Some extinct beers make a return

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 33, Issue 4
September 1, 2012 By

Is it accurate to call gose, a salty, 1,000-year-old German wheat ale, mainstream? The answer from Brewmaster Brian Edmunds at Breakside Brewing in Portland, OR, is decidedly yes. “We actually do—or have done—a number of different ‘Old World’ styles at different points,” he says.

Goslar, a historic district in Lower Saxony, Germany, is not only known for its half-timbered houses, but also for gose, first brewed there a thousand years ago.

Which is understating things somewhat. In addition to brewing an impressive four varieties of gose, Breakside also has released a grätzer, a Devonshire white ale, a Dortmunder Adambier, a Franconian kellerbier and a Belgian grisette. Not bad for a business that not long ago celebrated its second anniversary.

As the number of craft breweries has steadily increased, some newcomers have sought to define themselves by expanding beer’s playbook. True, small brewhouses limit capacity, but they also allow for experimentation. Besides that, not everyone is eager to compete for a slice of the coveted—and crowded—India pale ale market. So, in an effort to distinguish their brands, or in some cases simply test to their brewing prowess, enterprising businesses such as Breakside are branching out by rolling back the clock.

German Gose

Owing its name to the Gose River in Lower Saxony, gose is thought to have originated in the 10th century, possibly earlier. Located in a region known for its mineral wealth, the breweries in the town of Goslar likely developed their uniquely local beer with the help of a salty water supply. The grain bill consisted of wheat and barley malt in roughly equal proportions, with the scale usually tipping toward wheat. Spicy coriander commonly overshadowed a mild hop profile, and fermentation was spontaneous. The style’s popularity surged in the 18th century, when brewers in nearby Leipzig took to gose, but World War II and then the Cold War nearly doomed it to the history books. In Germany, Brauhaus Goslar, Bayerischer Bahnhof and Ritterguts Gose GmbH still produce this pale, medium-bodied and slightly sour ale, but until a few years ago, it wasn’t a beer anyone was likely to stumble across in the United States.

Edmunds isn’t the only gose revivalist, and Breakside is far from the only brewery tinkering with historic recipes. In Mount Pleasant, S.C., Edward Westbrook of Westbrook Brewing made a Lichtenhainer, a grätzer and a gose this year, inspired in part by Stan Hieronymus’ Brewing with Wheat. Instead of adding lactobacillus to achieve the desired sourness in both the Lichtenhainer and the gose, however, Westbrook relied on sour wort instead.

Edmunds, on the other hand, began by tasting Bayerischer Bahnhof Leipziger Gose. Starting with a traditional interpretation of the old beer, he initially used Weyermann malts, green coriander from a local farm and fleur de sel to produce a bright, aromatic final product. But he didn’t stop there.

“We’ve riffed on the gose style in more progressive ways by making a version with salt plums and another with lemongrass, tomatillo and smoked salt. Also, I prefer using a Belgian yeast strain,” he explains. “I find the softer ester/phenol profile to work really well with the salt and coriander.”

He features Breakside Gose as a rotating summer release and plans to eventually brew another batch of salt plum gose, but doesn’t see the barrel-aged version or the BLT Gose returning to his taps. Some beers, perhaps, are destined to remain experiments.

Elsewhere in Portland, Widmer Brothers bottled a Marionberry Hibiscus Gose, while Upright Brewing’s relatively traditional take was met with some excitement, receiving a bronze medal at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Owner and head brewer Alex Ganum discovered the style when organizing a homebrewing competition and has since released three batches. To achieve his desired result, Ganum used pils malt, wheat malt, raw wheat and salt, but only a minimal amount of coriander. He says that the Perle and Hallertau hops he includes give aromas and flavors when the beer is young, although they usually fade after a few months.

Among brewers at least, gose is still something to get excited about, even 1,000 years after its first appearance. When asked about the emergence of more historical styles and the introduction of Indigenous Beer to the categories judged at the Great American Beer Festival, Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, says. “The general consumer interest has exploded, and there are more opportunities for brewers to experiment. It’s wonderful to see support from the community for these beers.”

Finnish Sahti

Calagione knows a thing or two about resurrecting beer varieties, having brewed an African t’ej in 1996 and a European braggot in 1997, before going on to explore the world of ancient ales with Dr. Patrick E. McGovern. McGovern is scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

“Certain beers may go dormant,” Calagione says, “but they don’t have to go extinct. And giving drinkers more options is always a good thing.”

Another option Dogfish Head has offered adventurous drinkers is Sah’Tea, a beer based on a folksy Finnish relative that hails from the 9th century. Initially released in 2009, this modern take on sahti includes adjuncts such as black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and black pepper, in addition to the ingredients found in the traditional versions that survive in southern Finland. Ask a sahti brewer such as Pekka Kääriäinen of Lammin Sahti Oy, the country’s longest-operating commercial producer, and he’ll tell you a true sahti is a relatively simple recipe that can be boiled down to rye malt, barley malt, juniper and baker’s yeast. A small amount of local hops is optional, as are other grains, most often wheat. The resulting beverage can assume many colors, but is reliably cloudy and pungent with aromas that recall a damp forest floor. Unfiltered, unpasteurized and typically lacking hops, Finnish sahti is best when fresh and enjoys a fairly short shelf life. In the past, and even at weddings and other celebrations today, entire batches were quickly consumed at one sitting.

By tweaking the recipe to include ale yeast and a more pronounced hop profile, U.S. brewers have successfully introduced 21st century connoisseurs to this historical relic. Overall, the necessary updates and modifications have been thoughtfully conceived, with a number of contemporary versions of sahti staying relatively true to style.

“We always try and approach as authentically as possible,” Calagione says. “Our biggest liberty is that we brew in a modern, sterile brewing environment.” In the big picture, tea and spices constitute a somewhat smaller liberty. According to Calagione, historical beers “probably all would have shared bacteria and yeast and probably would’ve tasted like modern lambics.”

Jim Koch, brewer and founder of Samuel Adams in Boston, echoes this idea of adapting to modern methods when describing his company’s two newest releases, a gose called Verloren and a sahti, Norse Legend.

“Based on the history of the sahti and gose styles, it was important for us to make these beers as accurate and true to the traditional recipes as possible,” he says. “For both of these styles, we really did our research and took that rich history into consideration. We had been experimenting with the sahti for about eight years, frankly because we enjoyed the style and flavors so much. And we have a German brewmaster who really pushed us to create the traditional gose style.”

Norse Legend, the pet project of Jennifer Glanville, a brewer at the Boston Beer Co., is dosed with Metcalfe, Copeland, two-row pale Harrington, Special B and aromatic malt along with earthy, spicy rye. Hallertau hops entice the 21st century barfly, adding a reasonably high level of bitterness to a drink that’s redolent with fresh evergreen flavor. Koch expects drinkers to be increasingly interested in rare styles, especially with Great American Beer Festival judges now rating them. He also believes consumers will have fun exploring something new such as sahti. That said, Norse Legend and Verloren, which is German for “lost,” are available only on a limited basis nationwide.

At Vintage Brewing in Madison, WI, Scott Manning decided right away to make room in his regular rotation for the occasional experiment. Almost from the time Vintage opened in 2010, Manning was confident that Madison’s diverse, well-educated, well-traveled population would welcome something out of the ordinary and began to read up on rustic Finnish brews.

“Several small batches of juniper-spiced European rye ales followed,” he says, “resulting in what’s become our summer sahti, a light-bodied ruby ale with a bright ginlike aroma and a peppery, earthy, dry rye finish. Fermented with ale yeast, it’s no doubt closer to the American spiced ale tradition than those of the Old World. The public took notice, liked the beer and the sahti story. So I vowed to up the ante for a ‘winter warmer sahti’ and try to bring ours closer to my imagination of what a real Finnish farmhouse ale might be like … but with a holiday twist.”

Full-bodied and appropriately strong at 8.2 percent alcohol by volume, Joulupukki is based partly on sahti lore and partly on Scandinavian baking traditions. Which is to say that juniper twigs and juniper berries mingle with cardamom, vanilla beans, clove and orange peel to create, in Manning’s words, “a bit of holiday magic in the glass.” And while he acknowledges that following traditional methods to brew sahti in a brewpub would be impractical or inadvisable, he does use baker’s yeast as well as acidulated malt and a tiny dose of lactic acid to lend a slight tartness to his cheerily named Joulupukki, or Santa Claus beer.

Russian Kvass

For brewers such as Manning, determination has been an important factor when attempting a historical re-creation. In other cases, a generous splash of collaboration has proved useful, too. At East End Brewing Co. in Pittsburgh, Scott Smith worked with a friend from the other side of the state to create kvass, a low-strength, dark-colored rye beer with an Eastern European birthplace. Considered more of a summer drink with health benefits making it suitable for children, homebrewed kvass is still sold from roadside stands in parts of Russia. Neighboring Finland has a similar drink called kotikalja or sometimes just kalja, but neither has attained much popularity outside its home country. For ambitious brewers, however, kvass can be a tempting challenge.

“The first time it was Tom Baker’s idea,” Smith says, referring to the owner of Philadelphia’s Earth Bread + Brewery. “So one morning over coffee, I cajoled him into coming out to my brewery to do a guest brew. His wife heard us talking about kvass and asked if that was the one that really sucked. ‘Well yeah,’ said Tom, ‘but I’ve got an idea this time.’ ”

An idea that involved 30 loaves of stale rye bread from a local bakery, a small amount of hops to balance the grain bill, caraway seed to lend a spicy note and East End’s house ale yeast.

“It certainly was the most interesting beer I’ve ever tasted,” Smith says. “And it [sold] really well for a beer that’s so cloudy and low in alcohol.”

Little kvass exists in the United States, although in New York in 2010 the Coca-Cola Co. began selling Krushka & Bochka, a nonalcoholic kvass that it had developed for the Russian market. Up the road from East End, Dan Woodske of Beaver Brewing in Beaver Falls, PA, has also tried a kvass with two-row barley malt, wheat malt, lemon juice and peel, and raisins, along with a trace of Fuggles and Hallertau hops.

Smith meanwhile, has now brewed kvass on four occasions. He says his remaining stock—about 55 gallons aging in an oak barrel—is characterized by a wonderful lactic sourness. Less wonderful, though, were the plastic bottles of imported kvass he tracked down at a Russian grocer in Pittsburgh, trading a growler of his own brew for a few samples of dark liquid. Smith says that while he tried the shelf-stable varieties, kvass, like most historical drinks, was meant to be consumed rapidly.

“They were almost undrinkable,” he remembers. “They tasted like cardboard and malt syrup and had no life, no carbonation. In kvass you want a starchy product, but it can be a pretty alienating drink.”

The Past is Present

Some recipes can be resuscitated with relative ease, while others, like Koch’s Norse Legend or Dogfish’s forthcoming collaboration with Birra del Borgo and Birra Baladin, can take years to get right. With Dr. McGovern acting as the time-traveling chaperon, Calagione sought to resurrect a beverage last consumed by Etruscan nobility some 2,500 years ago. Several test recipes were involved. The services of an Italian yeast expert were required. And eventually, huge terra cotta fermentation vessels were built for the project.

“We spent almost a year working with a lot of different people from the fields of science, history and brewing,” Calagione says. “We actually first discussed this when we were in Cairo working on Ta Henket.”

Etrusca, as the latest ancient ale is known, will arrive on shelves nationwide in October. Debuting at the Eataly Birreria in New York and Dogfish’s Rehoboth brewpub this summer, it has a dizzying number of ingredients: pomegranates, hazelnut powder, Italian heirloom wheat, Italian wine yeast from the Etruscan region, tree resin, gentian root and native honey. We will never know whether Etrusca tastes like the alcohol familiar to citizens of ancient Etruria, but for modern drinkers, it will be anything but ordinary.

In the end, what might be one of the most interesting things about the revival of Old World styles is the small yet dependable demand for them nationwide. Scott Manning maintains that his Joulupukki has won over a devoted group of followers in Wisconsin. Ben Edmunds at Breakside says that in Portland, where sour beers currently have cachet, presenting gose as a gateway sour has helped to enthuse his regular customers. And Alex Ganum of Upright claims that chefs as well as some of his wine-making friends enjoy his award-winning gose because it tends to pair well with rich and salty foods. Kvass, too, while considerably less trendy, has its admirers.

“I would stop making kvass if people would stop buying it,” Woodske says, “but there’s been a consistently strong response. There are at least four to five people a month that drive in from over 30 minutes away specifically to try the kvass. Many of them are from Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and other parts of the former Soviet Union.”

Perhaps the time will come when gose truly is considered a mainstream ale, or maybe one day sahti will no longer seem out of place on a draft list. Hoping that their creativity will continue to be rewarded, a growing number of craft brewers across the country remain optimistic. Who knows? They could yet end up being right, because when it comes to the future of American beer, almost anything is possible.

“The longest brewing tradition was making beer with whatever was natural and available,” contends Calagione. “We see the Reinheitsgebot as a relatively modern form of art censorship.”


Ben Keene
Ben Keene is a freelance journalist. He’s also a licensed guide and the author of Best Hikes Near New York City.