The Weird, Wonderful World of Gose

If you are a respectable beer geek, you probably imagine you know the general shape of the beer map. There may be a few streets in a few cities you haven't walked down, but nothing you wouldn't recognize. I am one of those beer geeks, and about ten days ago I bought a bottle of Gose. To my shock, I learned that there's a whole new country on the map.

I have long meant to try the obscure style now native to Leipzig. What I recalled about it mainly was one of its more exotic ingredients--salt. Obscure German beers are generally the ones I like the most, and salt seemed as interesting and strange as the smoke in rauchbier or the sour in Berliner Weisse. But those beers are essentially variations on a theme. Gose is a totally different beast. Though its Frankenstein-monster of ingredients and methods makes it seem like variations on variations on variations on a theme, it doesn't taste like any beer I've had. The closest thing to it is made in India, and it's not a beer (but we'll come to that in due course).

Gose is an ancient style born in Goslar, 110 miles northwest Leipzig. The history of the style is sketchy. Some sources cite references back as far as medieval times--when I describe the beer, you'll see why this isn't far-fetched--but its modern incarnation dates back 250 years. It's popularity spread to Leipzig, and by the middle 1800s, it was considered a native style. In fact, it is now regularly referred to as "Leipziger Gose." Unfortunately, WWII dealt Gose a wound from which it would never really recover. It was out of production twice and mostly forgotten by the 1980s.

It has a great deal more in common with Belgian beers than anything brewed according to Reinheitsgebot (the more you learn about German beer, the more you realize that "purity" has a great deal less dominance than Americanos have been led to believe), and to taste it, you'd never guess it game from Germany. A wheat beer (50%+ of the grist), it contains the salt of its reputation but also coriander. Now here's where it gets interesting. Gose also uses a souring agent, added to the boil. Brewers of the 19th century guarded this secret:
The beer's popularity (and the premium price that it commanded) made it an attractive proposition for any brewery. Naturally, those already in the business of making it weren't too keen on their rivals getting in on the act. The tricky part was getting the addition of the lactic acid bacteria right. Sometime during the boil, the precise moment was of great importance, a powder was added to the wort (according to a source of 1872).
When Bayrischer Bahnhof began experimenting with a revival of the style in 2000, they weren't sure how to sour it, either. Encouragement by Michael Jackson led them back to lactobacillus. A wheat beer made with coriander and salt and soured by lactobacillus--perhaps even once spontaneously fermented. A mutt of a beer--can it be a German? (As it happens, brewers had to get a special exemption from Reinheitsgebot to go into production when they revived the style.)

So now the ancient style is back in production and available--periodically--at Belmont Station. Ready to hear that it takes like?

Tasting Notes
Gose is reputedly quite delicate and perishable, but the bottle I got seemed perfectly fresh and lively. A tangy, orangey aroma rose off the sudsy head. The beer was slightly cloudy but nothing like a hefe (rousing the yeast before pouring this beer would be a mistake--the fresh, delicate flavors and aroma shouldn't have to compete with yeast). More on the aroma: the wheat and coriander conspire to give a phantom wit nose, but not as much as you expect, and the sour note confuses the nose.

Before I mire us in adjectives, let's go for the big picture. There's a popular drink in India called lassi made from fresh yogurt. It comes in two versions, salted and sweet, both designed to cool you on a hot day. Gose is strikingly similar to lassi, and I imagine it is equally as satisfying on a hot day.

The first note is the tangy, gentle sour. The coriander is more an essence you notice only in the breath following the swallow, volatile, like oil coming off the tongue. The oddest thing--even more than the sour--is the salt. This is the ingredient that most characterizes the style, yet I was still surprised by its prominence. Salt infuses this gose, from the first sip through the final swallow. In fact, I licked my lips a few minutes after I finished the beer and they were still salty. Wheat is there throughout, softening the more intense flavors. Salt and sour are wonderful together, and yet so unexpected in a beer. It is perhaps the most flavorful 4.6% beer I've ever had.

This beer is a must-try. You'll be both disoriented but delighted.

Malts: 60% wheat, 40% barley
Adjuncts: coriander, salt
Other: Ale yeast, lactic bacteria added in the boil.
IBU: 13
Original Gravity: 1.046
ABV: 4.6%
Availability: Limited. In Portland, check Belmont Station; John's doesn't seem to carry it.
Rating: A