Given the developments of the past decade or so, you wouldn't put it past brewers making a push to bring any forgotten beer style back to prominence. Indeed, recent advancements make it seem almost surreal that relatively mundane beer styles such as porters were fighting for survival in the not-too-distant past.
The whirlwind that is the craft beer revolution – a whirlwind that has been relentlessly gathering in pace rather than offering any sign that it will stop rattling your roof – has plundered almost every nook and cranny of beer's long history in the search for experiences new and different. And one nook into which brewers and drinkers are particularly enjoying poking their noses is the one where sour beers are found.
In Australia, it felt elicit and somewhat naughty when we poured a 100 percent spontaneously fermented Swanambic from Feral at a Melbourne Food & Wine Festival event in 2011 or served up the Wig & Pen's barrel blended Mothur Funkur gueuze at the first Good Beer Week Mega Dega the following year. Five years on, there's barely a brewery without some sort of barrel project on the go and all manner of means being explored to get wild or, in most cases, "wild" (i.e. from a packet) yeasts or souring bacteria into beers.
The once almost forgotten German beer style Berliner Weisse is perhaps the one seen most often; these beers can be brewed relatively quickly (if not always well), after all. Yet a relative of sorts of the Berliner Weisse is coming up hard on the rails – and it has to be a beer style that few would have backed to rise to such (relative) popularity.
It is gose, pronounced "goes-uh", a bit like the baddie in the first Ghostbusters (and thus rendering the pun in the title of this article and on many beer labels technically incorrect). And it's a wheat beer traditionally brewed with additions of salt, coriander and souring bacteria.
It doesn't sound like the most promising of starting points; at least good Berliner Weisse tend to offer a cleaner, more acidic profile, for example. Yet, helped by the desire of brewers and drinkers to try something new and the arrival of popular imports such as Anderson Valley's range, gose is carving out quite a niche for itself.
While it wasn't the first gose brewed commercially in Australia (one from Doctor's Orders Brewing springs to mind), Nomad Brewing's Freshie Salt 'n' Pepper Gose is perhaps the best known. Originally brewed with buckets of Northern Beaches seawater, as well as Tasmanian mountain pepper, it is now sold across Europe, Asia and both North and South America and, last month, became the first Nomad beer to be canned, gaining a land-lubbing stablemate, Saltpan Desert Gose, featuring desert finger limes and pink salt from the Murray River, at the same time.
"When we were all talking about different things we'd like to do, we always had the idea to do a gose," says brewery co-owner Kerrie Latta of Freshie's origins. "It wasn't in the production plan. It was just a moment the boys had. A beautiful moment."
The moment was one that saw fellow brewery owner, Leo di Vicenzo of Italy's Birra del Borgo, and Nomad head brewer Brooks Caretta decide to wade into the waters and bring some buckets of beer back to the brewery. The resultant beer – a little witbier character, some lime, a refreshing saltiness and a cleansing finish – slowly rose to become a cult favourite for the brewery (and the one that represents them in The Great Australian Beer Guide).
"It was always going to be a one-off," says Kerrie. "But it sold well."
It also won over visitors to their tasting room, including those who'd come along with mates who claimed not to like beer. And, over time, says Kerrie, Freshie "started growing into this personality beyond the beer." One local surf club even added it to its tap lineup alongside Tooheys; another customer likens it to a "beer margarita".
As if to emphasise its surprising popularity, while we were chatting to Kerrie at the Brookvale tasting room – where 500ml bottles were being packaged for delivery to Brazil – a man in his 60s wearing golf manufacturer branded clothing walked in. He was after the "salt and pepper beer", and nothing but the "salt and pepper beer", and was utterly dismayed (and that's not putting too strong an emphasis on his reaction) to learn there was none available for takeaway as the cans weren't quite ready.
Freshie has been joined by a fairly diverse array of fellow gose since its first appearance, with one Victorian brewery, Sailors Grave, opting to make a seaweed gose its very first release. Fellow Victorians Holgate Brewhouse (whose brewer Chris Brady offers an historical perspective on the beer below) recently released one featuring tangelos and, earlier this month, Hargreaves Hill released one created in unison with Four Pillars Gin.
It's the latest venture into the world of barrels and sour beers for Hargreaves Hill, a move that coincided with current head brewer Kai Damberg's arrival at the brewery. He had been inspired by a recent trip to the States for the Craft Brewers Conference where he "couldn’t walk into a bar without tripping over two goses."
The Yarra Valley producers chose the style for their collaboration as they felt it would work best with the botanicals used in Four Pillars gin.
"The key point between Four Pillars and us was it had to be a beer first and gin second. They made that point," says Kai. "It was a bottle of Sierra Nevada Otra Vez that won us all over to gose."
The result is a light and spritzy affair that showcases the botanicals, the saltiness and the gentle cleansing acidity well, and makes it easier to understand why the style is proving a surprise hit – particularly when used as a base upon which to layer other flavours.
For Kai, "it’s the next step after 'sour' being the next big thing." He says he sampled both good and very bad in the States – in the latter camp he reckons some tasted like chicken stock, but says "the amazing ones were, well, amazing."
"I’ve never brewed a gose before," he adds, while admitting to knowing the style guidelines for the beer inside out, like any good brewing geek, "and I’ve always found the style intriguing. I find it one of those intriguing historical styles where people have taken it and completely adopted the modern take. I don’t recall the last time I had a gose that was simply coriander and salt!"
The craft beer renaissance is proving remarkably impervious to the gloomy prophecies of naysayers, with a bubble that continues to inflate in all directions. But does Kai believe sour beers, and in particular gose style beers, will prove to be short-lived flirtations for beer lovers?
"The interest in sour styles is absolutely not a flash in the pan," he says. "What it is though is a tiny subset of a tiny market.
"The absolutely critical thing from my perspective is that the souring of beer is a means, not an end. So, as the market matures, it will accept 'sour' being a technique, not a product. Just like barrels, they’re a means, not an end. Just like a lot of fancy things we do that sound clever, I suppose."
It's a sentiment that echoes that of Kerrie in relation to Freshie. Nomad's desire to brew a gose came from their affection for a broad range of European beer styles.
"The whole thing with Freshie is that we didn't do it to be quirky," she says.
And perhaps that's a lesson that can be applied to craft beer generally. In most cases, brewers aren't trying new techniques or new ingredients for novelty value or instant gratification; like innovative chefs, they're looking to create new and interesting experiences for drinkers. And, if the results are good, who cares how obscure the inspiration, method or ingredients?
Gose Now & Then – An Historical Perspective
By Chris Brady
It doesn’t seem so long ago that gose would have only been spoken of in certain circles – think well-travelled (or bookish) uber-nerds – and, even then, it could understandably be confused with the almost-homonymic gueuzes of Belgium. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the almost forgotten German beer leapt onto the craft beer radar.
The proof of gose’s ascendance came when, just over a year ago, the entire beer style was lambasted and written off in an article in The Thrillist as evidence of craft beer’s geek-nadir. To the casual reader, it would appear that the insufferable craft beer revolution had finally disappeared up its own arsehole*.
However, gose is not a trick beer pulled with a flourish from a craft brewer’s beard. Gose is a historic link to the days when brewing was a rustic, small scale means to drinking refreshing fluids without the cholera. These days, German beer has become synonymous with pale lager but, prior to revving up the all-conquering lager juggernaut, Germany also had a rich tradition of extremely localised ales.
Düsseldorf had malty altbier, Cologne had crisp kölsch and, indeed, these have survived in their heartlands to this day.
Bavarians were rightly proud of their hefeweizen, which became the unchallenged global superstar of the German ale family. Even Berlin’s sour and tangy Berliner Weisse clung on long enough to enjoy a resurgence thanks to the craft beer boom. Sadly, some were not so lucky.
Dortmund’s Adambier was a strong (pushing 10 percent ABV) ale that shared similarities with old English stock ales in that they weren’t brewed sour but rather took on a prized tang during long periods of maturation in barrels that hosted populations of wild yeasts and bacteria.
Grätzer was actually a beer that originated in neighbouring Poland, where it was known as Grodziskie, but became hugely popular in Northern Germany. Made entirely from smoked wheat malt and comparatively bitter, this unique beer – never really a likely contender to resurge in the same way that hefeweizen has – eventually slaked its last thirst in the early 90s.
Kottbusser is one of many lost North German beer styles and a probable antecedent of Berlinner Weisse. A weissebier that often contained a portion of wheat, Kottbusser was lightly hopped and sour and it’s likely that the souring lactobacillus came from the brewing equipment rather than through deliberate inoculation.
Another early ancestor of Berlinner Weisse was Broyhan. Originating in Hannover, Broyhan was once drank by many North Germans and had much in common with other preindustrial European farmhouse beers. Broyhan brewers didn’t have a particularly strict view as to which grains were fit for inclusion. Both wheat and oats were often used to bolster the usual barley malt base. Indeed, like many farmhouse beers, any grains to hand are likely to have ended up in the mash.
Unlike latter day Berliner Weisse, Broyhan was typically quite sweet as well as sour, with the calorific sweetness providing much needed sustenance to the working people who drank it. Being an old beer style, it straddles the period when beer made the transition from being a spiced malt beverage to a hopped one and it was not uncommon for these farmer-brewers to use hops in in tandem with whatever herbs and spices they had to hand.
This nods to a whole family of European ales with a shared heritage which today survives in the form of spiced seasonal ales and, notably, Belgian witbiers.
*The linked article is fun but there is a sweet irony at work when a bocce-playing bass guitarist (yes, really) pays out on novelty-hungry beer hipsters.
Gose got its name from its birthplace, the German town of Goslar, but it really blossomed in nearby Leipzig, the town most associated with gose. Leipzig became home to many gose breweries and an unusual method of conditioning and packaging evolved. Local taverns took delivery of still-fermenting gose barrels and packaged the live beer in distinctive bottles with long, thin necks that trapped yeast as it rose from the fermenting beer. This yeast dried and formed a plug, which was the bottle’s only seal.
A pale, low alcohol wheat beer soured with lactobacillus and flavoured with coriander and salt, gose is in many ways alien to modern beer drinkers’ palates and is a direct link to the proto-styles of brewing’s distant past. The coriander addition, in common with the wit beers from just over the Belgian border, highlights a lineage that stretches back to pre-hop beer traditions when spice mixtures known as gruit were used to flavour beer. The lactic sourness in common with the other European sour beers was almost certainly once the product of spontaneous, mixed fermentations.
By the way, if you’re thinking that all this flies in the stern, Orwellian face of the Reinheitsgebot, it does. It’s just that the famous German beer purity law wasn’t applied nationally until the 20th century and, even today, exceptions can be made.
So Why Was Gose So popular?
Back in the (good old) days, the common folk evidently had a liking for a beer with a sharp tang to it. There are contemporary writings from across Europe that sing the praises of these beers. Indeed, in the days before the mass production and homogenisation of our food chain, before the super-mega-hypermarkets got their clinical hands on and into our food as well as our minds, people ate and drank a great deal of wild-fermented foodstuffs, far greater than we do today.
All manner of fermented milks, vegetables and meats were once commonplace. Sourdough was not cool. It was just bread. Sauerkraut was not the hip condiment to go with the gourmet sausage at the farmers’ market, it was just how you ate cabbage when cabbage wasn’t in season. Thus, the general population at large had a taste for all things sour and funky because that was just what a lot of food tasted like.
Viewing beer within this context makes it plain to see that the tangy, vinous porters, stock ales and IPAs of Olde Englande, the sour weissebiers of Germany and the mouth-puckering lambics of Belgium plus countless other long-forgotten beer traditions were lapped up by the locals precisely because they weren’t anything out of the ordinary. They were the XXXX Gold, or the Budweiser, or the Greene King IPA, or the Heineken of their time.
Who knows, perhaps in 500 years, someone will unearth a dusty recipe for Carlton Draught and brew up a beer that’ll have the future cybernerds working themselves onto a frenzy on some telepathic, holographic descendant of Untappd. In short, these beers, with their varying levels of acidity and funk, weren’t a movement or a scene in those regions. It was just what beer tasted like.
The Resurgence of Gose
The aforementioned gose-damning article did manage to raise one salient point relating to the rise of gose, and that concerns the questionable power of novelty and the capriciousness of the craft beer movement. Novelty is by its very nature a short-lived love affair which has been lampooned to great effect by television’s Portlandia and the joke can easily apply to craft beer’s nerd culture – "Belgian IPAs are OVER!"
As craft becomes more mainstream, there will always be a hardcore of drinkers hell-bent on staying ahead of the curve lest they become associated with the pedestrian masses.
Connected to this novelty is the fact that gose beers do seem to lend themselves to fruit additions which, it could be argued, allows them to appeal to a broader section of drinkers including those that would usually favour alcoholic drinks other than beer. Another helping hand for gose in the popularity stakes is their low ABV, and we all know that weak beer is so hot right now what with all the tiny IPAs and XPAs jostling for shelf space with mid-strength golden ales and sessionable barley wines. OK, I made up that last one.
Add all this to the relatively recent phenomenon of unusual salt applications – salted caramel Tim Tams anyone?– and the fact that sour beers in general are becoming a less scary concept for many drinkers, and the rise of gose seems less inexplicable and more inevitable.
Above all, a gose can be an incredibly refreshing beer, and the salt can be especially useful if you’ve been working up a sweat playing bocce, or even bass guitar for that matter.