The Samichlaus Experience
Limited edition beers are all the rage. The extreme is probably Russian River Brewing‘s once-a-year-so-limited-you-can’t-get-it-outside-their-own-brewpub Pliny the Younger, smuggled-out growlers of which fetched over $150 on eBay. But almost every self-respecting craft brewer does it – and it takes all kinds of forms, from Fuller’s long-established Vintage series (which uses a different recipe each year, often a historical Fuller’s recipe) to brewers whose every beer practically is limited edition, like Kernel and Mikkeller. Of course, we all know that limited doesn’t equal good – but I have to admit, I am a sucker for almost anything that says “Limited edition” on it. It’s the collector in me. That and the fact that my first truly memorable beer encounter was with a bottle of Carnegie 1986 Vintage Porter (drunk in 1993), an encounter that prompted me to re-prioritize my meagre student budget in order to buy a whole case of said beer (it lasted me until 1995). The Carnegie Vintage Porters were, of course, highly limited edition beers even though at the time they were not marketed as such. I’d like to think it’s the memory of that beer that still makes me perk up every time I see the phrase ‘Bottle XXX of YYY’ on a label.
What this is all leading up to is that, in a time when “Limited edition” is becoming if not the norm then at least a fairly standard part of any brewery’s (craft or otherwise) repertoire, it is interesting to take a look at one of the first truly limited edition beers: the formerly Swiss, now Austrian Christmas Doppelbock Samichlaus.
According to Michael Jackson, the Samichlaus tradition began in 1980 at the Swiss brewery Hürlimann. It started out as an attempt to make the world’s strongest lager beer, which made long secondary fermentation necessary – thus the idea was born to brew the beer once a year (on Dec 6, the day of St Nicholas – Samichlaus means Santa Claus, for those of you who didn’t know), mature it for almost a year, bottle it and then release it on Dec 6 the year following. In 1996 Hürlimann discontinued the beer (the brewery then closed in 1997), but in 2000 the brand and the recipe was acquired by Schloss Eggenberg Brewery in Austria. Today, it’s actually not as impossible to get a hold of as it was in 1991 when Michael Jackson first wrote about it – Samichlaus bottles and even kegs for draft are now exported around the world and come early December the brown, silver-topped bottles can be found in most specialist beer stores. But it is still limited, it is still vintage, and it is still made in the same very traditional way with a long secondary fermentation process in a castle cellar.
And this year I got to try it. So, without further ado (and there’s been plenty of ado already), here’s the review of Samichlaus Classic 2011 (Doppelbock, ABV 14.0).
It pours nice an thick with no head (and nearly no carbonation) and is a pleasant dark amber, sherry-like colour. The nose is vinous and sweet, almost cloying, like sugar syrup. On the palate, it is still sherry-like with lots of raisins and brown sugar. What sets it apart are some faint spice and fruit notes – I get nutmeg, cloves and banana. At the end, it definitely tastes like banana marshmallows. The marshmallow metaphor is actually quite apt for the beer experience as a whole as it is soft, smooth, chewy and sweet, all at the same time. The super-high ABV makes it nice and warming – it heats up the back of the mouth like a good mulled wine. My nearest beer experience is another high-ABV old-fashioned rarity, the Lithuanian strong ale Statiniu 13 (available in both pale and dark varieties), which was also sweet and dessert wine-like with wonderful warming qualities.
In summary: Limited doesn’t always equal good. In this case, it equals excellent. I’m making this a tradition, no doubt about it. The brewers recommend having it with chocolate – so now I know what I’ll be doing next December 6!