Salt Gose Pop: Brewers Experiment with a Common Seasoning

The Business of Beer by | Mar 2016 | Issue #110

Boarding a crowded train in Southern Germany, I was forced to take a seat in a compartment occupied by what looked like three German toughs with open beer bottles in their laps. Testing the theory that beer unites, I reached into my luggage for the stockpile I’d amassed. The first one I pulled out at random was a Gose from Bonn’s Ale-Mania. “Is that even beer?” one of the men asked. The answer, according to the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot and therefore to many Germans, is, in short, no.

These days, Gose is rarer in its native Germany than it is in the US. Beyond its wheat-heavy grain bill, Gose is defined by salt, coriander and lactic acid, all of which are verboten in Bavaria’s beer purity law. Meaning that despite the tart, refreshing ale’s thousand-year history and Germanic origin, it isn’t considered “beer” under the historic brewing law. Incidentally, my newfound beer buddies were bound for Mexico. I wish I could’ve seen their faces when they received beers with lime wedges. Come to think of it, a lime Gose sounds pretty good.

Although bursting with a sour punch and finishing with a pinch of salinity, the once arcane Gose is not a margarita in beer form. Today, some iterations continue to hinge on the style’s tradition while others boldly bring it into the 21st century. As with many beer styles, brewers in the United States update them in distinctly American fashion. Ironically, for a nation of hop-loving beer drinkers salt is perceived as a flavor enhancer even though it suppresses bitterness. (Odds are, if your grandpa didn’t shake salt into his beer, some of his buddies did.) Which begs the question: will the building Gose wave—Nielsen reported that Gose revenue grew by 291 percent last year—win over palates with a tsunami of salt?

It’s an apt question for Southern California brewers Tyler Clark at Libertine Brewing and Jeremy Grinkey at Bruery Terreux. (In 2011, before The Bruery launched the Terreux brand, it released a truffle salt Gose called Salt of the Earth as part of its Provisions series.) Last year, the terroir-minded duo collaboratively brewed a Gose made with Pacific Ocean water collected off the coast of San Luis Obispo. As with most Libertine beers, it was brewed using the stein method: boiling the wort with super-heated rocks plucked from Morro Bay. Chenin Blanc grapes from Field Recordings winery added extra Central Coast flavor. Clark suggested using roughly four gallons of seawater, “to taste,” right before packaging, because salt is corrosive and might damage their tanks. “Seawater is super salty, and you don’t need much to get it across,” he says.

Determining salinity, not to mention which salt to brew with, is one of the decisions every Gose brewer has to make. Everybody’s Brewing in White Salmon, Wash., made a Gose with chocolate salt last summer. Deschutes tried hickory-smoked salt and Caldera, another Oregon brewery, collaborated with Hawaii’s Big Island Brewhaus in 2013 to create Red Sea of Cacao, featuring Himalayan pink salt. South Carolina’s Westbrook debuted its Gose in 2012, employing French grey sea salt. Quite a bit of it, in fact, to the tune of about 0.05 of an ounce per gallon according to founder Edward Westbrook, who chose it without experimenting first. “Yes,” he says, “the saltiness is intentional. I wanted a fancy type of salt.”

Less impulsive is the team at Sierra Nevada. Bill Manley, the Beer Ambassador on the company’s product development team, began pushing to create a Gose back in 2012. “At the time, I had never even had one. None of our brewers had any experience with making one.” Apparently the first stab, Anything Gose, wasn’t so good. “Way over salted,” explains Manley. Hundreds of test batches later, Sierra Nevada launched Otra Vez and not as a one-off or a seasonal, but as its latest year-round offering. Embellished with prickly pear cactus and grapefruit, the beer is lightly salted with straight sodium chloride. “We considered the tartness [and] citrus of drinks like mojitos, caipirinhas and margaritas,” he says, “and we found that salting it to a high level took off that tart character.”

Another adherent to that mentality of restraint is Two Roads’ brewmaster Phil Markowski. “Sometimes it’s very American to say if a little of something is good, then more is better,” he observes. “I appreciate the Old World sensibilities of balance and nuance. I’m tradition-bound in that sense.” So when the Connecticut brewer collaborated with Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Denmark’s Evil Twin, they decided to meet halfway: Iceland. Two Evil Geyser Gose is chock-full of Icelandic ingredients including skyr—thick Icelandic yogurt—used for kettle souring. The two breweries also added Icelandic moss and kelp, rye malt and sea salt smoked over birch (the only deciduous tree in Iceland). Surprisingly, the result smacks of pineapple, lemon and tangerine, something Markowski attributes to the moss and the Lacto cultures rather than the smoked sea salt.

Who knows? Maybe Icelandic moss will be the hot ingredient in 2017.