What’s the Deal with Salty Beer?

May 17, 2019

By Miles Liebtag, May 17, 2019

Salt enhances flavor. That’s why it’s the ultimate seasoning—often the first and last thing a dish needs. Salt can enhance beer’s flavor as well, which is why you’ve maybe seen someone salt their Mexican lager. Salt and citrus are common beer condiments in Mexico as well as Central and South America, and can lend a refreshing kick to a bland adjunct lager. But how does salt figure into the brewing process itself?

The gose style typifies salty beer. Like many styles originating in Germany, gose has a hyper-local origin story that can be traced back a thousand years to the German town of Goslar. This bright, wheat ale was once spontaneously fermented with native yeasts, which lent it a signature lactic tartness. Goslar groundwater, fed by the region’s eponymous river, was evidently quite naturally salty, and the mineral content of the water influenced the development of the slaty gose as a regional specialty. Gose enjoyed a boom in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, but by the mid-1960s, the style was all but dead. A couple of pioneering German breweries have made heroic efforts to bring back gose ale, notably in the case of Ritterguts Gose and Leipziger Gose, both brewed in Leipzig. These traditional goses, brewed with coriander and lactic acid, have been instrumental in reviving the thirst for this salty beverage.

And what a revival it’s been. While gose may remain a very niche product in its native land, Ritterguts and Leipziger Goses inspired a generation of American brewers to introduce this style to a craft beer audience. A few scant years ago, beers like Westbrook Brewing’s Gose seemed outré, and it was hard to imagine this sour, salty brew catching fire with a wide audience. I recall sampling a can of Westbrook with some friends in 2013. After explaining the history of gose to them, one remarked, “I can see why this style died.” But Westbrook’s canned Gose arguably set off the American gose revolution, and is still widely considered one of the best. Today, walk down any beer aisle and you’re likely to find at least a few iterations on the gose style, often flavored with various fruits or spices—but always with salt.

Salt is an accent to the beer not the main character.”

Just as with cooking, brewing with salt requires forethought and a light touch. "Salt should be there to enhance the flavors of the beer not to overpower them,” says Fal Allen, brewmaster at Anderson Valley Brewing Company and author of Gose: Brewing a Classic German Beer for the Modern Era. “Salt is an accent to the beer not the main character.” The Mendocino County brewery has been producing kettle soured goses for years, often canned and flavored with fruits like raspberries, blood orange, and Montmorency cherries. "We add the salt right at the end of fermentation,” says Allen. It’s worth noting that Anderson Valley uses simple, non-iodized sea salt. "That is all you really need. One could use a more esoteric salt but the nuances of those salts will not come through in the small proportions that you would be using in a beer.” The typical Anderson Valley gose uses around .10-oz of salt per gallon of beer, keeping the focus on flavor and refreshment.

Across the country, at MadTree Brewing in Cincinnati, head brewer Ryan Blevins salts his beer in stages to dial in the correct flavor: "When brewing a gose-style ale, we typically add salt in two additions, [once] at the end of the boil and second in the finished beer before packaging," he says. “This allows us to taste the finished beer and add more if necessary.” According to Blevins, too much salt can throw off the balance and finish of a beer, so he adjusts the salt levels to balance the tartness, sweetness, or bitterness. Blevins prefers to use grey sea salt, because of its intensity, which allows the brewers to work with smaller amounts to achieve the right saltiness (as little as .05-oz per gallon). For the tart character of their goses, MadTree employs a proprietary blend of food-grade acid additions, which is different from kettle souring. "We actually don't kettle sour much,” Blevins says. "We don't feel there is much magic or flavor complexity in kettle souring so we prefer to use acid additions on those type of beers and use the nomenclature 'tart ale.’”

Whether kettle-soured, tarted up with acids, or long-fermented with bacteria and wild yeasts, salty beer is undeniably experiencing a moment. If you’re new to the style, it can be helpful to think of the many variations as you might IPAs: there are “base” or “regular” goses—like Westbrook’s or Jackie O’s signature Gose—which will give you a clearer idea of the essential flavor elements and how they’re balanced, as well as how salt enhances beer flavor, provides a counterpoint to tartness, and encourages another sip. Fruited or flavored goses or gose-style ales—like MadTree’s Shade or Anderson Valley’s Briny Melon Gose—will generally be sweeter and fruitier, with tartness and saltiness in more of a supporting rather than starring role. No matter which one you end up with, gose loves food, so try it with ceviche for some natural flavor resonances, or pair a fruited gose with a rich goat cheese for a lovely contrast.

Illustration by Adam Waito

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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