A Visit to Leipzig – Home of Gose

Last November work took me to Helsinki where I spent the weekend search for the elusive Finnish farmhouse ale, Sahti.  Fast forward six months and I find myself in Europe once again in search of a beer style that not so long ago was perilously close to extinction—gose.  Despite its German heritage gose thumbs its nose at the venerable Reinheitsgebot in almost every way imaginable. Wheat makes up roughly half of the malt bill, lactobacillus is used to impart tart, thirst quenching acidity, and to top it all off salt and coriander are added, which sets it apart from its northerly cousin, Berliner Weiss.

Gose originated in the town of Goslar more than a thousand years ago.  The use of salt is thought to be inspired by the slightly salty character of the waters in the mineral rich aquifers surrounding Goslar.  Over time the economy of Goslar waned and by the early 18th century production of Gose had shifted 100 or so miles east to Leipzig, the capital of Saxony.  More than any other country Germany is the land of regional beer styles—kölsch in Cologne, altbier in Dusseldorf, rauchbier in Bamberg, Berliner Weiss in Berlin, and gose in Leipzig. At the beginning of the 20th century Leipzig boasted no fewer than 80 licensed gose taverns, but the later years of the century were not kind to indigenous beers of East Germany.  Many breweries were damaged during the bombing raids of World War II, and rebuilding that infrastructure was not a priority in the communist GDR.  Inefficient farming practices led to grain shortages, bread was deemed more important than beer (no wonder European communism failed), and commercial production of gose died out sometime in the 1960s.

Gose’s rebirth starts in the 1980s when Lothar Goldhahn bought the old Ohne Bedenken Gosenschenke, which translates into English as “without concern gose tavern.” Reportedly (meaning I read it on the internet) Goldhan’s gose is based on an old recipe for Döllnitzer Ritterguts Gose, one of the most popular goses in its heyday.  Goldhahn had considerable difficulty convincing a commercial brewery to brew this peculiar beer.  Eventually the Schultheiss Berliner-Weisse Brauerei in Berlin agreed to brew gose for him so he could serve it at Ohne Bedenken’s.  The brewing has since changed hands several times and is now done by Brauhaus Hartmannsdorf, located near the East German city of Chemnitz. I guess you could say that makes Goldhahn the Pierre Cellis of Germany. In the year 2000 a second brewery, Bayerischer Bahnhof Gosenbrauerei, opened in Leipzig and started brewing Leipziger Gose. As you will see if you keep reading I was able to track down both of these beers during my visit to Leipzig.

A few years back the popularity of gose in the United States hovered somewhere below gueuze and above graetzer, but these days seats on the gose bandwagon are filling up rapidly.  Some examples include The Kimmie The Yink and The Holy Gose by Anderson Valley, Jammer by Sixpoint, and The King Gose Home Imperial Gose by Hoppin’ Frog.

A beer sign advertising the pride of Leipzig at the Bayerischer Bahnhof Brauerei.

A beer sign advertising the pride of Leipzig at the Bayerischer Bahnhof Brauerei.

Leipzig

My base of operations while in Germany was Dresden.  Located 70 miles southeast of Leipzig near the Czech border, Dresden is an interesting city in its own right. In the old days it was the home of the king and royal court of Saxony and Poland, which gives it a rich cultural heritage. Dresden is probably best known in the west for the controversial firebombing at the end of WWII that destroyed much of the city.  I’m happy to report that many of the historic buildings, including the royal palace, cathedral and opera house, have been rebuilt since the reunification of Germany. It’s well worth a visit if you make the trip to Saxony.  Look for a follow up post where I touch on some of the highlights of the beer scene in Dresden.

The rebuilt Frauenkirche in the heart of old town Dresden.

The rebuilt Frauenkirche in the heart of old town Dresden.

Despite its proximity to Leipzig I did not come across a single bar in Dresden pouring gose, nor did I speak to a Dresdener who had heard of gose. Fortunately the last full day of my visit was a national holiday, which provided me the opportunity to make the journey up to Leipzig to track down a gose in its natural habitat.  After breakfast I made my way down to Dresden’s hauptbahnhof and caught the train to Leipzig.  On the advice of my hosts I picked up a Saxon pass, which for 25 Euros allows one to ride any (non-express) train in Saxony on the day of purchase (plus all of the trams and buses in Leipzig), a pretty good deal in my opinion.  Ninety minutes later I walked out of the train station into the heart of Leipzig.

Like many European cities Leipzig has an interesting history.  Johann Sebastian Bach lived here and composed music for services at the Thomaskirche, which still stands (they put on Bach concerts every Friday).  Gothé was a student at the university here and was known to enjoy his wine in the Aurbachs Keller ratskeller that is featured in his play Faust, and is now located underneath a shopping mall.  Napoleon’s armies were defeated here in a massive battle that took place in 1813.  The monument to the Battle of the Nation’s, built a century later on the eve of World War I is worth a visit. The protests that eventually led to German reunification started in Leipzig before spreading to the rest of East Germany.

The massive Monument to the Battle of the Nations is one of Leipzig's most iconic landmarks.

The massive Monument to the Battle of the Nations is one of Leipzig’s most iconic landmarks.

Ohne Bedenken Gosenschenke

An ordinary visitor would probably start by heading to one of the historic sites mentioned above, but I headed straight for Ohne Bedenken Gosenschenke, the famous gose tavern where the style was first revived. The walk takes about 20-25 minutes from the main train station and cuts through affluent neighborhoods that lie northeast of the zoo.  I arrive around 2 pm to find a large beer garden shaded by lofty trees located in back of a stylish multistory building with classical sensibilities.

The entrance to the Ohne Bedenken beer garden.

The entrance to the Ohne Bedenken beer garden.

As I mentioned earlier, my adventure is taking place on a holiday.  Public institutions and most businesses are closed to celebrate Christ’s ascension, which also coincides with Father’s Day in Germany. Many young (and some not so young) Germans choose to celebrate in a manner that can best be described as a pub crawl.  Not surprisingly I encounter a festive atmosphere on my arrival.  A man with a guitar is singing 1970s songs that would not be out of place on an AM radio station in Des Moines (Neil Young, The Band, Gordon Lightfoot, etc.), with a slight German accent. There is a group of a dozen or so people who appear to belong to some kind of loose knit drinking team. They are wearing matching t-shirts, some are playing makeshift musical instruments badly, and every once in a while they start pounding on the table in unison as someone chugs a beer.

After getting the lay of the land I walk up to a small outbuilding and order a half liter of Ritterguts Gose (cost = 3.90 Euros).  Beer in hand I find an open table in the shade of an oak tree to enjoy the successful realization of my quest.  The beer, which is served in a tall, slightly tapered cylindrical glass, is hazy and golden amber in color with two fingers white head. The aroma is oh so inviting with the unmistakable barnyard funk that you find in some styles of sour beer.  It reminds me of the funky aroma I’ve previously encountered in Cantillon Gueuze and New Glarus Berliner Weiss. Complementing the funk are subtle aromas of citrus fruits and a touch of coriander.  The taste starts off unassuming but before long flavors of freshly squeezed lemons wash over my tongue.  The saltiness, which is a unique attribute of the gose style, comes out at the finish.  The salty taste that was barely perceptible at first becomes more noticeable as the beer warms and my palate adjusts.  Like most true classics of the beer world it is not over the top with any single flavor, instead it keeps all of the elements in balance. The sourness is less aggressive than anticipated, which makes it an unusual example of a sour beer that you could drink one after the other.

Before very long my glass is empty and I head back to the bar for another.  One can order no less than a dozen variations of gose each with a different syrup or liquor added, but I can’t bring myself to mess with the unadulterated pure form of this classic beer. About this time a group of young blonde women wearing tiger striped pants arrive and immediately start interacting with the patrons. It doesn’t take long to realize that this is not an all-female drinking team, nor a phalanx of Valkyries gone rouge from a Wagner opera, they are a squadron of Jagermeister girls. Their job is to pass out free aluminum shot glasses and airplane sized bottles of Jagermeister, while posing for polaroid pictures with the patrons. All in all, the mood is incredibly jovial for a Thursday afternoon in mid-May.  In retrospect, I should have spent my entire visit to Leipzig in this enchanting beer garden.

Unfortunately, not every beer garden in Germany sports girls in tiger striped pants handing out free samples of potent German liquor.

Unfortunately, not every beer garden in Germany sports girls in tiger striped pants handing out free samples of potent German liquor.

Bayerischer Bahnhof Gosebrauerei

After filling my belly with a bratwurst and a plate of fries I decide that the responsible thing to do is to go see a few sights before heading for another gose bar. With a shot glass and two mini bottles of Jagermeister in hand, I reluctantly leave the fabulous beer garden of Ohne Bedenken.  After wandering through the park and seeing some of the sights in city center I take the tram to the Monument to the Battle of the Nations.  After climbing the 500+ steps it takes to get to the top of the 300 ft high monument I’m very much in the mood to visit another beer garden.  Using a combination of the city tram and my own feet I make my way to Bayerischer Bahnhof Gosebrauerei.

The portico of the Bayerischer Bahnhof station, Germany's oldest train station first opened in 1842.

You know your close to the brewery when you spot the remodeled portico of the Bayerischer Bahnhof station.

The brewery and restaurant is located above the oldest working train station in Germany, which shares the same name (the name translates as Bavarian station).  The brewery is located within what appears to be a moderately upscale restaurant. Without a reservation it was not possible to get a table, so the hostess directed me to an outdoor beer garden located on the side of the building.  Walking past the shiny copper kettles of the brewery and smartly dressed Germans enjoying an evening out I made my way to the large beer garden on the west side of the restaurant. Five minutes after joining the beer queue I procure a tall glass of gose and a soft pretzel, and find a table to enjoy the beautiful late spring evening.  The beer garden is sizeable and full of people, but the atmosphere here is more casual, less festive than it was at Ohne Bedenken’s.

Although the Ritterguts and Bayerischer Bahnhof goses look similar, it only takes one whiff to notice a difference.  All of things that appealed to me the most in the Ritterguts Gose are dialed back a notch here. There is very little barnyard funk in the nose and it is less tart, to the point where some people might object to calling this a sour beer.  Consequently the coriander and salt are more prominent. On the whole I would have to say it is a notch below the Ritterguts.

The leafy beer garden at Bayerischer Bahnhof.

The leafy beer garden at Bayerischer Bahnhof.

Summary

If you are headed to Leipzig I would highly recommend a visit to Ohne Bedenken Gosenschenke where you can try both the Ritterguts and Bayerischer Banhoff goses.  Both beer gardens sell other styles of beer and have food on offer, so don’t fret if your traveling companions are not into arcane beer history. While both are interesting concoctions in my opinion the Ritterguts Gose is superior to Bayerischer Bahnhof Leipziger Gose.  With a little looking both can be found in the US, so if you are a sour beer lover seek them out and decide for yourself.  At a minimum you should try the Ritterguts, which I feel is the standard against which American brewed goses should be judged.  To a foreigner the other interesting aspect is how localized the gose style is within Germany.  I think it is fair to say that at this point in time it’s much easier to find a gose in the states than in Germany.

If you enjoyed reading this account of my beer travelogue don’t forget to check back later for my post on the beers of Dresden.

The gose and pretzel at Bayerischer Bahnhof.

The gose and pretzel at Bayerischer Bahnhof.

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