In 2012, Sebastian Sauer, co-founder of Freigeist Bierkultur, an ambitious gypsy brewery in Stolberg, Germany, hauled a bunch of samples of gose across the Atlantic to the first-ever Shelton Brothers Festival in Worcester, Massachusetts. In its native country, where macrolagers and pilsners still dominate, gose remains something of a niche style unlikely to be found on tap at your average beer garden. Only seven years ago in the US, it was all but unheard of and most of the guests were bewildered by this strange, salty beer.
“At that time it was really clear that nobody really knew what gose was, but it was such an intense experience that they kept coming back to try more,” Sauer says. “A few years later, I ran into a brewer who told me he had been so impressed that he had been inspired to make his own interpretations of gose.”
Since then, gose has solidly entered the mainstream in American craft beer circles. When I met Sauer at the 2019 edition of Shelton Brothers, Freigeist Bierkultur’s stand had a line snaking well into the Buffalo Central Terminal, the abandoned Art Deco train station in Buffalo, New York that hosted the festival. A few in-the-know fans had come specifically because this time, Sauer had brought an especially unusual gose with him: the rare Coolship Urgose 1375.
While Freigeist Bierkultur has brewed goses with everything from rhubarb to fennel seeds, this variation was different. Sauer is as avid beer historian, with as much of a passion for poring over archival records as for the painstaking process of tending a coolship. This particular concoction represented his attempt to recreate a centuries-old recipe for gose from Goslar, in Lower Saxony, where the beer originated.
Gose is a style that has evolved over approximately 1,000 years. This covers a huge span of brewing technology and scientific understanding.”
The fact of the matter is that the majority of the Leipzig-style gose consumed today is decidedly different than the gose of the past. While the gose style has always been characterized by a mild acidity and salinity from added salts, other fundamental aspects of the beer have varied wildly over the centuries. A recipe from 1621 incorporates wormwood, while others used coriander or even spruce for seasoning.
“Gose is a style that has evolved over approximately 1,000 years. This covers a huge span of brewing technology and scientific understanding,” says Fal Allen, author of Gose: Brewing a Classic German Beer for the Modern Era. “All beer recipes have changed over time. For example, today’s American pilsners with their adjuncts of corn syrup and rice are not a whole lot like the all-malt American pilsners of 100 years ago.”
Despite its long, varied history, gose came remarkably close to extinction during the 20th century. As a result of the industrial revolution, many breweries abandoned top-fermented beer styles for bottom-fermented ones, which were easier to consistently produce. As pilsners flourished throughout Germany, goses declined. Then the Second World War decimated the majority of the country’s breweries. Those that survived the bombings were often stripped of valuable metal and equipment.
The Soviets pretty much took any industrial equipment as reparation. A lot of the brewing equipment was made with copper, which was useful for producing munitions.”
“Leipzig had the last brewery that would still produce gose. Rittergutsbrauerei Döllnitz was the last original brewery and because it was in the eastern territory, the Soviets pretty much took any industrial equipment as reparation. A lot of the brewing equipment was made with copper, which was useful for producing munitions,” Sauer says. “To be fair, that’s why you don’t find a lot of old brewing equipment in Belgium—the Germans took it.”
In 1945, Rittergutsbrauerei Döllnitz shuttered, only to reopen years later. As Europe struggled to rebuild itself in the devastating aftermath of the deadliest military conflict in all of human history, gose slipped further still into obscurity. Outside of Leipzig, gose became all but unknown.
“The final blow came when the country was divided into East and West,” Allen says. “This new border left Leipzig on the eastern Communist side, where the government actively worked to suppress local customs and traditions in favor of promoting the Communists’ doctrine of one overarching central government. In this new world order, there was no room for regional differences and diversity.”
Allen and other historians largely credit the fact that we still have gose today at all to Lother Goldhahn and Dr. Hartmut Hennebach, who reopened Gosenschenke Ohne Bedenken, a special gose tavern in Leipzig, in the 1980s. Even then the beer would remain relatively under the radar until the 2000s, when dedicated craft brewers like Sauer helped propel it to the global spotlight.
Still, while Sauer appreciated the near-infinite contemporary variations of gose today, he wanted to create a beer that would honor its historical roots. After coming across several original gose bottles from Rittergutsbrauerei Döllnitz, he sent the bottles to a lab, where the technicians were able to painstakingly analyze which strains of yeast were used. The team at Freigeist Bierkultur than used yeast to recreate a recipe from Goslar in the 1870s using wormwood and cinnamon.
“We found some archival information about historical goses. There are different versions, but this one is specific to Goslar at that time period,” Sauer says. “We brewed it on the 500th anniversary of the anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, or purity law, and we called it ‘urgose’ somewhat jokingly to refer to the fact that there were older purity laws.”
Sauer is quick to acknowledge that since coolships incorporate all sorts of bacteria and wild yeast, it’s unlikely that his gose is a precise replica of what the citizens of Goslar drank more than a century ago. Nevertheless, it represents a fascinating full-circle trip for a beer that almost ceased to exist.