For all the perception that “Zürich Lager” is something special to experience, it seems that most reviews of Swiss beer, at least those that refer to pale lager, report finding nothing special. From Lowenbrau Zürich, Quollfrisch Hell, Feldschlösschen, Calanda, Schützengarten, to probably a dozen more, the reviews go from “Swiss Bud Lite” to “nothing spectacular.”
I’ve only been to Switzerland once, and that was to Geneva, which, while beautiful, has a pretty nondescript beer scene. So what’s the deal with the legendary Zürich lager? Apparantly it all comes down to Hürlimann Samichlaus, a rare Christmas beer whose Swiss manufacture ceased in 1996. The gnomes of Zürich managed to cram an entire six-pack of flavor into a 335ml bottle, and at 14% ABV, there are still some cellared examples being consumed now and again to rave reviews. In 2000 the brand was revived by Austrian brewer Schloss Eggenberg.
Albert Hürlimann was a recognized expert in the scientific development of yeast, and his extremely alcohol-tolerant strain survives as White Labs WLP885. Equipped with a vial of this venerable strain, what is one to do who does not have the patience to wait three years for a lager to mature?
In this example, a brew of 16.5 degrees Plato starting gravity will turn out to be very drinkable in less than six months, finishing at 3 Plato with an ABV of about 7.2%. The beer starts with a hefty grain bill of lager malt, to which the brewer adds Munich, Vienna, Melanoidin and CaraPils specialty malts.
The Zürich lager yeast throws off a lot of phenolic flavor which comes through strongly in this beer, giving it a quality almost like a Belgian brew. It is a long, slow fermenter, and four to five months in the secondary is about the minimum necessary to bring the gravity down to a manageable level.
It is a very flavorful and full-bodied beer, and will improve with age for quite some time. I plan to keep a bottle at least another six months to see how it develops.