There’s no contending the trend: salt is hip. To be more exact, the addition of saltiness to typically unsalty food items is hip. Falling victim to it is almost unavoidable. Within a recent one-week span, I sampled chocolate sea salt donuts, ordered a cone of salted Oreo ice cream, noticed a salted caramel latte on a café menu, and was tempted to buy salted caramel chocolate squares from a convenience store. To be fair, salting the unsalty isn’t a groundbreaking new idea. There have always been things like melons wrapped in cured pork, or a dash of salt on a breakfast grapefruit, or, perhaps the oldest salted unsalty treat of them all, a beer called gose.
Mentioned in the history books over a millennia ago, this funky beer is brewed with wheat and spiced with coriander and salt. Just like salted caramel ice cream is gracing the menu of every corner ice cream shop, variations on the until now unheard-of gose style are popping up on brewpub tap lists across America. Refreshingly tart, low-in-alcohol, and salty enough to keep you drinking more, gose has become a go-to summer style for craft beer drinkers. But the style didn’t exactly take on easy path to widespread popularity.
The history of gose reads like an epic comeback saga. Of course, like almost everything in beer history the truth is fervently debated, in this case thanks largely in part to the great deal of secrecy surrounding the gose brewing process. The name is thought to be a derivation of Goslar, the lower Saxon town where the style originated. Why salt was added to the beer is uncertain. Some argue that the brewing water was naturally salty thanks to the plethora of mineral deposits in the area; others claim it was added later in the brewing process as a flavoring. Either way, gose didn’t reach its peak of popularity until the brewers of Goslar began exporting their salty brew to the major hub city of Leipzig in the 18th and 19th century. Here it caught on as a regional specialty with multitudes of specialized cafes serving what became known as Leipziger Gose.
In its heyday, Leipziger Gose would have obtained its refreshing tartness from a precise addition of lactobacillus, the same type of bacteria that gives yogurt and sauerkraut its acidic bite. Earlier iterations, however, were most likely spontaneously fermented with wild yeast and bacteria living in the air, the brewery, and the brewing vessels much like the heralded Lambic ales of Belgium. This similarity, on top of the fact that both are sour ales brewed with a high percentage of wheat and the conspicuous naming between “gose,” and the lambic sub-style “gueuze,” have raised plenty of theories about possible connections, though the evidence seems to point more towards pure coincidence. Another shared trait of gose and gueuze is the beer that helped lead them both to near extinction: the pale lager.
Palates and preferences changed to favor the lager styles of Bavaria following Germany’s unification in the late stages of the 1800s. This was certainly influenced by northern Germany’s adaptation of Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, the law mandating beer be brewed with only barley, yeast, water, and hops, although gose and several other ultra-regional specialties were exempted. The number of gose breweries steadily declined until 1945 when World War II forced the last remaining major producer, Rittersgutsbrauerei Dollnitz, to close its doors. A former employee of this brewery, Friedrich Wurzler, opened his own operation after the war, brewing gose for the few pubs who would still accept it from the secret recipes he had handwritten in his notebook. Following Wurzler’s death, his stepson kept gose alive and kept the brewery running until his own sudden death in 1966. Wurzler’s brewing notebook, containing the only known recorded recipe for gose, was lost somewhere along the way.
Gose was, in every sense of the word, dead. No one knew how to brew it, no document preserved its recipe, and no one seemed to have much interest in drinking it. If it wasn’t for the efforts of a single highly-determined man named Lothar Goldhahn, we probably wouldn’t be drinking gose today. Goldhahn dreamed of resurrecting one of Leipzig’s old beer cafés to its pre-war condition, gose and all. He set out to figure out how to brew the lost beer by interviewing the few people who remembered its taste and tracking down anyone who may have worked at a gose brewery in the past. By the mid-1980s, he had pieced together a recipe that old-time Leipzigers deemed authentic and had it contract-brewed for his pub.
Goldhahn fought to keep gose alive in his pub, jumping from contract brewer to contract brewer and even purchasing a brewery of his own. His hard work eventually paid off in 1999, when his current contract brewer opened up the Gasthaus & Gosebrauerei Bayerischer-Bahnhof in Leipzig, a brewpub focused on bringing gose back to glory. Today, Bayerischer-Bahnhof’s Leipziger Gose and a homebrew-turned-classic take on the Ritterguts recipe brewed by Brauhaus Hartmannsdorf stand as the foremost examples of the style. But these classics are most likely a far cry from what you’ll find on your local brewery’s tap list (unless you live in Leipzig).
From Stillwater’s hopped-up, Brettanomyces-fermented Gose Gone Wild to Tired Hands’ wacky basil and smoked salt pizza-inspired BrainHands, craft brewers have been letting their creative minds go to work riffing on the combination of tart, salty, funky, and floral notes in the classic gose formulation. If your local brewery hasn’t released a version of their own yet, they most likely will soon. Gose has been riding high as the go-to beer pick of the summer for craft drinkers for good reason. It’s low in alcohol, adventurous in fermentation, and has that unusual salty kick that makes you want to keep drinking more.
Really, it’s a wonder that it ever disappeared in the first place. But palates change, history happens; that’s just the way it goes. The fact that quirky, forgotten styles like this are making a comeback gives great promise to what the future holds. There are plenty of other lost beer styles lurking in the history books awaiting their time in the spotlight. Whether it was pure coincidence or intentional, salty gose’s comeback lining up with the rise of the salt trend has certainly helped it along. Now we just need another buried beer that fits into a current food trend to make a comeback and hit it big. Maybe there’s some old regional specialty out there brewed with crispy kale or bacon grease?
Getting into Gose is easy since there are only two German “classics” in the category that you need to try to get acquainted, although both are actually relatively new beers. After trying those, you can delve into all of the variations that the beer world has come up. I’ve listed a couple of the more widely distributed ones below but be sure to check out your local breweries’ sure-to-be interesting takes on the style.
Leipziger Gose, Gasthaus & Gosebrauerei Bayerischer Bahnhof
Leipzig, Germany. 4.5% alcohol by volume, $5 for a 12oz bottle
The result of Lothar Goldhahn’s brave effort to bring Gose back to life, this reverse-engineered classic is an endlessly refreshing, delicately tart beer with a hazy golden body. The funky floral and saline nose leads to a flavor profile that’s layered with sweet wheat, tart lemon zest, and topped with salt.
Dollnitzer Ritterguts Gose, Brauhaus Harmannsdorf
Hartmannsdorf, Germany. 4.2%, $7 for a 500mL bottle
This Dollnitzer style Gose is a slightly more aggressive take on the style that is most likely more representative of the original beers of Goslar. The tartness is turned up and evident in a heaping helping of lemon and green apple. The sour notes are kept in check by sweet stone fruit and the slightest hint of salinity.
Craft Beer Creations
Gose, Westbrook Brewing Company
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. 4.0%, $10 for a six-pack
This is the beer leading the craft beer Gose craze. Perfectly packaged in cooler-friendly cans, this beer is a balanced thirst quencher with tons of tart sour cherry and lemon balanced out by bready wheat notes and all accentuated by a healthy dose of salt.
The Kimmie, The Yink, & The Holy Gose, Anderson Valley Brewing Company
Boonville, California. 4.2%, $12 for a six-pack
Anderson Valley’s entry into the Gose market is new for the summer of 2014. Also packaged in cans, it packs the typical lemon and wheat-bread notes of a quintessential Gose as well as a peppery kick and plenty of salt on the finish. As for the name, it’s in the old Californian Boontling dialect so your guess is as good as mine.
Troublesome, Off Color Brewing, Chicago, Illinois
4.5%, $10 for a six-pack
The brewers at Off Color make their Gose by blending a plain old wheat beer with a completely lactobacillus-fermented beer. Floral coriander and tart citrus are balanced out by lightly toasted wheat bread in the flavor profile. The salt is minimal, with just enough to let you know it’s there.