VORCHDORF, Austria – Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus beer.
It lives in the stainless steel vats of Castle Eggenberg Brewery.
On Wednesday, I watched the birth of the next grand batch of Samichlaus. The renowned beer, whose name is the Swiss-German word for Santa Claus, is made only one day each year, St. Nicholas Day.
It will ferment for 20 or more days, then sit, and sit, and sit for 10 months, aging slowly in a cold cellar, rounding itself into the small wonder that beer lovers have come to cherish each holiday season:
The Strongest Lager in the World.
It’s a miracle that it even exists.
Samichlaus nearly went kaput 10 years ago when Hurlimann, the Swiss brewery that had made it starting in 1980, was bought by the Feldschlosschen conglomerate. The big brewery had no use for the niche product. I remember panicking, then hurrying to scoop up as many bottles as possible, savoring each one like it was the last.
An international campaign to save Samichlaus was launched. Petitions were signed.
And to the grateful thanks of the beer’s devoted fans, Castle Eggenberg stepped in a couple of years later through an unusual license agreement to resuscitate the lost brand.
It uses the same ingredients and the same recipe. The only difference is the water – pure, spring-fed H20 from the preserved grounds surrounding the brewery at the base of the Alps.
Built on the site of a 10th-century castle, Eggenberg is an oddity among Austrian breweries. Most produce standard pilsners and mildly malty lagers served in frothy half-liter mugs.
But this small brewery decided 25 years ago that if it was going to survive, it would have to develop its export products.
“There was no chance to compete against the big groups,” said Karl Stohr, the managing director whose family has owned the brewery since 1803. “We knew that we had to do something special.”
That would be Urbock, a famously strong (9.6 percent alcohol) bock that is now distributed in 35 countries. Other strong beers followed, including a whiskey-malt beer called Nessie, a double bock and, of course, Samichlaus.
Curiously, though these big beers have attracted praise and fame around the world, inside Austria they are hardly known.
“It’s the mentality of the Austrian people,” Stohr said. “They’re conservative, they’re not used to drinking strong beer. They drink a lot of the traditional beer, but they don’t have any idea that the world of beer is bigger than lager and pils… It’s not like America, where people are open to more tastes.”
Eggenberg, where beer has been brewed since the 1300s, treats Samichlaus with utter respect.
On brewing day, it invited a handful of clients and journalists to attend the ceremonial tasting of the wort – the warm, malty unfermented liquid that is the basis of all beer. Tall pilsner glasses of the murky porridge were poured directly from a huge copper lauter tun.
It looked threatening, like a witch’s brew, but it went down like a mouth-warming mulled cider.
Normally, the parish priest would bless the sacred juice with a prayer before it headed to the fermentation tank. This year, the clergy had to attend to a funeral, so it was up to Stohr to offer the blessing at the brewery’s own chapel.
He spoke in German, Italian, Dutch and Romanian, but by the time he got around to translating it into English we were all too thirsty to continue listening.
Onward to a tasting room, where dozens of antler racks from past hunting expeditions hung over rows of glassware.
Last year’s brew was uncapped, its bottle boldly proclaiming it as the Guinness Book of World Records’ “strongest lager in the world.” It’s a label that is banned in America, where uptight regulators prohibit beer-makers from making any claims about the strength of their product.
It poured into the goblet like a light whiskey, and took no prisoners on the way down my throat.
Across the room, an Italian woman tried a sip and grimaced – no translation needed. The Romanian next to me shrugged and said, “You either love this beer or you hate it.”
But Samichlaus reveals itself more intimately after years of maturation. Older bottles were presented and compared.
Where the ’05 was still full of malt flavor, the ’04 was fruitier, with esters that remind you of peach brandy. The ’01 was even more delicate, its edges smoothed over with time. What started as a loud, head-banging lager finally settled down and allowed you to see its softer side.
On St. Nicholas Day in Europe, small children are told that if they look hard enough, they’ll see the Krampus – fun little devils that dance around in masks.
After many glasses of Samichlaus, I think I know where that legend got its start.