PlumpJack Wine & Spirits brings you this month’s beer club tasting notes for July. This sunny, summer month we turn to gose, a German style of sour beer. Gose has quickly become a trendy beer with zesty, savory sourness. Let’s raise a couple glasses of gose this month, tasting a clean, precise, session version from Off Color Brewing in Chicago, and sipping an artful, barrel-aged version from Colorado’s Paradox Beer Company.
Rich Higgins, Master Cicerone
Back in January of 2012, we featured a newly imported beer from Leipzig in this Club. At the time, it was a rare sighting of an esoteric sour German beer style, and I was excited to give the beer some daylight. The beer was Bayerischer Bahnhof brewery’s Gose, resurrected and brewed by a pioneering craft brewery in the center of Leipzig. Leipzig’s beer culture had somberly deteriorated during its time in the Eastern Bloc, and Soviet culture and pilsner economics had turned this city — home to dozens of gose taverns in the 1800s — into a tomb for this tart, spiced ale.
Gose (pronounced GO-zuh; different from Belgium’s gueuze, which is pronounced GEU-zuh) is a low-alcohol, low-bitterness, slightly sour, spiced wheat ale. Gose derives its name from the town and river where the style coalesced: the town of Goslar, on the Gose River, 100 miles from Leipzig. Goslar was a salt mining center in the Middle Ages, and its well water is naturally a bit salty. In addition to brewing with this salty water, beer in pre-industrial Goslar and Leipzig was fermented in part by bacteria that produce lactic acid. Thus, for centuries the wheat beer from this area was slightly salty and slightly sour. Historically it was common to add spices to beer, and dash of coriander became a common addition to gose. As Goslar’s mining economy faded and Leipzig became a larger, industrial city, the center of gose consumption moved to Leipzig in the 1700s. Unfortunately, in the 20th Century wars and Soviet occupation were not kind to East German breweries, and between 1945 and 2000 gose was only intermittently brewed.
In the past 3 years, a hundreds of American craft brewers, and even handful of new German breweries, have added gose to their line-up and gose’s future is looking up. Not for the first time, the exuberance and growth of craft beer in the US saved a style. (Last February, Thrillist published an article claiming craft beer had jumped the shark in embracing gose; I hope you’ll disagree after tasting this month’s beers.) Fitting nicely into the fast-growing thirst for sour beers, gose has helped add diversity within the sour beer range. Gose satisfies a demand for sour beer in a faster, less-expensive production cycle. I call it a “fresh sour,” since it doesn’t take any longer to ferment than a non-sour beer, and it’s meant to be drunk fresh and not be aged. Just as yogurt and bread dough will sour within a couple days, gose wort turns from wheaty and bland to zesty and tart within just a few days, courtesy of fast-souring lactobacillus bacteria. The beers lack the complexity of a lambic or a wild ale, but just a few weeks after brew day, they’re in mugs out in the marketplace, while more complex sours sit in barrels (and on brewery ledgers) for months or years longer.
Gose is also press-ready — freedom in a glass — as American brewers play with this spiced, sour style that had lingered as a non-compliant, red-headed step-child appendix in Germany’s Reinheitsgebot brewing culture. This side of the Pond, hey: adding verboten spices and flavors, is, in a way, what American craft beer is all about! The most successful American contributions to beer history are all upsets to established beer recipes: look at steam beer (brewing lagers at warm San Francisco temperatures), American lagers (sneaking corn and rice into pilsner’s malt bill), and American pale ales and IPAs (using bold, brash American hops in place of delicate, refined European hops). Where the Saxons stopped at salt and coriander in their gose recipes, Yankee ingenuity is infusing goses with delicious blasphemies like cilantro, lemon verbena, hibiscus, marionberry, and sumac.
Troublesome Off Color Brewing, Chicago, Illinois, USA 4.3% ABV
Much like bakers, Off Color’s brewmasters John Laffler and Dave Bleitner keep a couple lactic fermentations in their Chicago brewery. A baker calls it a sourdough starter or a mother, and pinches off a portion of this sourdough to knead and bake into that day’s sourdough bread, and replenishes the mother with some fresh flour and water to be soured overnight for the next day’s bread. That concept is alive and well in liquid form at craft breweries like Off Color. In two rigged “farmboy” tanks, Laffler and Bleitner keep a population of lactobacillus bacteria happy, borrowing some lactically-soured beer from time to time in exchange for keeping those sour tanks topped up with fresh wort on brew days. Lots of breweries (not the majority, but not a few) keep “lacto beer” on hand to blend into the mash tun, into the wort kettle, and into fermented batches of beer — in small and large amounts, tweaking pH here and adding bready, yogurty tartness there. German brewers do it, too, and in concert with pasteurization, it’s a valuable way to add a hint of refreshing acidity without letting a beer become more sour during its time in the bottle. For Troublesome gose, Laffler and Bleitner hew to the modern German approach, brewing a base plain wheat beer, harvesting and pasteurizing the exact right amount of lacto beer for blending, and adding it to the wheat beer along with salt and coriander to create a subtle, precise, refreshing beer. It’s the perfect biergarten beer, whether you’re in Leipzig, The Loop, or on Lombard Street: drinkable (gulpable, really), refreshing, and great with sunshine, sweat, and sausage.
Troublesome is a hazy, pale straw color, pouring into the glass beneath a fleeting white head. It smells supremely doughy, with faint hints of orange peel, meyer lemon, and hay. It’s the ultimate refresher, drinking easily with slight sourness, saltiness, and woody spice. It explores tastes that most beers ignore: it’s a balance of sour and salty (both of which tease the faintest sweetness from the dry malts), rather than being a tangle of bitterness and residual sugar as most beer styles are. Though it’s low in alcohol and sweetness, its mouthfeel isn’t thin, instead offering nice breadiness to chew on (it is a wheat beer, after all). Troublesome shows gose’s softer side, and is a supremely refreshing craft beer that can be the beer geek’s quaffer or the quaffer’s geeky beer. Drink it with a burrata salad, a plate of sushi, bagels with schmear, lox, and capers, or a Chicago hot dog.
Skully Barrel No. 25 – Salted Sumac Gose
Paradox Beer Company, Woodland Park, Colorado, USA 7.6% ABV
Gose is the inspiration for Paradox’s Skully #25, but it breaks the mold in some anachronistic ways, both into the past and the future. This is to be expected from a brewery whose ethos is to be “unflinchingly wayward.” Gose is normally a clean, stainless-steel-fermented wheat beer bolstered by salinity and tinged with simple acidity; charting a new path while borrowing from age-old traditions, Skully #25 (like all of Paradox’s beers) is entirely fermented in oak by a host of wild Colorado yeasts and bacteria. This slow, rustic fermentation in used chardonnay barrels produces the style’s requisite lactic acid, but also imparts depth, complexity, and structure that take this beer beyond the clean lines of a Germanic beer. The beer’s tartness is accompanied by the wild microflora’s earthy, barny hints of wet wool and goat cheese. Also, rather than showing other goses’ snappy finish, Skully #25’s aftertaste is a lingering, wheaty breadiness layered with the oak’s slightly drying tannins and oxidized softness. Rather than relying on the woody, lemony hints of coriander for aroma, sumac is used to show hints of lemon blossom and a wind-swept, piney, thyme-like scent (it reminds me of the garrigue scent that’s prized in coastal Mediterranean wines) along with lip-smacking, sour berry hints like red currants, all while sea salt mixes with oaky toast to evoke a beachy, sandy element.
Brewer and blender Jeff Airman drew inspiration from sumac when he enjoyed its complex flavors on a trip to Istanbul. For Airman, the “challenge was to bring all these ideas together in liquid form while creating a balance between them that kept nothing in the shadows.” White wine barrels, coolship, wild yeasts and bacteria, sumac, sea salt, lactic acidity, sour beer from Rocky Mountain Foothills via Goslar and Leipzig. That’s quite a list, and fraught with potential for over-exuberance, gimmickiness, and imbalance. But a taste of this beer reveals that it’s all there; balanced, complementary, graceful, and delicious.
Skully Barrel No. 25 pours a golden orange hue topped with an attractive, sturdy head of foam. Its bouquet is complex, like a walk through an open-air market in Casablanca or Guadalajara, wafting scents of sourdough, corn masa, pomegranate, pineapple, herbs, and spices, amidst a breeze of beach and barnyard. A sip brings in a wave of smooth, salty, lactic sourness that’s supple and supported by oak tannins. On the mouthfeel, the hardness (from salt, acid, carbonation, and tannins) is perfectly balanced by the creamy nature of the lactic acid, the bready wheat malt, and the smooth oxidation from barrel aging. Skully #25 sidesteps the simple, freshness of a traditional gose, but wayward Paradox has crafted a delicious, savory, supple sour ale, expanding along the way the conversation around what a gose can be. Serve it alongside a board of salumi and aged sheep’s milk cheese, or pair it with Moroccan-style couscous with apricot, za-atar, and harissa. It especially loves all kinds of fish, including olive-oil-poached tuna, clams in Chinese black bean sauce, and even uni draped over garlicky pasta.