HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | MAY/JUNE 2011
Several Septembers ago, Eric Rose and Jonathan Cutler were prowling the suds-dappled floor of Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. Amid the piney IPAs and espresso-black imperial stouts, Rose, the owner and head brewer of Goleta, California’s Hollister Brewing Company, stumbled upon the pale-yellow Gose Speziell Weizen, hailing from Minneapolis’ Herkimer Pub & Brewery.
At first blush, little distinguished Herkimer’s elixir from similarly hued brews. Yet a single sip revealed a unique tartness. What was that appetizing, tongue-enveloping flavor? Salt? Yes, that’s the signature ingredient of sour gose (pronounced gose-uh), an ancient German wheat beer seasoned with coriander. Though Rose liked Herkimer’s gose, he thought it could be even more sour. He and Cutler, the head brewer at Chicago’s Piece Brewery & Pizzeria and a German-beer specialist, bounced ideas back and forth, settling on a traditional lactic fermentation—a tricky technique, given bacteria’s unpredictability. “Everybody said good luck with that,” laughs Rose, 35, who received guidance from a local microbiologist.
He brewed his gose with a few fistfuls of coriander, less than a pound of salt (a teensy amount for 10 barrels of beer) and a smattering of aged hops for balance, then pitched in souring Lactobacillus bacteria and, later, hefeweizen yeast. Upon sampling, “it was sour from start to finish—the acid was the show,” Rose says of his distinctly lemony brew. Since he doubted customers would drink it straight, he offered his creation—dubbed Tiny Bubbles—alongside cherry and raspberry syrups. But Tiny Bubbles required no sweet touch. “The salt brought everything together,” Rose says of his beer, which won over drinkers at his brewpub and judges at the 2010 GABF, where it nabbed a silver medal. “It’s like salt on a steak,” Rose says. “It leaves a really interesting flavor that brings you back over and over again.”
In recent years, the sour brews classically found in Belgium have bewitched American brewers, who employ wild yeasts and bacteria to create the tart ales. Now brewers are taking a shine to Germany’s sour-beer tradition. First the acidic, low-alcohol Berliner weisse was all the rage. Now salty, lip-puckering gose is making the leap from history books to the bar.
You’ll find this quirky quaff at Indianapolis’s Brugge Brasserie, which makes Bad Kitty, and the Draught House Pub & Brewery in Austin, Texas, which serves Sunshade Gose as a summer seasonal (sunshade—Sonnenschirm—is gose’s German nickname). New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Brewery offers a gose trio, including a winter-warming imperial version, while Portland, Oregon’s Cascade Brewing creates a unique gose for each season. Fellow Portlandite Upright Brewing instead releases its gose as an early spring seasonal. “It’s different, exciting and can still be aggressive,” says owner and head brewer Alex Ganum, 31. “Gose has an edge to it that appeals to people.”
Putting salt in beer may seem sacrilegious, but for centuries the seasoning has been key to this strange, singular German beverage. Like the Berliner weisse, gose is one of northern Germany’s traditional top-fermenting wheat beers. While both are sour, gose diverges by incorporating salt and coriander, a spice typically found in the Belgian witbier. Though some historians speculate that gose is related to Belgium’s gueuze—a blend of aged lambics—Gose originated in Goslar, a mining town in northwestern Germany and takes its name from the river Gose, which courses through the city.
Sharp, twangy gose proved popular and by the 1700s had caught on in Leipzig, located about 100 miles east, where it became a local favorite. Leipzig brewers also began manufacturing gose, and as recently as 1900 there were reportedly more than 80 licensed gosenschenke—that is, gose tavern—where one could get a glass of the salty stuff, which was sometimes served with a cumin-flavored liqueur. “You see that with many of the old north-Germany beer styles,” explains beer historian Ronald Pattinson, 54, the author of Porter! and Brown Beer. “They drank them with spirits because the beers weren’t very alcoholic.”
Despite currying local favor, “gose was never the majority of beer drank in Leipzig,” Pattinson continues. “The amount of gose produced was quite limited,” likely because few people had mastered its tricky production. From its late-19th-century peak gose gradually declined, as a lager craze swept Germany, wiping out small-scale breweries specializing in top-fermenting beer. Gose survived until World War II dealt it a deadly blow. Across Germany during that era, beer production temporarily ceased. When smoke and rubble were cleared, Leipzig found itself in Communist German Democratic Republic. In 1945, the last remaining gose brewery was confiscated and closed. Leipzig’s Friedrich Wurzler Brauerei revived gose in 1949, but when the owner died in 1966, so did gose.
The style lay dormant till the 1980s, when bar owner Lothar Goldhahn decided to restore Leipzig’s Ohne Bedenken, once one of the city’s most famous gosenschenke. To fill taps, he contracted breweries to craft gose. “It had been 20 years since people had gose, so he had people who drank gose try it,” Pattinson says. It passed muster. After a rocky period where production ceased again, “there are more breweries making gose in Germany than any time since World War II,” Pattinson says. “It’s a remarkable comeback.” He counts at least four gose-producing German breweries, including Brauhaus Hartmannsdorf, makers of the laser-tart Goedecke Döllnitzer Ritterguts Gose, and Gasthaus & Gosebrauerei Bayrischer Bahnhof, located in Leipzig’s historic train station.
“It’s refreshing and highly complex,” says Matthias Neidhart, 54, the president of B. United International importers, of Banhof’s Leipziger Gose, which may soon be complemented by an amber märzen and a strong bock version. “You have the banana-y esters from the yeast and lactic character from the bacteria and a dry, salty finish that’s not overpowering.” When B. United began importing the gose around 2003, drinkers met the beer with a blank stare. But thanks to the surging interest in sour, “when you tell people about the lactic acid, salt and coriander, their curiosity level goes up tremendously,” says Neidhart. “It’s almost like a session beer in that you can easily have a second or third. It’s so refreshing.”
Creativity is a hallmark of American craft brewing. Untethered from tradition, brewers use time-honored beer styles as a springboard to innovation. Naturally, gose is getting the offbeat treatment, but necessity is the mother of brewers’ tasty inventions. Regarding gose, “there aren’t any brewing records before the 1800s,” Pattinson says, noting that World War II destroyed numerous documents. “Even going back 200 years is difficult.” This creates a quandary when crafting a beer born centuries earlier.
“Whenever you’re playing around with an ancient style, you have no idea what the flavor should exactly be, so we’re making a guess,” says Tod Mott, 53, the head brewer at Portsmouth Brewery. Last year, he got bit by the gose bug after being approached by assistant brewer Tyler Jones. He was smitten with making a salty brew because “his grandfather would put salt in any beer,” Mott says, laughing.
Originally, gose was soured via spontaneous fermentation, due to bacteria like Lactobacillus. (Later, lactic acid was likely added instead.) Since Mott never messes with wild yeasts and bacteria, he opted for a sour mash method. After mixing the grain with water and boiling it to create wort—the sugary broth that becomes beer—Mott topped the mixture with raw wheat, sealed the brewing vessel and pumped in CO2 to form an anaerobic environment. The grain’s natural bacteria munched the sugars and created acidity. After boiling the sour blend to arrest the critters’ appetite, Mott added hefeweizen yeast to contribute flavors of bananas and cloves. The easy-drinking result was “just beautiful,” Mott says of the gose, which “flew out of the pub like crazy. Customers loved it,” as well as his ensuing dark dunkel gose and imperial-strength gose.
Instead of sour mashing, Upright’s Ganum takes a different tack to gose, which he was first introduced to at a homebrew competition. “My friend was like, ‘You gotta try this,’ ” Ganum recalls of the gose, which was, interestingly, soured with lemon juice. “The salt changes the finish and makes it more appetizing. It makes you want to drink more of it.” Intrigued by the style’s flavor and low alcohol content—gose is traditionally less than 5 percent ABV—Ganum brewed his own version in fall 2009. He used a French saison yeast, then fermented it at cooler temperatures to impart a hefeweizen-like character. Cautious about overdoing it with the lactic acid and salt, he initially used too little of each. He added more salt and lactic acid, then more still. The result was bright and acidic, offering notes of lemon and earth paired with a drying, quenching close. “That’s probably the seasonal beer that’s had the most requests. I always get, ‘When are you going to brew the gose again?’ ” Ganum says of the early spring specialty.
Spring is just one inspiration for Ron Gansberg, 54, head brewer at Portland, Oregon’s Cascade Brewing. Gansberg is renowned for crafting complex, painstakingly blended tart brews, so it follows that when he began dabbling in gose, he went all out. Using the traditional lactic-fermentation technique (the same one employed by Hollister’s Rose), Gansberg crafts a distinct gose for each season. “One of the beauties of the style is that it’s open to interpretation,” Gansberg says of his beers, sometimes released simultaneously as the “four goses of the apocalypse.”
For autumn, Gansberg adds orange peel, nutmeg and cinnamon instead of the traditional coriander. The stronger holiday version is spiced with cranberry, hibiscus flower and orange peel, while spring’s release is flavored with chamomile, lemon peel and lavender. The golden summer gose is the most traditional take, and it’s Gansberg’s preferred drink when temperatures soar. “When it’s hot outside, you can get a glass of gose down in a few guzzles, and then it’s back to work,” he says. “That little bit of salt creates an electrolytic response. It’s refreshing and rejuvenating.”
Besides its quenching character, Gansberg sees another benefit to offering gose. Compared to his other sour brews, “gose is much more accessible because its acid level is much lower. We like to start people off with gose and transition them to the harder stuff,” Gansberg says, laughing. “Gose is a gateway sour beer.”
American brewers may be offering quirky spins on this classic German quaff, but in certain regards they’re following tradition. According to Pattinson, old-guard gose brewers delivered barrels of still-fermenting suds to gosenschenke while the beer was still frenetically active. The barrels were cellared till fermentation slowed, whereupon proprietors transferred the gose into long-necked bottles, plugged them with yeast and let the beer condition for at least one week, and no more than three. “Customers would prefer a certain age of gose,” says Pattinson, who warns of the hazards of this finicky method. “If there was exceptionally hot weather, a pub could have an entire cellar of gose go bad. The trick was serving gose at the right degree of maturity.”
Cascade’s Gansberg also likes to experiment with aging. “When goses age, they stay really crisp. You might get some honey malt flavors coming through,” he says. “Acids are like hops: Initially they’re like a raging mountain, very sharp and angular. Over time, goses tend to erode and soften.” In fact, he recently sampled a gose he’d brewed in 2009 and found it to be excellent.
Hollister’s Rose is also a fan of maturation. “It gives it a round, full flavor,” he says, adding that a cellared version of Tiny Bubbles “tasted like a carbonated lemonade.” Still, for Rose, nothing beats the aggressively tart, full-on pucker of fresh Tiny Bubbles. In fact, he’s so eager to see other brewers serve lactic-sour gose that he’s given his recipe to a half dozen breweries, including Utah’s Squatters Pubs and Beers and Southern California’s Alpine Beer.
“I’m happy to share it with anyone,” he says, offering another advantage to brewing gose. “It’s an easy way for a brewery to get into the sour-beer game,” which is a time- and labor-intensive process. “You can do a sour beer in three or four weeks.” With more breweries crafting gose, Cascade’s Gansberg sees the revived style’s potential as a table beer, something to sip alongside food. For the first time in more than a century, “drinking gose could be an everyday event,” Gansberg says.
Read about a few other lesser-known German beer styles.