I t’s a fair drive from the Czech capital of Prague to the Austrian village of Vorchdorf, but we managed to make it in less than four hours, getting into town just as the December sun set. There wasn’t much snow on the ground as we parked next to the sprawling brewery grounds, although we could see plenty of white further up in the mountains. My buddy Rob and I were on our way to northern Italy for a five-day ski trip, and stopping in Vorchdorf seemed like a decent place to break up the journey. More importantly, it was also a good way to learn out more about a beer I’d always loved: Samichlaus.
I don’t remember seeing it in Switzerland when I spent a summer working there in 1994, when it was still being brewed at its original home, the Hürlimann Brewery in Zürich, but I’d read its story in Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion. Named after the Swiss dialect for Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, Samichlaus was only brewed once a year — on St. Nicholas Day, December 6 — and released roughly ten months later. When Hürlimann was taken over by Feldschlösschen in 1997, production stopped, disappointing fans like Jackson, who campaigned for its return. After purchasing the rights and the recipe, Austria’s Schloss Eggenberg brewery started making Samichlaus again in 2000 — big enough news for Michael Jackson, Fred Eckhardt and Garrett Oliver to give the reborn Samichlaus a three-way review in All About Beer the next year. The review noted that the beer was available “in every state where alcohol content does not rule it out.”
Rob and I got to the Schloss Eggenberg brewery just after St. Nicholas Day, 2009, with the new batch already fermenting away. We were shown around by the brewery’s Karl Stöhr, who poured us a bunch of verticals and variants, and who answered most of my questions with a smile. (The brewery gets a little cagey about the special yeast it uses to make a lager beer with 14% alcohol.) When we left the next morning for Italy, we took a few cases of Schloss Eggenberg beer with us. The brewery’s Urbock 23º and Doppelbock Dunkel kept us warm while we were skiing around Cortina d’Ampezzo, but the full case of Samichlaus — definitely the brewery’s best-known brand — came back to Prague with me.
Since then, I drink one or two from that case every winter, usually around St. Nicholas Day, to see how it’s aging. The slow sampling has shown me that I prefer Samichlaus with some years on it — at least five, and probably closer to eight or nine. The ten-year-old bottles I opened this past Christmas were deliciously rich with toffee, chocolate and spicy notes of plum jam, as well as a pleasant, lightly tannic backbite. For a beer with 14% alcohol, it is ridiculously drinkable, even gulpable. I find it hard to stop at just one.
Around the time of my visit to Schloss Eggenberg, an alcoholic arms race in the world of craft beer started sending out brews with 30, 40, 50 or 60% alcohol — beers as strong as whiskey or even stronger, some of which could reliably be described as “absolutely undrinkable.” With its relatively modest 14%, high drinkability and obscure origins in a non-destination corner of Central Europe, it’s easy to overlook beers like Samichlaus. But Samichlaus kept going, releasing new variants, including barrique, Helles and Schwarzes versions.
I prefer the classic, due to its history. For years now I’ve been waiting for the right moment — and the right bunch of friends — to open a three-liter bottle given to me by my wife, Nina. Occasionally I buy a new bottle here or there to compare with the couple I always open from my old stock. From that original 2009 case, I recently realized I’m now down to the last two bottles. Sounds like it’s time for another trip to Vorchdorf.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.