Drink: Santa Claus is dead (official)

A final taste of the world's strongest lager - and other seasonal ales

Tomorrow will be a day of protest on the Internet over the apparent death of Santa Claus. Obituaries are being published, and net-users invited to sign a book of condolence. And protests are appearing on the growing number of sites linking beer-lovers internationally.

The Santa Claus in question is a beer - known properly as Samichlaus, as rendered in the Swiss German of Zurich, the brand-name of a Christmas lager with an international reputation among beer-lovers.

This extremely strong (14 per cent), peppery, brandyish, chestnut-coloured lager was launched in 1980 by Martin Hurlimann, whose company was renowned for its skill in propagating unusual yeasts.

He used one of these cultures in an successful effort to make the world's strongest lager while avoiding the extremes of syrupy stickiness and solvent- like alcohol flavours found in some extra-potent brews. The beer is brewed on St Nicholas' Day (6 December), and released 12 months later, with a "vintage" date on the label.

After his retirement in 1996, the brewery was acquired by a rival, Feldschlosschen, in the spa town of Rheinfelden, near Basel. Unfortunately, this brewery has fallen into the hands of accountants and marketing men who wish to concentrate on mass-market beers. They have decided that the batch of Samichlaus brewed in 1996 and released in 1997 will be the last example of this speciality. Beer-lovers wishing to speak out for Santa can do so on ww.beerhunter.com or www.breworld.com

Five hundred cases of the last vintage were labelled for the UK, and all of these have been bought by Safeway, where the beer is on sale at pounds 1.75 per bottle. "It will be a great shame if one of the world's landmark beers disappears for ever - for no good reason," says its buying manager Glen Payne.

Christmas beers from Britain

Winter Holiday From the Lakeland Brewery. Ruby to dark brown. Smooth, very dry, almost oaky. Very big for a beer of a modest 5 per cent. Distributed by James Clay, of Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire (01422 822659).

Robert Cain's Christmas Ale From the fine Victorian brewery of the same name in Liverpool. This bright, pale amber ale, at 5 per cent, has a toasty palate and a lemony finish. Available at Asda.

Fuller's 1998 Vintage Ale From the famous London brewery. Made from Alexis malting barley and Wye Northdown hops. Lovely amber colour. Malty but beautifully balanced, at 8.5 per cent. Can be laid down. Available at Tesco.

Shepherd Neame Vintage Christmas Ale From Kent hop country. Deep amber. Perfumy. Laced with cherry brandy. 6.7 per cent alcohol. Available at Sainsbury's.

From Belgium

St Feuillien Cuvee de Noel Named after an Irish missionary who in the 7th century founded the town of Le Roeulx, near Mons. This strong (9 per cent alcohol) ale has a deep, claret colour, a marzipan aroma and flavours reminiscent of nuts, dates, lemon peels and cinnamon.

Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noel Named after a former monastery in the same part of Belgium. Produced in a tiny brewery established by a former tax inspector. This ale, also 9 per cent, is similar, perhaps more fruity and port-like. Try it with cheese.

Barbar Winter Bok A pinkish-brown, honey ale of 8 per cent, with flowery, vanilla-like notes.

These three brews are distributed by Beer Direct, Stoke-on-Trent. Phone and fax: 01782 303823

From the United States

Anchor Merry Christmas Ruby to dark brown. Creamy, toasty start; spicy, grapefruity, finish. Alcohol 5.5 per cent. From the Beer Shop, 14 Pitfield St, London N1, 0171-739 3701 (also mail order).

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