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Monday, March 23, 2009

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


  1. Jeff,

    Since I was there and took notes . . . it is made with 51% wheat and 49% barley malt.

    Bahnhof produces its own lactic acid and adds it preboil. The brewer does not pretend this is like they made it in the old days - either spontaneous fermentation or using a sour mash - or that it is as sour.

    In fact it is not as sour at the Dollnitzer Ritterguts Gose, also available in Leipzig.

    Bahnhof shoots for 10 bitterness units. The weight of hops used is just a tad more than the weight of the salt.

    Thanks for bringing more attention to the beer. I hope more people in the Portland try it.

  2. Stan, thanks for the insight. I regret I've never visited Germany--makes even a beer blogger feel like a piker. Incidentally, I got the stats off the importer's site, and they may be regarded as approximations. They have the beer listed at 4.5%, the bottle says 4.6%. They say 60% wheat, but I'm not surprised to hear you say 51%.

  3. I was in Leipzig last fall and just happened to visit the Ohne Bedenken brewpub, since the Bahnhof brewery was reservation-only the evening we decided to head out. the crowd at Ohne Bedenken were having a great time and the waitress was incredibly friendly. both the gose and our food were delicious. I recall thinking of the gose as the tasty result of berlinerweisse and hefeweisse having children. the menu had a whole page dedicated to gose mixed with various fruit syrups and purees. (I chose to take mine straight.)

    I was a bit surprised when I saw gose show up in Portland. it is as I remember it, and my only wish is that it was about a third the price.

    a point of warning: I have heard from a few people that the bottles are prone to explosion, and a few have gone off both at Belmont and John's. even after chilling for a couple days, my bottle was extremely lively.

    the bottles have a ton of yeast, which I'd like to try culturing some time and making my own gose. maybe start with a reverse-decocted berlinerweisse?

  4. Aaron -

    Of you had the draft Gose at Ohne Bedenken - what a great place, huh? did you check out all the parts? - it would have been from Bahnhof. They have Rittenguts in bottles.

  5. Stan --

    it was late evening when we got to Ohne Bedenken, so I didn't get to see much except the main bar. I took a peek in the basement, but it was empty at the time.

    the Ohne Bedenken gose is from Bahnhof?

  6. My local brewery, Golden City, in Golden, Colorado, made a Gose a little over a year ago, maybe the summer before last. It was fantastic, and now, seeing how rare the style is, I'm especially glad that I got a chance to try one. Hopefully this style will become more prevalent, because it is certainly a shame that it's so hard to find.

  7. Jeff - How much clove and/or banana did you get in the gose? I've had the Leipzeger here in VA, and remember it being pretty subtle. I'm drying to put together a recipe to brew 5 gallons and the yeast choice is the hardest part. Thanks for the help.

  8. Dan, it's been a little while since I had the beer, but to my recollection, none. They get the sourness from a lactic addition, not the yeast. My guess is a more traditional lager yeast is probably in order, rather than a weisse.

  9. I know I'm a little late to the party here, but just wanted to throw in my two cents...

    First, in response to Stan's second comment, I understand Ohne Bedenken once served Bayerischer Bahnhof on draft but when I was there in late 2007 it was definitely Döllnitzer (unless the waiter lied to me and served me bottled beer in a glass).

    And Dan, I'd recommend WLP320 American Hefe yeast. It'll give you a nice yeastiness but virtually no clove or banana (as I personally didn't pick up those notes in either Bayerischer Bahnhof's or Döllnitzer's). Alternatively you could use a traditional Hefe yeast and just keep your temps really low (like right around 60°F) but I've had good luck with WLP320.