An Afternoon with Santa Claus: Zürich’s Hürlimann Brewery, 1994

Hürlimann, Zürich (1994).

Exuberant excess in beer has been redefined so many times recently that I wouldn’t know where to begin a survey of the territory, but for those interested in the traditional barroom argument about the world’s strongest beer (in terms of alcoholic strength), this link is as good as any: The 15 Strongest Beers in the World.

Sorry, but a 67.5% beer isn’t my idea of sanity. To each their own, and pass me an Ordinary Bitter.

It’s difficult to imagine a time not so long ago when the consensus choice for world’s strongest beer was brewed at an old-school plant in conservative Switzerland. Almost 27 years later, I can see my visit to Hürlimann in Zürich by a very different light. While Samichlaus has survived, as brewed for the past two decades in Austria after a brief hiatus when Hürlimann was merged and rationalized (closed) in 1997, it still tastes quite similar to the way it always did.

But the real story, starting in the early 1990s when the fall of Communism opened European markets for global “modernity,” was the death of Hürlimann and so many other traditional breweries of its ilk. Whenever a brewery like Hürlimann goes away, so does an entire, interrelated system, both inside the brewhouse and also outside of it, in the community.

International craft beer subsequently exploded to take the place of these lost breweries, and of course we can be thankful for that; yes, another beer and brewing Weltanshauung rose up from the ruins to take the place of the old, hence a Scottish beer of 67.5% alcohol and six breweries in a city the size of New Albany. That’s fine by me, and yet as I reread my essay from 1994, an elegiac melancholy takes hold. I’m glad I had the chance to witness Hürlimann’s milieu then, and still, in my own small quiet way, I mourn the brewery’s passing.

An Afternoon with Santa Claus: Zurich’s Hürlimann Brewery, 1994

(This article originally was published in the Dec. ‘94/Jan. ‘95 (Vol. 2, No. 2) issue of Southern Draft Brew News; photos finally were digitized in 2020 and have not been published previously.)

Zürich is an attractive, efficient city in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. The Limmat River runs through it, past shops, hotels and cafes — like the Odeon, which was frequented by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin during his wartime period of exile from tsarist Russia — leading from a beautiful lake surrounded by trim suburban villas, which on clear days has the Swiss Alps as a dramatic backdrop.

The Limmat River and Lake Zürich.

We flew to Zürich in late June for the express purpose of catching a Swiss Air flight to Albania, allowing three days to rest before heading south. Since one of the most crucial elements of tourism as both art and science involves the consumption of beer, and beer is available in abundance in Zürich, we had no reason to hurry through a long weekend.

Four breweries dominate the Swiss market, and Zürich is the home of Hürlimann (1), which was founded by the family of the same name in 1836. The brewery is located on Brandschenke Strasse, a short uphill walk from the lakefront or a 15-minute tram ride from the central station. The spring water used to brew Hürlimann’s beers is available to the thirsty public from a fountain in front of the brewery.

The guide Roland Gyger met us at the main office and led us through a comprehensive tour of the brewery. The facility is a combination of new and old elements. The brewhouse is entirely computer-operated and filled with stainless steel kettles, not copper.

Open fermentation, 1921.

Only lagers are brewed at Hürlimann. Although Switzerland does not have a beer purity law like Germany’s, Hürlimann refrains from the use of corn and other adjuncts. Barley and hops come from Switzerland and abroad, and the company famously specializes in yeast, developing strains for its own use as well as supplying more than 200 breweries elsewhere.

The Hürlimann Portfolio.

Hürlimann’s most renowned beer is Samichlaus, an immensely potent dark brew of 14-plus percent alcohol by volume. Samichlaus (which means Santa Claus in the local dialect) is brewed only once a year, on December 6. An initial period of fermentation at high temperatures is followed by ten months’ lagering, during which the beer slowly gains strength.

During our descent into Hürlimann’s frigid lagering cellars, where the company’s conventional beers are lagered from six to ten weeks, Roland asked the cellar master for a sample of the still youthful, unfiltered Samichlaus.

1994 Samichlaus release at six months of age.

In spite of it having attained less than nine percent alcohol in a half-year’s aging, all the components of the mature Samichlaus were in evidence: Big, firm body, nuttiness and a smooth, warming alcohol jolt.

The presentation of Samichlaus by Roland Gyger.
The Samichlaus quaff.

Hürlimann’s line of beers includes styles far more suited to everyday quaffing than Samichlaus, which will never be mistaken for beer to wash down nachos or cap off an hour of midsummer’s yardwork. These include Hürlimann Lager Bier (medium-bodied, clean Helles), Stern Bräu Spezial Bier (fuller-bodied and hoppier, perhaps similar to a Dortmunder), Gold Premium Hell Blonde (a light beer in everything but name) and the Lowenbräu-Zurich Lager, which used to be the flagship brand of another Zurich brewery but now is controlled and brewed by Hürlimann.

The Swiss palate prefers lighter-bodied, milder beers such as the brands mentioned above. In the past, Hürlimann produced other, more specialized styles in addition to the mighty Samichlaus. One was Five Star, which is said to have been comparable to a Pilsner. Another was Dreikonigs (Three Kings), which was registered as a “strong” beer by Swiss legal definition (16 Plato, 6.7% alcohol by volume).

The obligatory bottling line at Hürlimann.

Unfortunately, both have been discontinued. Hürlimann now brews Denmark’s Tuborg Gold under license and imports Carlsberg and Elephant, and these have made the Five Star and Dreikonigs redundant, an unhealthy trend for any beer lover who appreciates the unique qualities of local specialties. It goes to show that even in the European brewing heartland it cannot be taken for granted that such traditional brews will withstand the onslaught of international brands.

We met the Hürlimann horses, too.

Dark Lager by Moonlight.

Hürlimann’s most interesting beer after the singular Samichlaus is its Hexenbräu Dunkel (13.3 Plato, 5.4% alcohol by volume). Hexenbräu is lighter-bodied and slightly sweeter than its Bavarian and Czech cousins, and the vaguely toffeeish flavor is an ideal accompaniment to German-style cuisine — particularly the signature mustard-style potato salad served warm at Zurich’s Zeughauskeller restaurant, where we dined and drank draft Hexenbräu following the brewery visit.

Das Restaurant Zeughauskeller, Zürich.

A Hexenbräu fact sheet from Phoenix Imports Ltd. (2), the Baltimore-based importer, begins by quoting Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson’s favorable impression of Hexenbräu from his New World Guide to Beer, then shifts into a less “prosaic” description:

Hexenbräu (Witches Brew) is brewed only when the moon is full. Then, and only then, according to the ancient secrets of the brewmasters, can their all-natural recipe develop the coffeeish-chocolatey aroma and rich, smooth, malty taste so bewitching in this dark lager.

Our tour ended with a session in the brewery’s quaintly adorned Bierstube, or taproom, where many local retirees were gathered for their weekly afternoon of jass, a card game. We sampled Hürlimann’s beers from bottles, with Roland providing commentary and answering our questions. The afternoon visit turned out to be an ideal way of easing back into the central European lifestyle that we were about to abandon to travel to Albania, where beer is available, but under vastly different circumstances.

(1) For a fine, brief history of the rise and subsequent fall of Hürlimann, see the entry in The Oxford Companion to Beer.
(2) Phoenix Imports ceased to exist in 2009.