By Michael Jackson

Bottling the Holy Ghost

What happens when you have a Mass at the mash-tun?
Saints alive! A classic beer vaporises... and now there’s a Samichlaus spirit.The priest had a glint in his eye, and was warming to his theme: the role of St Nicholas as the patron saint of bakers, brewers and distillers.My German does not stretch much beyond Maischpfanne, Lauterböttich or Sudhaus, but the priest’s expansive gestures made it clear that he saw the products of bakers, brewers and distillers as a significant slice (and pint and dram) of the good Lord’s benison.Given the location, this was to be expected, but he nonetheless seemed more visibly committed to the works of St Nicholas than previous celebrants.We were celebrating, at a Roman Catholic mass, the aforesaid gifts of God, but especially a range of products under the name Samichlaus (‘Santa Claus’ in the local Zurich dialect of Swiss German).Before becoming a saint, Nicholas had a day job as a bishop in what is now Turkey.That was in the fourth century A.D. His generosity developed into voluntary work delivering gifts. Given its global reach, this must be very time consuming, but it begins on December 6 in some countries.Somehow, Nicholas also manages to be the patron saint of prostitutes, apothecaries, coopers, and several other longestablished professions dedicated to the giving of relief, comfort and pleasure.It was perhaps wise of St Nicholas to re-brand himself as Samichlaus before his diversification into the drinks industry, where he has been active in character merchandising.It all began when a non-alcoholic beer called Birell emerged from the Hürlimann brewery, in Zurich. The brewery isolated a yeast that could ferment wort without creating alcohol. In developing such skills, Hürlimann learned enough about yeast to breed a strain with quite the opposite the tendency: it produced the world’s strongest lager beer. The fruity (cherries?), vinous, mahogany coloured 14% ABV lager was named Samichlaus.The beer was brewed on St Nicholas’ Day, December 6, and released on that date the following year. The dedicated yeast, and the unusually long maturation time, meant that the brew was far less cloying than other very strong lagers.Unfortunately, the power of Samichlaus could not prevent Hürlimann subsequently being acquired by a Swiss competitor, Feldschlösschen. This company has one of the world’s most beautiful breweries, its exterior resembling a castle and its brewhouse reminiscent of a cathedral. Soon afterwards, Feldschlösschen was acquired by Carlsberg.The imagination shown by the creators of these two breweries, in the late 1800s, has not carried through to today’s managements. They were too busy making mainstream golden lagers to accommodate Samichlaus.The super-strong saint was banished, but his dalliance with drink could not be denied a third time. He had been left for dead, but was reincarnated, while also having given rise to a spirit. The miracle of the mash tun took place in another country, Austria. Once again, the site resembled a castle. In fact, it really is one: in the lake country between Salzburg and Linz, the village of Vorchdorf is overlooked by a hill called Eggenberg, upon which there has been a castle since the 1100s.Facing competition from ever more concentrated national groups the owning family Forstinger-Stöhr have in recent years been developing a range of strong lagers, including one made with smoked malt and called Nessie.When the family acquired the rights to produce Samichlaus, I was invited to the brewery to taste the first ‘vintage.’ As I was being shown round the castle, I admired the family chapel. I suggested that the chapel might be used for a mass to bless each vintage.The following year, I was invited to the first such mass. A year later, I was again a guest, to find that an Edelbrand ‘noble distillate’ was being made from the Samichlaus beer. Such products are popular, albeit as something of a novelty, in the German-speaking world, but the sweet, nutty Samichlaus version is far tastier than most. On my most recent visit, I sampled several wood-aged variations.As we tasted with Karl Stöhr Senior and Junior, in the brewery’s guest bar, the priest enthused volubly: “Vater, Sohn und Heiliger Geist!” Did I really start this? Me, an atheist?! I tell you, God moves in mysterious ways.