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How One Local Brewery Helped Revive an Almost-Lost Beer Style

Sour, salty Goses almost went extinct in Germany. Now, they're making a staggering comeback at American craft breweries, thanks in part to Destihl Brewery in Normal, Illinois.

  • 8 min to read

Scan the beer list at your favorite local brewery and alongside IPAs, stouts, ales and lagers, you just might spot a Gose. Just a few years ago, though, that wouldn’t have been the case. The historic sour style – known for its tart, mouth-puckering flavor – has been brewed in Germany for centuries, yet almost disappeared entirely several times. Traditionally, the sour wheat beer (pronounced goes-uh) gets its distinct salinity from the addition of salt and subtle floral notes from coriander. As sour styles have exploded in popularity at craft breweries across the U.S. in recent years, Goses are having their own renaissance. To truly appreciate just how unique the style is, however, you need to first understand its unlikely origins.

THE RISE, FALL AND REBIRTH OF GOSES

Goses have a long and complicated history. The first mention of the style dates back all the way to 1181, when the beer was initially produced in the tiny town of Goslar in northern Germany. The style takes its name from the River Gose, which, prior to changing course, ran through the town. The small river was purported to have had a high saline content at the time, and, according to legend, that’s what gave the first Goses their distinct saltiness.

At the height of Gose’s popularity in the mid-1500s, 387 taverns had been granted licenses to brew the style. “The beer was a phenomenon,” says Fal Allen, author of the upcoming book Gose: Brewing a Classic German Beer for the Modern Era and brewmaster at Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, California. “By the end of the 16th century, the entire Harz region [of Germany] was covered by Gose fever and the beer was an export hit for the city. The popularity of Gose moved mostly in a southwestern direction, finally ending in Leipzig. There, the beer took on a new life; even as brewing completely vanished from Goslar, it was thriving in Leipzig.”

Near the beginning of the 20th century, Leipzig, a town much larger than Goslar, was home to dozens of Gosenschenke, which translates literally to “Gose tavern.” The first Goses were likely produced using spontaneous fermentation, in which the beer is exposed to open air to allow in natural and wild yeasts and bacteria, or fermented through a mixed culture that had taken up residency in the wood vessels used during brewing and fermentation.

Although early Goses were said to get their saltiness from the river of the same name, brewers later began adding salt to the beer, a practice continued today. The beer, however, remained a regional specialty and was never produced in massive quantities. When World War II broke out, production of Goses – and all other beers in Germany – declined sharply. At the start of the war in 1939, only one brewery – Döllnitzer Ritterguts Brauerei just outside of Leipzig – was still producing the style.

“They were happy to stay pretty small and only brewed 7,500 to 10,000 hectoliters [less than 8,500 barrels] a year of Gose,” says beer historian Ron Pattinson. “The brewery was nationalized, and closed in [the late 1940s] when the communists came to power in East Germany.”

The style was first revived in 1949 when Friedrich Wurzler, a former employee of Döllnitzer Ritterguts Brauerei, opened a small brewery in Leipzig. “He had a notebook that contained the secret of brewing Gose,” Pattinson says. “He’d presumably either made notes or been given [the notebook] while working at Döllnitzer Ritterguts Brauerei. Wurzler passed his notebook on to his stepson, Guido Pfnister, who continued to brew small quantities of Gose after Wurzler’s death in the late 1950s.” Only a handful of pubs were selling Goses at the time, though, and when Pfnister died in 1966, the small, run-down brewery closed.

As Allen notes, that might have been the end for Goses if not for Lothar Goldhahn. In 1985, the pub owner read an article in a local newspaper about Gose culture in Leipzig and was inspired to bring back one of the city's most famous Gose houses, Ohne Bedenken. The historic pub had nearly been destroyed after a bombing raid on the city in 1943. The bar, of course, needed to sell Gose, so Goldhahn was determined to resurrect the style. “He interviewed many old Leipzigers to ascertain its precise taste,” Pattinson says. “More importantly, he was able to track down a former employee of the Wurzler Brauerei, who had at least some of Pfnister's notes in his possession.”

Goldhahn wasn’t able to find a Leipzig brewery to produce the beer; they either didn’t have the correct technology or had no interest in the esoteric style. He brewed a test batch of Gose at the Schultheiss Berliner-Weisse-Brauerei in East Berlin, and the first production batch followed the next year. However, in 1988, the brewery decided not to brew the style any more, and Ohne Bedenken was forced to switch back to serving Berliner weisse.

In 1991, Goldhahn bought the small Löwenbrauerei in Dahlen, Germany, and was able to brew Goses on his own. For a few years, Ohne Bedenken flourished. “In the early 1990s, after decades of suppression of the [Saxony] culture by the Communist Party, a rebirth of the Saxon State was creating a boom in any and everything regional,” Allen says. “[Ohne] became so popular that during the mid-1990s it was impossible to even get a seat without a reservation. Gose culture was back.”

Yet by 1995, economic pressures forced Goldhahn to sell the brewery. After about a year, he convinced the Andreas Schneider brewery in Weissenburg, Bavaria, to contract-brew the style. The brewery’s brewer, Thomas Schneider, quickly became intrigued with Goses, and in 1999, opened the Bayerischer Bahnhof brewpub in a former Bavarian Railway train station in Leipzig. The brewery continues to brew the style – and distribute to the U.S. – today.

That same year, the Ritterguts Gose returned. Homebrewer-turned-professional Tilo Jänichen and Adolf Goedecke (the great-great-grandson of Ritterguts brewery owner Johann Gottlieb Goedecke) began brewing at Microbrewery Leipzig. Yet as Goses grew in popularity once again, the brewery struggled to keep up with demand. They quickly realized they needed a larger space, eventually settling on the Brauerei Reichenbrand in Chemnitz, just east of Leipzig.

In the early 2000s, sour beer styles – including modern spins on traditional German saisons, Berliner weisses and Goses, among others – began to see a spike in popularity in the U.S. “The international craft-beer obsession with IPAs started to wane – albeit very slowly – and brewers and consumers began to seek out things other than the next new high-alcohol hoppy beer,” Allen says. “Brewers and consumers alike started to become interested in sour beers, and this shift led to a fascination and then it turned into a full-blown movement.”

As knowledge of Goses increased in the U.S., several American craft brewers intrigued by the history of the style began visiting German breweries, including Bahnhof. One particular brewer fascinated by the historic Gose was Eric Rose of Hollister Brewing in Goleta, California, who helped introduce the style to the States. Following a trip to Germany to research Goses, he brewed one called Tiny Bubbles and later brought it to the Great American Beer Festival in 2010, where it earned a silver medal.

Over the past few years, Goses have become a popular pour at craft breweries across the country. Allen attributes that growth in popularity to a few factors: its drinkability; providing an ideal palate for other flavors; consumers’ desires for “something new;” and its ease of production relative to other styles of sour beer. In particular, one local brewery has capitalized on those factors and, in the process, earned a national reputation for introducing modern craft beer-drinkers to the time-honored style.

HERE GOSE NOTHIN’

Although some styles of sour beers, including Goses, can take several years to age, many craft brewers have recently begun kettle-souring to speed up the process and make the beer more readily available.

Take Destihl Brewery in Normal, Illinois, which has been brewing sour styles since 2008. In 2011, the brewery introduced six of its Saint Dekkera Reserve Sour Ales at the Great American Beer Festival to what brewmaster and chief executive officer Matt Potts sums up as “a lot of overnight fanfare.” Consumer and distributor demand for Destihl’s sours grew quickly – so quickly, in fact, that it allowed Destihl to open its first production brewery. (Up until that point, the brewery had operated brewpubs in Normal and Champaign, so its sours were only available to the public on draft at those two locations or beer festivals.)

As Potts became more interested in Goses, Destihl began brewing a barrel-aged version for its Saint Dekkera program in June 2013. The beers in that series take between one to three years to age and undergo a secondary wild fermentation, so Potts says the brewery knew they’d need a way to produce higher volumes of sour beer at a faster pace to quench the public’s thirst.

When the brewing team at Destihl decides to throw caution to the wind and experiment with something risky, they’ll simply say, “Here goes nothing.” So when they began playing around with a contemporary spin on a Leipzig-style Gose, they already had the perfect name in mind. Here Gose Nothin’ was one of the first two beers (along with Counter Clockweisse, a Berliner weisse) in Destihl’s Wild Sour Series. The brewery considers it a contemporary spin on the traditional style, in that the beer is more full-bodied and sour than traditional Goses. In addition to the sharply acidic flavors that result from the wild yeast and lactic fermentation, Here Gose Nothin’ features lemon and lime notes that are balanced by spicy coriander and French sea salt. “The flavors lend themselves to what a tequila chaser would be with salt and lime,” Potts says.

Wild Sour Series beers are kettle-soured with native bacteria and wild yeasts, meaning they’re able to be brewed and released within about a month. And whereas many craft breweries purchase Lactobacillus cultures from a lab to sour their beers, the Destihl team created its own culture for the Wild Sour series. True to its name, the series uses a wild, indigenous culture collected from several different sources near the brewery and the air of central Illinois. Destihl has maintained that same culture for years, once the team “finally caged the beast in a small propagation tank for a consistent supply," as Potts says.

The Wild Sour Series was initially draft-only until Destihl started canning the beers in September 2014, making it one of the first few canned sours on the market at the time. “It was certainly the only (or one of the only) entire sour series in cans at that time, which created quite a niche for us as a brewery,” Potts says. At a time when sours were typically available in pricier, large-format bottles, the accessibility and affordability of the Wild Sour Series helped make Destihl a nationally recognized player in the sour beer scene. And the risk paid off, quite literally: The beers in the series are now Destihl’s highest-volume products.

Goses have also become more popular because they are an ideal canvas for brewers to play around with flavor. Salt is essential to the recipe, of course, but brewers often add other fruits or spices in place of or in addition to the traditional coriander. To that end, Destihl also produces a Blueberry Gose. Fans of the brewery actually helped inspire the beer: The team occasionally came across photos of craft beer-drinkers adding blueberries to a pint of Here Gose Nothin’. Destihl then released its own Blueberry Gose – though, of course, with quite a bit more fruit added – and Potts says the citrusy notes of the Gose pair especially well with the sweet blueberries.

Destihl only uses French sea salt in its Goses, as Potts says it has a softer mineral mouthfeel than other salts they tested during R&D. The salt is added during the boil (about midway through the brewing process), so that it will thoroughly dissolve; adding it after the mash also ensures the salt doesn’t affect the mash chemistry. “Essentially, we’re just trying to duplicate the more mineral mouthfeel of Leipzig-style water,” he says.

Destihl’s beers have become so popular in recent years that the brewery has outgrown its original production facility. In March 2017, Destihl opened a massive new $14 million production brewery in Normal. The expansion has allowed the brewery to increase its distribution in both existing and new markets, including, as of December, distribution in South Korea.

“When we started brewing Here Gose Nothin’, there were so few [Goses] on the market,” Potts says. “I would like to think that Here Gose Nothin’ has had a big role in the broader craft market familiarity with the style.”

However risky a move it might have seemed at the time, it’s clear the gamble on Goses paid off for Destihl. The brewery has helped bring the unique, almost-forgotten style to the forefront of the craft-beer scene – and hopefully this time, it’s here to stay.

Destihl Brewery, 1200 Greenbriar Drive, Normal, Illinois, destihlbrewery.com

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