Salty, spiced, and sour: you may have heard the hubbub of conjecturing beer writers labeling Gose-style ales the next new trend in craft brewing, or maybe you’ve seen a few on tap nearby in the last year. Where did this seemingly unknown style come from, and why has it been picked up by craft breweries? To find the answers, we’ve got to go back, way back‒1000 years, in fact.
First brewed around the turn of the last millennium in Goslar, a village in the Lower Saxony region of Germany, Gose became increasingly popular in the larger city of Leipzig in the mid-1700’s. Beer writer and historian Michael Jackson estimated that there were at least 80 Gose-dedicated pubs in Leipzig in 1900, many of which were popular with students due to their reasonable pricing. Germany changed drastically with WWII, and Leipzig’s location in the segregated East meant that many breweries and pubs were either damaged by airstrikes or converted to Communist clubs. After Germany’s reunification, Gose made a series of mild re-appearances through the 1990’s. Though by no means a widely popular style, it’s still brewed and enjoyed in Leipzig.
Gose shares some qualities with other trends in the beer world at the moment‒namely, it’s sessionable and it’s sour. Let’s break those terms down a bit: a sessionable beer indicates that you might be able to drink several in a sitting without becoming intoxicated‒a characteristic less common in many of today’s popular American ales. The term is often applied to another higher-alcohol style as a modifier (e.g., a “Session” IPA). Gose is a lower-alcohol (4.4-5.4% ABV), lightly-hopped (10-15 IBU) beer and is very dry and well-attenuated with a crisp mouthfeel and a citrus-like floral aroma from the addition of coriander seeds.
Sour beers as a whole have gained a great deal of popularity in the US in recent years. The sourness of Gose comes from a specific technique called quick or kettle-souring, which differs from aged Belgian style sour beers such as Flanders Red or Lambics. Aged sour beers typically undergo a secondary fermentation over the course of a year or more along with the addition of wild yeasts and are frequently blended like wine or whiskey to create a specific flavor profile. Because of the aging process, making aged sour beers demands a lot of room for the storage of barrels. The ability to keep a large portion of space reserved for a very slowly developing beer is not always an option for breweries that aren’t entirely dedicated to the genre. A typical IPA, for example, is closer to two weeks from mash to glass. So as you can imagine, that quick return on production involves a very different business model than with an extensively aged product like a Lambic.
The original Leipziger Gose was probably spontaneously fermented‒that is, left to openly ferment with the resident wild yeasts in the environment, much like sourdough bread. Working with aged sour beers brings a risk of equipment contamination in the brewery. Wild yeasts are extremely tenacious, and a little shared space can mean the potential for unintentionally soured other beers. If this happens, it can be a long-term issue with a lot of loss. Kettle-soured beers like Goses do not necessarily present the same degree of risk for a non-sour beer-focused establishment‒because most Gose recipes don’t require the addition of wild yeasts, though there are some versions that do include them. Most American breweries making Gose today conduct a long and slow mash, often with the addition of a malt that includes a small percentage of lactic acid, or brewers might merely add a lactic culture to the kettle itself. These steps differ from a typical batch of non-sour beer, but the process is feasible for a brewery not specializing in aged beers.
Innovative American brewers are eager to experiment with new sets of flavors, and Gose absolutely allows for that. We have a climate that typically rewards breweries for selling a wide portfolio of styles, and a quick-soured beer is fast to draw attention as a good portion of American craft beer drinkers are equally eager to seek out new products. Fruity versions of packaged Gose are also in the market, mirroring the Leipziger tradition of adding herbal or fruit syrups to their Gose. Craft giant Sierra Nevada released a cactus-flavored version earlier this year, bringing the historic style into a new American light by highlighting a quirky native Californian ingredient.
And lest we forget about the importance of salt, Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham, WA created a Gose brewed with seawater from the nearby Salish Sea. The original thousand-year-old recipe is thought to have used saline water from aquifers exposed by Goslar’s mining industry, so utilizing local saltwater sources is in keeping with history and includes a bit of essential Pacific Northwest flair. Personally I find that a well-made Gose is a wonderful thing to drink after a long bike ride or walk in the sun‒the salty tartness and lower alcohol level make for the perfect recovery ale. I’m excited that we continue to encourage American brewing innovation and the expansion of beer styles‒especially ones that revive and reinvent ideas from a millenia ago. Sometimes to go forward, it’s best to look back.