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Outside Bayerischer Bahnhof, Germany.
Outside Bayerischer Bahnhof, Germany.
Bayerischer Bahnhof

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The Story of Gose, Germany's Salty Coriander Beer

Understanding Gose, an old German beer back in vogue.

One may never find a beer more intrinsically linked to the history of its hometown than Leipziger Gose. This spontaneously top-fermented German wheat beer is an uncommon brew soured via lactic fermentation and flavored with coriander and salt. Gose was a staple drink in much of Lower Saxony for centuries—that is, until the beer became extinct in 1966 after a long, drawn-out demise. It’s only now, 30 years after German reunification, that two small brewers in the east have decided to do something about it. Hobby brewer-turned-professional Tilo Jänichen and Bavarian brewer Andreas Schneiderwho, in the 1990s converted Leipzig’s Bayerischer Bahnhof train station into the Bayerischer Bahnhof Breweryare both major players in Gose’s revival today.

Gose was first produced in Goslar, a small town in Lower Saxony and home to the Gose River, in the year 1000. However, the beer’s popularity didn’t take off until 1738, when Goslar’s small-town brewers found a larger market for the beer in the nearby cities of Leipzig and Halle. Soon, Goslar production couldn’t quench the thirst of Leipzigers, and Leipziger Gose was born. Its popularity exploded, with over 80 gosenschenkes or Gose taverns operating in Leipzig by the 1800s. "Leipzig was called the Gose city," says Jänichen of this period.

Gose was a staple drink in much of Lower Saxony for centuries—that is, until the beer became extinct in 1966 after a long, drawn-out demise.

In 1824, Johann Gottleib Goedecke began brewing Gose at a manor house or rittergut (the German word for "manor house") in nearby Döllnitz, and the small town on the outskirts of Leipzig soon became Gose’s brewing epicenter. "In Döllnitz, there were three Gose breweries in a village with only 2000 inhabitants," says Jänichen who, in 1999, teamed up with the son of the last owner of Döllnitz Manor, Adolf Goedecke, in order to restore the family name to the once-famous beer.

To choose the Goedeckes was no accident—during the 1800s, their beer was the market leader, supplying many taverns in both Leipzig and Halle. The brew's popularity was so great that new taverns had to join a waiting list before being able to serve the beer, and even established pubs only got an allocated amount with each delivery.

Interestingly, as Szymczak explains, Gose was not fermented at the brewery, as most beers are today, but rather open-fermented at taverns themselves, in glass bottles with a large bulb at the bottom and a long neck at the top made expressly for this purpose. The yeast from the top-fermented beer would travel the neck of the specialty bottle, forming a cap, a sort of yeast cork, that would keep the beer inside until it was removed. "It was relatively unsafe, of course," says Szymczak. "If you shook the bottle too much, sometimes the little cork jumped out, and the beer was everywhere."

A glass of Ritterguts Goes by Emily Monaco.

By the 19th century, Goedecke was producing about a million bottles of Gose a year. While quite a feat for a local beer, this amounted to less than half of what the smallest Munich breweries were putting out. It seemed that no matter how popular Gose was amongst Leipzigers, it remained a mere regional specialty.

At the onset of World War II, the production of Gose, as with other German beers, ceased. Known producers began shutting their doors, and in 1945 the East German government closed the Ritterguts Döllnitz brewery. But when other breweries reopened after the war, Gose production facilities remained under lock and key and another type of beer had begun taking its place in the hearts of East Germans.

Back in the late 19th century, Bohemians and Bavarians discovered the wonders of bottom-fermented beers, a new method of fermentation where strains of yeast that settled to the bottom of fermentors and thrived in cooler temperatures made year-round production and storage of beers a reality. Lagers, like Pilsnerwhich could be stored and transported much more easilystarted taking the place of local top-fermenting wheat beers, including Gose. "All these old beers died out," says Szymczak. When Germany began producing beer again after the war, bottom-fermented brews were favored over the top-fermented regional specialties of the past.

Gose could have disappeared into oblivion, but the recipe survived. In 1949, a former Ritterguts employee, Friedrich Wurzler, began brewing very small quantities of Gose at a brewery in Leipzig based on his own handwritten notes, which he passed on to his stepson before his death. Despite the family's efforts, Gose's popularity had waned too much; in 1966, the brewery closed, the last in a long line that had either shut or integrated a VEB (or communist beer conglomerate) under East German nationalization.

It seemed that no matter how popular Gose was amongst Leipzigers, it remained a mere regional specialty.

The fall of the Berlin Wall could have been Gose’s saving grace; it saw the abolition of VEB breweries and the rebuilding of East Germany. But, two problems arose. The first was the neglect of Leipzig itself; East Germany’s second city, which had been crumbling away for decades, continued to disintegrate as money was injected into East Berlin. The second issue was that with unification, Munich’s strict 16th century beer purity laws that forbade the use of any ingredient aside from barley, water and hops, suddenly applied to everyone. Gose’s staple ingredient, coriander, couldn't be included in a Germany-brewed beer.

"You could argue the salt because you’re allowed to use ocean water for brewing beer," says Szymczak. "But the coriander is the reason for Gose not following the purity law." It wasn’t until local pride began pushing western products out of local industry that local beers started to flow back out of the woodwork.

First, Lothar Goldhahn discovered one of the old gosenschenkes in 1986. He decided to restore and reopen the pub, which had fallen into disuse in 1943 after damage from a bombing raid on the city. He was determined to resurrect the beer style as well, bringing on a former employee of the Wurzler brewery with some of the original recipe notes in his possession. Dr. Hartmut Hennebach, a former microbiologist who had lost his job during the Communist period and had then worked at the pub as a bartender, joined the team as well, and together, they began producing Gose.

At this point in Leipzig’s history, many native Leipzigers had never tasted the specialty brew. Some were be put off by its funky aroma and the sour lactic acid tang. "Is this stuff drinkable?" they would ask.

"Ohne bedenken," Hennebach would answer. "Without a doubt." The name of the pub was born, and with it, a renewed interest in the beer. According to Szymczak, the team also coined the word "goseanna," a "cheers" to be said only with Gose.

Above, L to R: Bottling in the cellar of "Ohne Bedenken" and Gose delivery via an old Gose carriage to the "Gosen-Schänke" in Leipzig-Eutritzsch, established in 1738. Below: A modern Ritterguts Gose advertisement, based on 19th century ads.

"Officially, I have to say during brewery tours that the students 200 years ago said this word when they drank Gose in Leipzig, but that's not true," he says. "It was invented in the 80s, just as a little joke."

But be it a little joke or a marketing ploy, the word started to revive local interest in the beer, though not enough for any of the local breweries to want to brew it.

The gosenschenke team outsourced to a few different breweries before settling on the Bavarian Andreas Schneider brewery in 1995. Although the beer still didn’t follow the purity laws, it intrigued Schneider, who decided to convert the derelict former Bavarian train station in Leipzig into a Gose brewery in 2000.

Today, Szymczak brews Gose for Schneider's brewery right in Leipzig city center, based on a traditional local recipe. "Of course we adapted it a little bit because you can't brew a Gose today that tastes like a Gose 50 years ago," he says. "You don't have the same water quality, you don't have the same malts, and it's always some kind of interpretation."

But once they found the magic formula, they stuck with it. As a small brewer, Szymczak has a good deal of freedom to play with many of the beer recipes, but the Gose is a mainstay: a basic wheat beer with half Pilsner malt and half wheat malt, plus coriander, salt and lactic acid added at the wort step. When he can, Szymczak produces the lactic acid on site by soaking malt with naturally present lactic acid bacteria in a water and sugar solution until it reaches the correct pH, before adding it to the fresh Gose brew. Now, modern convenience comes into play. Because the beer is no longer open-fermented, as it was through the beginning of the 20th century, the beer has to be boiled to kill off any residual bacteria.

"We brew a lot of other beers without any lactic fermentation, so it would be too dangerous to have these lactic bacteria in the fermentation tank," he explains.
This isn’t the only modern modification that has been made to the classic beer. While the Bayerischer Bahnhof brewery has brought back the traditional wide bottle with a long, narrow neck formerly used by pubs to ferment the beer, they’ve replaced the yeast cork with a swing top, meaning that the beer can be shipped and exported, thus increasing interest in it abroad.

While Schneider was building his pub, in 1999, Jänichen was finishing an accounting degree and was an avid hobby brewer. He became particularly interested in this former local specialty after having tasted a version brewed in Berlin at the Ohne Bedenken Gosenschenke, and he decided to see what he could do to revive it. It was then that he partnered with Goedecke. Their brewery, complete with the original Ritterguts recipe and name, took off.

While Jänichen concedes that Pilsner remains the most popular beer today, even in Leipzig, he’s proud of how much Gose has developed in just a few short years.

"I was crazy," he says, laughing. "I had too much time. Today it's different." In order to boost interest in the flourishing industry, Goedecke had the idea to start a Gose biking toura Gose-Wanderwegthat is still popular today, consisting of three tours of different pubs in and around Leipzig and Halle. Users can bike to the different pubs and sample Gose along the way. "It’s combining beer and the outdoors," Jänichen says, referencing the German penchant for being in nature. "We come from the woods."

While Jänichen concedes that Pilsner remains the most popular beer today, even in Leipzig, he’s proud of how much Gose has developed in just a few short years. "When we started in 1999, there was only one pub with Gose, the Gosenschenke, and now we have over 120 in and around Leipzig." It’s a big change from what most Germans are used to seeing. "Most pubs have beer from one brewery or one group. Everywhere the same combination. This Pilsner, this schwarzbier, this weisen," he says. "Not so nice."

The interior of the old Ritterguts Gose Brewery in Döllnitz.

In Germany, the true market for Gose remains Leipzig, but abroad, it’s piquing some interest. Today, Jänichen sells over 30 percent of his beer to 10 countries, including the USA, Scandinavian countries and Japan. And this international interest means that some brewers are trying out their own recipes; the former local specialty is being brewed abroad.

"There are over 400 makers of Gose, most of whom are in the U.S.," says Jänichen, including August Schell from Minnesota, Almanac Beer Co.'s Golden Gates Gose and even a hibiscus Gose from Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City. "It's the wave after IPA, I think! And a few months ago, there was an article in the paper with the headline, Craft Beer's Dead: Gose Killed It." That being said, the Gose currently brewed in the States is not the same as the traditional version. "Gose in America is more sour I think," says Jänichen. "Americans tend to take a beer style to extremes."

In Leipzig, the modern version of the style has settled into a very distinct flavor profilea green apple aroma, a ripe plum fruitiness, an herbal coriander finish, and a refreshing hit of salt that makes it very moreish and easy to drink.

"There are over 400 makers of Gose, most of whom are in the U.S. ..."

"It’s not so strong as compared to the Berliner Weisse or any of these specialty Belgian beers," says Szymczak. "It's a relatively medium sourness, and it has a little bit of a fruity flavor. It goes very well together with the coriander, which produces citrus flavors in the beer. It's a nice combination."

But this sojourn abroad has had another strange side effect on Gose. Recently the beer has also begun to be brewed in its true hometown of Goslar, riding on the coattails of its Leipzig renaissance. "They stopped brewing Gose in 1869 and started only I think 10 years ago," says Jänichen. "It was a long time."

The beer brewed in Goslar today has an even more distinct flavor profile than that brewed in the States. "Gose in Goslar is not sour," says Jänichen. "And I think no coriander. Maybe, I'm not sure."

While Goslar brewers claim they do use the herb, brewer Szymczak is of the same opinion. "It tastes completely different. It's not sour usually, and if they use spices for the beer, you don't really taste them," he says. "They tell the people they use coriander and salt, but you don't taste it."

Today, the style continues to grow and developeven though it still doesn’t pass the Munich purity laws. Perhaps it’s because brewers have finally found a loophole that they can get behind. "The beer type is older than the purity laws," Szymczak laughs. Indeed, the 1015-year-old beer far outdates the 1516 law. It seems as good a reason as any to let this local classic slide back into the public eye.

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