favorite beer to the whims of some interloping conglomerate.

Condolences are in order. If you care to share your grief, visit breWorld, the Internet beer site (www.breworld.com) that first revealed the death of Samichlaus. The site is organizing an e-mail campaign to register beer-drinkers’ complaints with Feldschloesschen (we-want-samichlaus-back@breworld.com) and a registry of other beers that may be headed for the grave.

Meanwhile, put the spirit back in your holidays with any of these terrific holiday brews:

  • * Affligem Noel (Belgium).
  • * Sierra Nevada Celebration (California)
  • * Anchor Our Special Ale (California).
  • * De Dolle Stille Nacht (Belgium).
  • * Scaldis Noel (Belgium).
  • * Penn Brewery St. Nikolaus Bock (Pittsburgh).
  • * Samuel Adams Brewhouse Winter Seasonal (Philadelphia – draft only).
  • * Snow Goose Winter Ale (Maryland).
  • * Catamount Christmas Ale (Vermont).
  • * Independence William’s Winter Warmer (Philadelphia).

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It’s not a Christmas ale, but keep your eyes open for Dock Street Brasserie’s (18th and Cherry streets, Logan Circle) Savage Beer. Named after Dock Street’s perfectly modest head brewer, Eric Savage, the beer will be officially tapped at 6 p.m. Wednesday at a brewpub party.

Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Independence Uncle E$B) appears every other Friday.

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