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Salty trail of Germany's link with wild beer

Leipzig is said to have boasted 80 Gose houses in 1900

In my quest for the origins of beer styles and their names, I recently stumbled upon a thought-provoking trail. It begins on familiar ground, in Belgium, with a famous family of styles, the Lambics.

As to why Belgium's winey, wild-fermenting wheat beers are called Lambics, there are several theories.

Perhaps during Spanish rule the occupiers confused the typical brewery around Brussels with distillery, an alembic.

A similar explanation is that the name arose because the farmers were permitted both to brew and distill.

I am more inclined to the notion that the name derives from Lenibeek, a small but significant town in the heart of the area where this style is brewed.

Does a further stylistic description arise from the fact that Lambic, which has a long fermentation in a large cask, emerges with very little carbonation? If a young Lambic (still containing plenty of fermentable sugars) is blended with an older one (in which a complex chain of yeasts has developed) the ensuing activity will then provide a lively carbonation.

Bottle the blend, uncork it some months later, and it may foam like a spring or geyser.

Was that word the origin of the term Gueuze, for the bottled product? I have always found that explanation rather thin, and have in recent years begun to ponder another one.

It is even more attenuated, and I consider it unlikely, but I cannot completely dismiss it.

This theory also has the merit of drawing our attention to a beer style that may be emerging from the shadows.

The theory is that the term Gueuze arrived, by way of the Rhineland from the Harz mountain country of Saxory.

There about 30 miles south of Brunswick and not far from the Hanseatic brewing city of Einbeck and the Hildesheim grain-growing region, the town of Goslar had its own style of beer.

Taking its name from the town, this beer was known as Gose.

Taking its name from the town, this beer was known as Gose. (The pronunciation of the two beer styles would be almost identical if Gose had two dots - an umlaut - above the "o", but it does not).

Just as the small breweries around rural Lembeek traditionally sold their beer some miles away, in the big city of Brussels, so those of Goslar had to look East for a market.

In their instance, they had to set their sights a long way about 100 miles east, to the cities of Halle and Leipzig.

The latter was historically a very important city, on trade routes from the ancient world to the Baltic and Nordic regions. From medieval times to the early industrial era, it was famous for its trade fair ground, its Muster Mess (hence, presumably, the expression to "pass muster").

In a reunited Germany, it is regaining some of that significance.

Just as Lambic and Gueuze are often regarded as local styles of Brussels, so Gose is strongly associated with Leipzig.

While it surely was made earlier, beer of the Lambic/Gueuze family is first mentioned in the 1600s, and its popularity seems to have peaked between the Fin de Siecle and the inter-war years, declining with the introduction to Belgium of Pilsner-style beer in the 1920s.

Just as Brussels still has the odd cafe specialising in Lambic and Gueze, and Cologne has its Kolsch taverns (some of which brew, but not all), so Leipzig is said to have boasted 80 Gose houses in 1900.

The town of Goslar is said to have developed its style at the end of the last millennium, but the beer apparently did not reach Leipzig until 1738. Just as Brussels still has the odd cafe specialising in Lambic and Gueze, and Cologne has its Kolsch taverns (some of which brew, but not all), so Leipzig is said to have boasted 80 Gose houses in 1900.

Many of these were student cafes, offering inexpensive beer and food.

Gose also had the attraction that it was reputed greatly to improve sexual potency.

Although the beer was still being brought from Goslar, there were a couple of sizeable specialist brewers and three or four small ones, in the Halle-Leipzig area, especially in the small town of Dollnitz.

As in Brussels, so in Leipzig, the spread of golden lagers began to wash away funkier local specialities and Gose faded in the 1920s.

Another factor may have been the introduction of the Beer Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot, from Bavaria, into Prussia, as Germany underwent one of its unifications.

Like its Belgian near-name-sake, Gose was a wheat beer.

Traditionally, the wheat was air-dried, as it was in Belgian White beers and Einbecker Bock beers.

Again like Belgian "White" beers, Gose sometimes contained oats. Most typically of all it was spiced and salt was added. Spices and salt do not accord with the Reinheitsgebot.

A turn-of-the-century book lists examples Gose at original gravities of 1036 to 1056, with different percentages of salt, and in "young" and old versions.

While the essence of Gueuze is bottle-conditioning in the cafe Gose has a similar tradition.

It was delivered to the tavern in a cask, then filled into bottles.

Traditionally these were shaped rather like the flasks often used for brandy especially Armagnac.

The body of the bottle was flat and semi-circular, but it had a long, narrow neck.

When the bottle was filled, the neck clogged with foam and this was regarded as sufficient to protect the beer (or to act as a landing pad for wild yeasts?).

The beer apparently emerged with a lactic-acid character, like Berliner Weisse.

A hook published in the 1930s indicated that, then, stoppered bottles were becoming more usual - but that was also the time when the style was in decline.

That text was translated, and brought to my attention, by the American beer-writer Randy Mosher.

The typical Gose bottle is depicted in the facade of an 1899 tavern in Leipzig.

The tavern is believed to have served more conventional beers after the 1920s or 1930s. then became a Communist political club during the period of the East German Republic.

Throughout that period, very small private businesses were permitted (the same was true in some other Communist countries).

In 1986/7 this establishment was restored as a public house, and sporadically served Gose.

At one stage, a small brewery was devoted to making beer for the tavern but this business failed.

Then for a time, Berliner Weissbier was served at the tavern, with a spicing of coriander and salt.

I have heard that the brewery's grist-mill had rollers made of china - I would love to see it. Then for a time, Berliner Weissbier was served at the tavern, with a spicing of coriander and salt.

Now a wheat beer from some miles away, specially brewed, is being treated in this way.

"Is this stuff drinkable?" was a frequent question when the revivalist Gose was first made available.

"Without doubt," responded the proprietor, Dr Hartmut Hennebach. His Leipzig Goseschenk is now known by this phrase, which translated in German as Ohne Bedenken.

This name was viewed with great puzzlement by a literal-minded East German whom I asked to find the place for me. I found Dr. Hennebach's beer very drinkable indeed.

Or was it the salt that sharpened my thirst for more? The orangey-yellow brew is very fruity and lemon-tasting, though neither as sharp as Berliner Weisse nor as long as Gueuze.

The taste of salt is evident, but not overwhelming.

It may seem an odd ingredient, but it adds a tang just as it does in a beef sandwich (or - raising the thought of much more ancient links - in the Indian yogurt drink Lassi).

Dr Hennebach, a biochemist, formerly had a post at university.

He told me that he was fired for political reasons during the old regime and found himself tending bar before becoming a publican.

He has made an impressive collection of Gose memorabilia, including postcards with punning advertisements for the style, enamels, bottles and the large, straight-sided, vase-shaped glasses from which the beer is typically served.

Some of these items decorate the tavern which, has stained-glass windows, wood panelling, arid scrubbed tables in the typical German style.

The interior is ornate and handsome, and outside is a beer garden, sheltered by trees, again in typical style.

Dr Hennebach served me his beer with fritters made from a somewhat rubbery local cheese and told me that his Tavern could still offer a student a good night out, with a sustaining meal, at affordable prices.

Like Berliner Weisse, the beer is available with raspberry syrup or essence of woodruff or even fortified with sherry. I especially enjoyed it laced with the local version of the caraway liqueur Kummel.

Dr Hennebach raised his glass for his favourite toast, At first, I thought he was saying Hosanna! Actually, it was Goseanna...

It was a great night, but I am not sure it did much for my sexual potency.

Published Online: MAY 9, 2000
Published in Print: OCT 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing

Beer Review - Beer Styles - Historical

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