I hope you're not feeling too jetlagged after the previous... however many days it is we've been pond-hopping, because today you'll need your passport and carry-on bag again as we visit two countries and go further east than I think we have done so far as we look at the history of a beer whose label likes to describe it as "The world's most extraordinary beverage." We can forgive them a little artistic licence, but I reckon there are a few other drinks of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic persuasions which might like to take issue with that, such as Kopi Luwak - coffee made with beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a cat. I was about to say 'Who on earth discovered you could do that, and how, and more importantly, why?', but then I read the Wikipedia entry about it and found out. Fascinating.
To be sure, Samichlaus is a beer among beers, and with a story to match. It claims to be (and probably is) the strongest lager in the world at 14%. Yes, there are eisbocks (lagers that are frozen to concentrate the beer by removing some of the water) which are higher in ABV, but Samichlaus is naturally fermented, and what's more, it's made to the German purity law of 1516, the Reinheitsgebot. It was first brewed in 1979 at the Hürlimann brewery in Zurich, Switzerland, but no-one could buy it until a year later because this beer undergoes just about the longest fermentation process of any lager.
It's brewed each year on a particular day - December 6th, the feast day of St. Nicholas who, as I'm sure you know, is the saint who became the inspiration for Santa Claus, and 'Samichlaus' is the name for Santa Claus in the local Zurich dialect. After primary fermentation, the Samichlaus-to-be is transferred to conditioning tanks where it passes the next ten months sitting on its yeast, mellowing, increasing in ABV and developing a flavour like no other lager (it's actually a Bavarian doppelbock) before being being bottled and released the following December. The original brewer of this beast, Albert Hürlimann, was an expert in the matter of yeast, and you'd have to be to develop a strain which could ferment a beer to that kind of ABV. Although it likes to spend its life making alcohol, carbon dioxide and more yeast, once the alcohol content gets to a certain point the yeast just can't survive. For most beer-brewing yeasts, that limit is around 10% ABV.
In 1997 the Hürlimann brewery closed down, and there was no Samichlaus to be had for three years until production resumed at a castle some 250 miles further east in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. Schloss Eggenberg had a history of brewing going back about 600 years before it took up the challenge of producing this unusual beer, in conjunction with Albert Hürlimann, and Samichlaus has been produced, once a year as before, every year since then.
The brewery also claims that not only is it the strongest lager and the world's most extraordinary beverage, but the world's rarest beer too, another statement which I think we can take with a pinch of salt, and perhaps one of the only 11 bottles of BrewDog's The End of History, if you're lucky enough to find one. Or perhaps a bottle of Courage Russian Imperial Stout, which was recently brewed for the first time in a couple of decades. Or... you get the picture.
The long maturation makes Samichlaus one of the most complex lagers you'll ever taste, and many say, one of the sweetest. Common descriptors for it are rum-soaked raisins, apples, grapes, cloying, caramel, brown sugar, alcohol burn and malt bomb. The nature of the beer means that it's a good candidate for cellaring.
STOP PRESS. Cast your mind back to December 7th and the amusingly-titled Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale. You may recall they had to brew something as a stop-gap because they didn't have enough capacity to make their usual seasonal for this time of the year, Brown Shugga', and were awaiting the delivery of a new brewing system in January. Well, it seems there's been a little accident at sea and an important part of the equipment (the lauter tun, if you're interested) has been mangled beyond recognition and any kind of usefulness apart from scrap metal. This means they won't be able to brew another of their seasonals, Hairy Eyeball strong ale, so Holiday Ale has been revived as Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Leftovers Ale.
You gotta love those guys in Petaluma.