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Of Coolships, Cobwebs, and Cantillon

Cantillon needs no introduction. Even if you’re not yet a convinced imbiber of wild-fermented beers, chances are you’ve at least heard of Cantillon, that legendary Brussels brewery of mythic proportions and mystical imaginings. If lambic and gueuze producers in Flemish Brabant merit pilgrimages, Cantillon is the holy grail.IMG_7968Cantillon’s sterling reputation rests on its charm, and has as much to do with its defense of tradition as it does with what’s in the bottle. Pulley-and-gear-driven mash tuns, shallow cool ships in the attic with louvers to control the airflow and temperature, a hop-aging room smelling of old hay and cheese, cobwebs stretched between the rafters, a barrel fermentation room with its characteristic musty-woody smell, and row upon row of aging racks downstairs: The brewery stands as a testament to how beer was brewed at a time when Paul Cantillon set up shop in the Anderlecht district of Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century.IMG_7904 Unlike many other lambic and gueuze producers that have updated their facilities, the dark, timbered, and cobwebbed Cantillon brewery is like a trip back in time.

In Defense of Tradition

Back when Cantillon started slaking the thirst of Anderlecht’s workers, Brussels was home to over a hundred breweries. Today, only two remain: Bellevue, an InBev entity that caters to mass tastes with its sweetened gueuze-like and kriek-like beers, and Cantillon. As the Cantillon brochure pointedly puts it, nowadays “the world of Lambic is dominated by big business and its centuries-old name has been tarnished by large-scale industrial production.”

Up early, we hit the bikes and headed in the direction of Anderlecht, arriving at Cantillon well before noon. Wary of leaving our bikes on the street, we asked the elderly woman selling tickets in the brewery if we could bring our bikes inside. As it turns out, she’s the last living Cantillon, wife of Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the gent who took up the reins of the brewery in the 1960s. And there she was, working in the family business on a Saturday morning, selling 7-euro tickets for the self-guided tour and tasting to follow.

A brewery dominated by the dictates of big business Cantillon is not. The spiders in the rafters upstairs bear witness to the fact. (More on those spiders later.)

Turning Wheat and Barley into Lambic and Gueuze

Cantillon does things in a manner reminiscent of days when artisans were aided by the labour-saving devices of early industrialism. Cranks and pulleys drive a mash tun that looks like a museum piece, and wood’s the word when it comes to fermentation.IMG_7913

Once the wort has finished its boil, it spends the night cooling in a shallow copper vessel tucked among the rafters of the attic. This vessel, known as a coolship, is designed to expose as much of the wort as possible to the evening breezes regulated by wooden louvers that open out into the cool night. Microorganisms resident in the attic and evening air inoculate the wort during this early stage of the fermentation process. An ambient temperature between 3 and 8 degrees Celsius is crucial; too warm, and undesirable yeast and bacteria gain the upper hand. This is why the brewing season typically lasts from October through April only, although recent global warming trends may eventually spell an even shorter brewing season.IMG_7920Bright and early the next morning the brewers set to work transferring the wort into oak or chestnut barrels, where fermentation can take up to three years. During this time, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight, together with the organisms that inhabit the barrel, produce the astounding array of aromas characteristic of lambic.

Now it’s just a matter of patience. Here’s where the spiders and cobwebs come in. Insects just can’t seem to resist the fermenting beer and the summer deliveries of fresh fruit that Cantillon uses to make its kriek and other fruit beers. Cantillon uses 150 kg of fruit for every 500 liters of two-year-old lambic, so it’s no wonder that the insects are drawn to the brewery. Rather than risk having insecticides seep into the casks, the brewers leave the job of insect control to the spiders.

A word on the barrels: the type of wood used to make the barrels is not as important for lambic makers as it is for winemakers. Rather, lambic brewers prefer barrels already used by winemakers and, to a lesser extent, Cognac producers.IMG_7933 New barrels impart too much tannin and oak character, while used barrels lend that beguiling suggestion of wine. Over repeated use, each barrel develops a character unto itself as the diverse microflora take up residence.

Patience Rewarded

After the lambic reaches a certain point in the fermentation and maturation process, it’s ready to drink straight from the barrel. More often than not, though, the lambics are blended to make gueuze. Gueuze is made from a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics originating, in Cantillon’s case, from as many as eight barrels. The oldest portion of the blend provides the character, and the youngest portion of the blend initiates a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The result: a dry and tart ale with a dense and frothy foam cap.

Lambics and gueuzes are sometimes described as vinous or cidery, and have a distinctive sour quality. Aromas and flavours range from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla. And then there’s all that funk: horse blanket, barnyard, cheese, hay.

Not your father’s BudMillerCoors.

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Now that we’ve spent the past half hour or so wandering through the brewery on our self-guided tour, it’s time to put those tasting tokens to work.

The lambic exhibits a solidly tannic note from the wood, some fresh meadow scent, and a slight tartness. As for the gueuze? Scents of tropical fruit, aged hops with a distinctive cheese quality, pungent flowers, barnyard, ghee, and green apple. On the palate it was creamy, tannic, and with a pleasant lemon-funk rounded out by green apple and a touch of slate-like minerality.

*Of note: The Cantillon lambics and gueuzes that I tasted at the brewery and elsewhere in the Brussels region in May 2016 had an interesting cheese-like pungency on the nose when young –– not overpowering, but clearly present. Later, in June 2016, I tasted a gueuze that was bottled in June 2014. The aged version had developed plenty of additional complexity, and the “cheese” character had aged out into hay, horse/horse blanket, pineapple brett, and gooseberry.IMG_7944

Rosé de Gambrinus is made in the same way as kriek, but with raspberries instead of cherries. Thanks to the skills of the good brewers of Cantillon, the raspberry shines through bright and fresh, as if it has just been picked. The star of the show, though, was a bottle of Foufoune (apricot gueuze-lambic). The subtle yet intense apricot aromas and flavours were exquisite.

Alas, much as we would have liked to taste our way through all of Cantillon’s intriguing offerings, we had made previous arrangements to take a bicycle tour of Brussels. Needless to say, it’s just a matter of time before I head back to Cantillon.

If you’ve had a chance to try the Vigneronne, the Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, the Saint-Lamvinus, the Iris, or any of the Lou Pépé bottlings, let us know how they tasted.

Related Tempest Articles

For more on the differences between lambic, gueuze, and kriek, and for tips on where you can find all the Belgian beer you’d ever want to drink, see my Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant.

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

On the technical and aesthetic aspects of lambic brewing, including turbid mashes, hop aging, and characteristic ester and phenolic profiles of various yeast and bacteria strains, see Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

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All images by F.D. Hofer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant

Skimming place names on a map of Belgium is like going into a prodigiously stocked bottle shop. Where do you start in a country with a beer heritage as rich as it is in Belgium? Trappist beers, witbier, saison, Flanders red, oud bruin? What about all those famous towns like Chimay, Roeselare, Poperinge, and Westvleteren –– to say nothing of urban beer havens such as Antwerp and Leuven?

For me, the choice was relatively easy: I had never had the opportunity to taste lambic, those Belgian ales discussed in hushed and reverent tones among adepts of the zymurgical arts, beers that rarely make it beyond the immediate vicinity of Brussels.IMG_7820

Lambic had become something of a holy grail for me.

So when I found out that an old friend had moved to Brussels for work, it was only a matter of time before I made the pilgrimage. My friend got things off the ground the right way, greeting me upon my arrival from the airport with gueuze and kriek from Oude Beersel. Things only got better from there.

Scratching the Surface of Brussels’ Beerscape

Before venturing out into the countryside around Brussels, why not an evening of aperitifs to set the stage? Brussels –– capital of one of the most fascinating beer countries in the world –– doesn’t disappoint on this score.

Our first stop was À la Mort Subite, a classic Belgian beer café dating from the prime of the post-Great War years before the Depression. Cream-coloured walls, wooden brasserie-style tables and chairs, small globe lights casting a soft light over the cafe, brown bench seating built in along the periphery walls, rows of painted metal art-nouveau columns, an arched threshold with wood-framed doors, and a floor-to-ceiling showcase window perfect for watching the world drift by. Blink and you might think you’d been transported back to the 1920s.IMG_7798 I ordered up a Mort Subite Witte Lambic, which sounded interesting on the surface of things. It turned out to be a sweet and apricot-fruity beer –– refreshing and approachable, but with little in the way acidity and no wild-fermented complexity. Fortunately, though, this mild ordering fail did nothing to detract from the atmosphere of the place. And besides, there’s plenty more on the menu.

From there, we made our way to Moeder Lambic via the Galeries Royales St-Hubert and the Grand Place, which was actually quite grand. Tastefully lit at night, it’s the kind of place that has the power to stop even seasoned Euro travelers in their tracks. If you’re there during the day, check out the brewing museum in the Brewers’ Guildhall (L’Arbre d’Or).IMG_7808

Moeder Lambic on Place Fontainas serves up lambic, gueuze, and other styles aplenty. Their expansive menu makes for some interesting reading. Cantillon’s wares feature prominently, and rare bottlings from other lambic/gueuze producers abound as well –– some selling for as high as 200 euros per bottle. If you want to keep it simple but still be able to try something you won’t find far beyond the Brussels region, opt for a Gueuze Tilquin on draft.

Lambic, Gueuze, and Kriek in Flemish Brabant

The next day dawned all golden sunshine, auguring well for our planned cycling tour of the fabled valley where the wild-fermented beers are.

The Senne/Zenne rises north of Brussels and once flowed through the city before it was covered over in the nineteenth century as part of an ambitious urban works project that dramatically reshaped city. Today, the river reemerges to the southwest and continues on its gentle way through the rolling hills of the Payottenland.IMG_7856 As late as the turn of the twentieth century, some three hundred lambic brewers lined the Senne and spread out into the surrounding hills and farmland. Now the region is home to just over a dozen lambic brewers and blenders, with only one –– perhaps the most famous one –– located within the Brussels city limits.

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After a walk through the monumental and rather monolithic Parc du Cinquantenaire, we boarded a train from Gare Bruxelles-Schuman to Hal/Halle. The short train ride leaves just the right amount of time to talk about those enchanting and enigmatic ales that brought me here. I realize that unless you’re an avowed beer enthusiast or “beer geek,” you might not know what a lambic is –– and that’s just fine. It took me some time as well to disentangle lambics from gueuzes and krieks, and Flemish red ales from oud bruins.

A lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale made from Pilsener malt and anywhere between thirty to forty percent unmalted wheat. This sets lambic apart from German or American wheat beers, which use malted wheat. Lambic gets its minimal hop charge from Belgian or Central European varieties that have been aged for up to three years.IMG_7919 Process-wise, the wort is set out to cool overnight in a large shallow vessel called a coolship often located in the attic of the brewery before being transferred to barrels for fermentation. During the months and years the beer spends in the barrel, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight join forces with the organisms that inhabit the barrel to work their magic. The resulting array of aromas and flavours might, at first blush, strike anyone unfamiliar with spontaneously fermented beers as downright odd, if not repulsive. Sometimes described as vinous or cidery, lambics typically exhibit lactic, citric, or malic (apple) sourness, and they can be tart and tannic when young. Notably, lambic brewers aim for a level of acidity similar to that of a zippy white wine. Balance is key. More does not necessarily mean better.

The same goes for the “funk” level in the aromatics and flavours. Sure, the Saccharomyces, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and other organisms combine to impart aromas at times reminiscent of barnyard, hay, horse, horse blanket, and washed rind cheese. But the concentrations should be “pleasant.” Admittedly, like durian or pungent cheese, it’s an acquired taste, but worth the effort.

Sound appetizing so far? Depending on the various yeast and bacteria strains, lambics may also recall pineapple, tart cherry, oak, and even honey as the beer ages. Whether you’re a fan of sour/wild-fermented beers or not, what might strike you most about lambics is the (virtual) absence of carbonation. Like most wines, lambics are still. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any trace of a head on your beer. That’s entirely normal.IMG_7864

Comprised of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics, gueuze showcases the skills of the seasoned blender. Highly effervescent, gueuze is to Champagne what lambic is to wine. Under optimal cellaring conditions a gueuze will continue to evolve for years. Dry, tart, and with a dense and frothy foam cap, gueuzes run the gamut from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla, and from fresh-cut hay to barnyard and horse blanket.

IMG_7872Kriek is a younger lambic to which cherries have been added. But don’t expect a well-brewed traditional kriek to be sweet. Wild yeasts thrive on the sugars present in the fruit, leaving behind an intense fruit character with no residual sweetness. If you have a kriek that tastes sweet and syrupy, it has been back-sweetened. Best bet: look for a bottle that has “oude” in front of the word kriek. Cantillon adds 150 kg of Schaerbeek sour cherries per 500 liters of two-year-old lambic and leaves the cherries to macerate for five to six months before adding a quantity of young lambic –– one third of the volume of the kriek for anyone who wants to try this at home –– to kickstart secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Biking for Beer in Lambic Land

Chances are, you didn’t bring a bike with you to Belgium. No worries. You can rent a passable bicycle for 10 euros per day near the Halle train station. Exit on the east side and return along the tracks in the direction of Brussels and you’ll find the rental place. Before venturing out for that ride through the countryside, keep in mind that Flemish Brabant is not flat. In exchange for a few hills, though, you get pastoral scenery that inspired the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and some room in your belly for beer.IMG_7825

We jumped on our bikes, took a slightly round-about route through farmers’ fields and small villages to Beersel via Huizingen and Lot, stopped briefly at the Kasteel Beersel to learn about the lambic and gueuze possibilities in the area from one of the castle attendants, and then braced ourselves for the hill to Drie Fonteinen.

After talking with one of the brewers who works on the barrels, we made our way to to Drie Foneinen’s restaurant for –– finally!! –– my first-ever sip of lambic.IMG_7823 Wonderful stuff! Worth the journey to Brussels, the train ride to Halle, and the ride up the steep hill to the Beersel town square. Absolutely still with a few errant bubbles skirting the surface of the beer, darker than I expected (amber-hued, an indicator of some barrel age), and slightly hazy. Refined, with a subdued tartness and a meadow-like scent of hay. The Oude Gueuze was lively, with plenty of juicy lemon and green apple along with an oak/tart cherry character from the wood. Hungry after all that riding around, we tucked into a generous portion of Stoofkarbonaden, a rich rabbit stew that was an ideal foil for the Oude Gueuze’s acidity.

Slightly down the other side of the hillock you’ll find Oude Beersel. Everything was locked up tight when we arrived, but I rang the bell anyway. Just as we were about to give up and move on, the door swung open and one of the brewers invited us in for more lambic and an animated conversation about larger versus smaller lambic producers. If you show up on a Saturday between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm, you won’t have to ring the bell. Oude Beersel runs English-language tours at 12:30 on the first and third Saturday of the month.IMG_7892

Then down the hill we went, and back up a hill, and back down, till finally we landed back in Halle, where we returned the bikes and took a bus to Lembeek in search of Boon. Just our luck. It, too, was closed. So I rang the bell again and waited until someone poked his head out of a second-story window and arranged a fabulous personalized tour for us with one of the brewers.IMG_7853

Frank Boon, a driving force behind the gueuze and lambic revival, opened his brewery on a site that was once a seventeenth-century farmhouse brewery and distillery. Boon’s brewers still brew on their old system, but they have also installed a shiny new brewery around and adjacent to the old one. Though some of the initial fermentation now takes place in stainless steel tanks, Boon still maintains a large cellar stacked with barrels for aging.

Not far from the gates of the brewery and just off Lembeek’s small town square you’ll find De Kring, a cozy café with an excellent selection of Boon beverages. We rewarded ourselves for a day well spent –– there’s something wholesome about biking for your beer –– with bottles of Oude Gueuze Boon and Kriek Mariage Parfait, which was stunning it its crystalline expression of cherry flavour. De Kring evokes a bygone era when locals of all ages gathered in the local tavern for a drink, sometimes with the kids in tow. With its wood paneling and diffused light, this classic café feels like a trip back in time.IMG_7862 Go there before time catches up to it.

Brussels Reprised

What better way to cap a day of riding around the Payottenland countryside in search of lambic and gueuze than to head out for the exact same thing in the big city?

With a pleasant glow, we stepped into the evening sunshine and made our way back to Brussels for dinner at Bier Circus Bruxelles, another renowned Brussels watering hole, for a Girardin lambic and Gueuze Girardin 1882, both of which exhibited a distinctively round, mildly lactic buttery note. Pair them with the Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty made from fish, chicken, or veal. I had the fish version, an excellent fit with the beers we had.

Coffees done, we headed over to L’Ultime Atome, a cool bar in the Ixelles neighbourhood with funky Japanese-influenced lighting fixtures, floor-to-ceiling windows, and plenty of hazelnut-coloured wood for one last round before calling it a night.

Tomorrow, Cantillon.

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Odds and Ends

I didn’t get around to visiting the Bezoekercentrum De Lambiek (Lambic Visitor Center) in Alsemberg near Beersel. Simply too much to do and see. By all accounts, this museum and tasting facility provides a prime opportunity to sample most of the region’s gueuzes, lambics, and krieks in one place. Next time.

Related Tempest Articles

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

Gregg Glaser, “In Search of Lambic,” All About Beer Magazine (July 1, 2001).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Gose Gone Wild: Anderson Valley, Bayrischer Bahnhof, Choc, and Westbrook

Before reading along, head to your nearest bottle shop and pick up whatever bottles or cans of Gose you can find. If you haven’t had this citrusy-sour wheat beer spiced with salt and coriander yet, you’ll thank me. And then pour yourself a tall, slender glass of this refreshing beer and read Part I on the history of Gose and its rejuvenation, and Part II on the contemporary understanding of this beer closely associated with the city of Leipzig. What follows is a selection of tasting notes.  IMG_1580The Tasting Sessions

I tasted the following beers this past spring and summer under different circumstances each time. The 750mL bottles of 2012 and 2013 Choc Signature Series Gose (Oklahoma), along with the 330mL bottle of Bayrischer Bahnhof Gose (Leipzig) were tasted blind and in the company of an ever-reliable drinking compadre. I sampled the 12oz cans of Westbrook’s Gose (South Carolina) and Anderson Valley’s curiously named “The Kimmie, the Yink, and the Holy Gose Ale” (California) in a non-blind session.

And this just in: I managed to get my hands on a 500mL bottle of Original Ritterguts Gose and a 12-oz bottle of Boulevard’s Hibiscus Gose during a recent trip to Kansas City. Check out the end of this article for an indication of how these beers stacked up against the ones I tasted earlier in the season.

Anderson Valley and Westbrook

Into the glass, luminescently … Beer Foam (www-beer-universe-com)

Both the Westbrook and Anderson Valley beers were crowned with frothy ivory caps of foam, but the Westbrook was hazier, with a with a more burnished and deeper golden colour that contrasted with the Anderson Valley’s near crystalline clarity and less intense yellow-gold.

On the first approach, the beers exuded fairly similar aromas that took on quite different tones after opening up for a few minutes. The Westbrook was the more cheerful of the two beers. Candied orange peel laced itself together with lemon curd, while mild coriander and a suggestively floral note gave way slowly to hay, a suggestion of marzipan, and a briny minerality.Westbrook Logo (webpage) (Of note was a vaguely off-putting cooked asparagus aroma that was detectable only when going from Anderson Valley back to Westbrook.) On the palate, Westbrook’s wheat-citrus tang reminded me of lemon juice spiked with Orangina and the merest presence of salt. Light-bodied and highly carbonated, the beer finishes with the citrus out in full regalia. A touch of tangy nuttiness and a mild citrus-pith bitterness keeps the lingering sweetness in check.Westbrook Gose (westbrookbrewing-com)Alongside the Westbrook, the Anderson Valley was both more brooding and more complex. The panoply of aromas ranged from a flinty whiff of brimstone to a woody, sherry-like nuttiness pushing up against the threshold of oxidation. In excess concentrations, these aromas would constitute decided flaws. But in combination with an almost earthy doughiness laced with tart green apple, the dominant aroma profile combined the characteristics of an aged Chenin Blanc with those of the saline and herbal-vegetal Manzanilla sherries of Sanlúcar.Anderson Valley Gose (https-avbc-com) As a matter of fact, Manzanilla wouldn’t be an inappropriate descriptor at all, resolving the isolated “faults” into a more complex whole: slightly herbal-vegetal––some fennel bulb and some pear––with a distinct nutty, mineral-saline, and oxidized grape component. Next to the Westbrook, the Anderson Valley carries a few more grains of salt as ballast, and projects a shade more body. Just a tad less carbonated but still light-bodied and effervescent than its opposite number, the Anderson Valley is more tart (yet less lemony), bringing more malt presence to the tasting.

Both of these beers make great summer sippers, but when you spend a bit of time with them, you begin to notice a few of the discordant notes that give the respective beers their character. The Anderson Valley grew on me, replete as it was with a nuttiness hinting at oxidization and the salinity of a light sherry. And despite the canned veggie notes that occasionally broke the surface of Westbrook’s aroma profile, the beer was an admirable foil for the heat of the day on which I drank it. Tough call. A virtual tie, with the Anderson Valley pulling ahead with its complexity, and the Westbrook making up ground as a straightforwardly refreshing summer drink. Advantage: Anderson Valley.

But there’s better Gose to be had, and not all of it involves airfare to Leipzig.

Choc and Bayrischer Bahnhof

As it turns out, some of these beers do develop with age, if treated well.

Unfortunatelty, the Bayrischer Bahnhof Gose was not one of those beers that had been treated well, arriving in our glasses much the worse for wear.Gose Glass (www-bayrischer-bahnhof-de) But under a heavy off-note of cardboard-like oxidation, the burnished deep-golden beer featured a mélange of pleasant floral-herbal chamomile, coriander seed, jasmine and honeysuckle floating on top of a solid bed of malt. Raw almond combined well with the effervescent carbonation and tingly saline character to keep the beer dry. What was striking about this beer in relation to all of the others was the robustness of its malt profile: citrusy wheat cut by grainy-sweet Pilsener malt and the rich bready and cherry-plum “malt-fruit” character of toasted malts.

The two vintages of Choc from Krebs, Oklahoma, on the other hand, were wonderful renditions of the style, the only drawback being the steep price of each 750mL bottle. The 2013 vintage was apricot-hued and hazy gold, with lemon grass, coriander, and an almond nuttiness accenting stone fruit, a steely, slate-like minerality, and a fleeting trace of “horse barn-like” Brettanomyces yeast.Choc - Logo II (beerpulse-com) Palate-cleansing and refreshing, the light-bodied ale offered up zesty lime, lemon-pepper piquancy, a peach-like richness, and the merest sensation of salt.

As compelling as Choc’s 2013 Gose was, the 2012 vintage was all the more intriguing. Murky golden orange, the beer was beginning to exhibit some of the “diesel-papaya” character of an older German Riesling. The citrus character in the bouquet had mellowed to orange blossom and peach marmalade complemented by a faint exhale of herbal-spicy noble hops, a baguette-like yeastiness, and a sweet honey-grain note suggestive of Pilsener malt. But nothing in the aromas hinted at what was to come: the 2012 had bulked up its body somewhat, yet was more lively, zippy, and sour-tangy than the 2013, exhibiting a grapefruit juice-like sourness and a hint of salinity, along with a champagne yeast-like breadiness, pepper, and orange zest. A fine example of the style, and an excellent case for experimenting with moderate durations of cellaring.Choc - Beer Glass (www-petes-org)If the Westbrook and the Anderson Valley were too close to call, the 2012 Choc comes out on top.

But none of these renditions bested my memory of the Gose I drank back in Leipzig in 2009 on that breezy spring day on the terrace of that repurposed 1842 terminus of the train line from Bavaria. And we all know how infallible memory is … .

In place of a hearty Prost, I lift my stein and say Goseanna to you all!

Post-Script

Now for the Original Ritterguts Gose and the Boulevard Hibiscus Gose.

Sipping on a hibiscus iced-tea, the Boulevard arrived at the table bearing a bouquet of fruity aromas (rhubarb, tart cherry and cranberry) folded together with a mild slate-like minerality, briny coriander, tarragon, and a delicate undercurrent of flowers.IMG_1473 Crisp and refreshing on the palate, Boulevard’s Hibiscus Gose was slightly lighter in body than the Ritterguts Gose, delivering appetizing sea salt, geranium flower, papaya, and citrusy cream of wheat through the finish.

Every bit as appetizing and quaffable as the Ritterguts Gose, the Boulevard, with its floral tart-cherry signature, might just edge out the Westbrook and the Anderson Valley in a blind tasting.

And the Original Ritterguts Gose? No contest. This three-tankard beer is Gose nirvana. I’ll have an in-depth profile of this beer ready for 9 November. Why 9 November? Check back then.Rittergute Gose Labels

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*Goseanna, incidentally, is the toast that Leipzigers use in place of the more common Prost or zum Wohl.

Related Tempest Articles

Gose: A Beer Worth Its Salt (on the history and revitalization of this style)

Tempest Gose to Leipzig

 

Images

A Dash of Salt: F.D. Hofer

Luminescence: www.beerpulse.com

Westbrook logo and label: www.westbrookbrewing.com

The Kimmie, the Yink, and the Holy Gose: https://avbc.com

Glass of Gose: www.bayrischer-bahnhof.de

Choc logo and Signature Series glassware: www.petes.org

Boulevard: F.D. Hofer

Original Ritterguts Gose: www.sheltonbrothers.com

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Gose: A Beer Worth Its Salt

If you live in the northern hemisphere or in climes where summer and winter are abstract concepts, it’s still warm enough to pick up one of this season’s hottest beer commodities. In the amount of time it usually takes to down a Maß of Märzen in Munich, our style of the summer has streaked across the sky like a shooting star to claim a place on the calendar of North American seasonal beer releases.IMG_1382 Many a craft beer geek who might but a year or so ago have mistaken Gose for a Belgian beer blended from young and old lambics now waxes poetic about its bracingly refreshing tartness.

But it hasn’t always been that way for our salty stalwart, even if the ever-intrepid homebrewer has been onto the style long enough for the BJCP to take notice. Gose now sits alongside other rejuvenated or rediscovered historical styles like Berliner Weisse and Grätzer. (Fearless prediction: The refreshing smoked wheat beer known alternately as Grätzer or Piwo Grodziskie will be next summer’s thirst quencher of choice. You heard it here.)

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Nearly two decades have passed since famed beer hunter, Michael Jackson, attempted to introduce the English-speaking world to this sour wheat beer that had only just reemerged from obscurity in the city with which it is most closely associated.IMG_4813 That city is Leipzig, where one Johann Sebastian Bach served as Cantor of the Church of St. Thomas until his death. Bach’s legacy has never waned in Leipzig. Not so for the fortunes of our summer seasonal, which declined with the rise of lager in the late nineteenth century, and suffered a further blow when many of Germany’s cities were reduced to rubble in the middle of the twentieth. The postwar division of Germany didn’t help matters much either.

Origins:

Even if Gose is closely associated with Leipzig today, it is named for a town and region in the Harz Mountains that pioneered the style nearly a millennium ago. In fact, the beer did not arrive in Leipzig from Goslar until the early eighteenth century.

Gose takes its name from the river that flows through Goslar. In the Middle Ages, Goslar was known as much for its brewing prowess as it was for the rich deposits of silver ore and other mineral resources buried deep in the nearby mountains.Old_Town_of_Goslar (Y Shishido - Wiki Commons) Brewers drew their water from this river that flowed through the center of town, giving rise to the latter-day speculation that the mineral-rich acquifiers in the vicinity of Goslar contributed a signature saline quality to the finished beer.

Once a prosperous Hanseatic town, Goslar’s economic influence began to wane with the loss of the Rammelsberg mines to the Duchy of Brandenburg, precipitating the migration of Gose to Leipzig.

By the time the first recorded license to brew this refreshing thirst-quencher was issued in 1738, Leipzig was a vibrant legal and publishing center. With its renowned university, the city proved to be fertile ground for the spread of the beer’s popularity. So beloved was Gose that some eighty-odd Gose cafés and taverns dotted Leipzig at the turn of the twentieth century. One such Gosenschänke was the fabled Ohne Bedenken, which opened its doors in 1899. Ohne Bedenken (hausgeschichte_biedermeier) www-gosenschenke-deThe destruction wrought upon Leipzig during the air war of WWII destroyed much of the city’s brewing capacity. During the postwar years of German division, the flow of Leipzig’s once widely-consumed beer slowed to a trickle. It wasn’t until some three years before the Berlin Wall came down that the style began to enjoy a very modest renaissance.

Revival:

At the center of this revival was the Ohne Bedenken. Since its postwar closure in 1958, the site had served as a library, an X-ray clinic, and even as the meeting point for the National Front of the German Democratic Republic:Ohne Bedenken Bldg (www-gosenschenke-de)––all this before Lothar Goldhahn was granted official permission to restore the Ohne Bedenken to its former function as a public house. When Michael Jackson acquainted himself with Gose a few years after the fall of the Wall, he did so at the Ohne Bedenken.

And what of the name of this institution? Apparently a patron asked one of the original servers at the tavern whether this swill was even drinkable, to which the server replied: “Ohne Bedenken.” Without doubt and without even the slightest reservation.

When I arrived in Leipzig in 2009, the Bayrischer Bahnhof had long-since joined the Ohne Bedenken as one of the premier spots to drink Leipzig’s rejuvenated beer style. After my first taste at the Bayrischer Bahnhof, I must say that I concur wholeheartedly about the eminent drinkability of this crisp and refreshing style, ohne Bedenken.IMG_4820Odds and Ends:

Bottles: Back in the day, our Leipziger beer arrived at student cafés and taverns in a cask before being transferred into bottles that resembled the flatly bulbous flasks of Franconian wine.Gose-Flasche (Wiki Commons - Foto H-P Haack) The slender eight-inch neck would then clog with enough foam and residue from the still vigourously-fermenting yeast to stopper the bottle and carbonate the beer.

Toasts: In place of the traditional German toast (Prost! or Zum Wohl!), the Leipzigers have another: Goseanna!

Worth Many a Goseanna:

Leipzig played a central role in the toppling of the communist dictatorship that ruled the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) between 1949 and 1990. During the communist era in East Germany, the church was the only institution that remained beyond the control of the communist authorities. Its status made the church the focal point of the intertwining peace movement and ecological movement. The Church of St. Nicholas (Nikolaikirche) in Leipzig began holding prayers for peace in 1982, demanding both a peaceful resolution to the Cold War and––more ominously for the regime––respect for human rights.

On Monday, September 4, 1989, some 1200 anti-regime protesters gathered on the square in front of St. Nicholas after a prayer meeting. At first, the Stasi tried violence to suppress what quickly became weekly “Monday demonstrations,” but to no avail. The defiant crowds soon forced the resignation of the long-ruling hardliner, Erich Honecker, and set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

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Related Tempest articles:

Gose Gone Wild: Anderson Valley, Bayrischer Bahnhof, Choc, and Westbrook

Tempest Gose to Leipzig

Milling Against the Grain: Grimm Bros. Goes All-Germanic

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Michael Jackson, “Going for Gose” (2000).

Michael Jackson, “Salty Trail of Germany’s Link with Wild Beer” (2000: originally published in What’s Brewing, October 1, 1996).

The German Beer Institute, “Gose” (2004).

BJCP, “2014 BJCP Style Guidelines Draft” (2014).

UNESCO, “Mines of Rammelsberg, Historic Town of Goslar, and Upper Harz Water Management System.”

On Leipzig and 1989, see the informative website, German History in Documents and Images.

The Ohne Bedenken and Bayrischer Bahnhof websites are also informative resources for the history and revival of Gose.

Images

Still Life with Geuze: F.D. Hofer

Bach in Leipzig: F.D. Hofer

Old Town of Goslar: Y. Shishido (Wiki Commons)

Cajeri’s Gosenstube “Ohne Bedenken”: Ohne Bedenken website (www.gosenschenke.de)

Ohne Bedenken, Leipzig: Ohne Bedenken website (www.gosenschenke.de)

F.D. Hofer (par lui-même)

Antique Gose Bottle, Moulded Glass: © Foto H.-P. Haack (Wiki Commons)

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© 2014 Franz D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

For this, the eighty-third installment of The Session, Rebecca of The Bake and Brew puts forward the notion of tasting “against the grain.” She urges us to consider how much our taste or opinion of a craft beer is affected by a few of the following factors: hype, taste inflation, the opinions of friends, and the ubiquitous ratings pumped out by the craft beer community. I’ll address this fascinating topic in more than one installment over the coming weeks. Today’s first part grapples with our taste for extremes; a subsequent installment will deal with how we can challenge these canons in our everyday drinking lives.

Session Friday - Logo 1A Taste for the Extremes

To drink craft beer is to make a statement. The connotations of this statement are multivalent, ranging from support of local business and agriculture to rejection of bland beverages. It is also a declaration of taste that gives rise to distinctions. Drinking craft beer often means going against the grain of mass marketed beers.

But the craft beer tasting community is itself marked by distinctions and hegemonies. “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it,” wrote the great Weimar German literary critic, Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. As a leftist thinker faced with the rise of fascism, Benjamin’s concerns were of much greater consequence than the question of craft beer tastes, but his words help put us in the frame of mind for critiquing the dominant craft beer tastes of the moment.

Heavily hopped beers have achieved a certain preeminence on the North American craft beer stage, to the point where it wouldn’t be a stretch to speak of a virtual conformism gripping the North American craft beer imagination. Craft breweries and brewpubs that do not have at least one iteration of the American-style IPA along with several other Pacific Northwest-inflected hoppy brews are almost as rare as sightings of the elusive sasquatch.Sasquatch - Wiki Sour beers, barrel-aged beers, and imperial XYZs also compete for our attention on the periphery of this conformity that, ironically, seeks out the extremes of novelty, rarity, and intensity. Just as Robert Parker defined the taste of a generation of wine drinkers in the United States and beyond, contemporary media convergences in North America have dialed in a rather predictable palate. If enough writers at X Magazine, raters at Y Website, or judges at Z Competition suggest that styles of particular intensity are the embodiment of the American beer renaissance, a canon of taste is born.

In a recent article analyzing how rating sites such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer have molded the North American craft beer palate over the past several years, Bryan Roth of This Is Why I’m Drunk uncovers a surprising trend. Isolating styles and brands that occupy the top twenty spots on these sites’ respective yearly “best of” lists, Roth observes that ABVs (alcohol-by-volume) have fallen off rather steeply from a consistent average of 11.45-11.53% ABV between 2007 and 2010, to a relatively meager 9.76% in 2013. (Yes, you read that correctly. Now you can pause for a moment to catch your breath. The top twenty beers on these lists averaged around 11.5% ABV for four years running.) Roth’s account of this three-year downward trend is convincing enough. The explosion in the number of breweries has translated into ever more variety as these newcomers seek to distinguish themselves among an increasingly crowded field of bottles, cans, and tap handles.

But I think there’s more to it, something we can’t merely reduce to variety driving down the average ABV of “top-ranked” beers. ABV may continue to drop, but this may have less to do with an embrace of sessionability than it does with the recent rise in popularity of sours and saisons (usually of lower ABV) in North America. We’d even be justified in drawing an analogy between the infatuation with high ABV and the recent turn to sours and funky beers. Arguably, these fruits of wild yeast and bacteria are, in North America at any rate, markers of a taste for the extreme. I may be wrong, but I suspect we won’t see a lager inhabiting any top-ten spots on these lists any time soon – unless it’s an imperial lager geared to appeal to a North American craft beer palate primed for big and intense flavours.

More often than not, though, these amped-up offerings are overrated reflections of a palate bias for particular styles and intensities. And if you’ll allow the generalization, it is a palate that sometimes confuses boldness and intensity with quality.

I’m aware of the risks of making such a sweeping pronouncement. As seventeenth-century master of the epigram, François de La Rochefoucauld, once noted, “Our pride suffers condemnation of our tastes with greater indignation than attacks on our opinions.” LaRouchefoucauld - Maximes (Wiki Fr)So let me modulate what I just wrote lest I lose half my readership. I’ve often been misunderstood by friends who think I don’t appreciate hops. I do. I just don’t think that beer should be a mere vehicle for hop character. It also doesn’t mean I think that bourbon barrel-aged beers and sour beers can’t be “good” – in fact, these styles are among my favourites.

That said, I wouldn’t be the first commentator to observe that the multitude of “best of” lists tends to give short shrift to subtlety in beer craftsmanship. Like lagers, for example. You’d be hard pressed to find a refreshingly austere northern German pilsener or a Märzen (Oktoberfest beer) with a deeply complex malt profile among the American-style IPAs, the imperial stouts, and, increasingly, the wild-fermented and/or barrel-aged beers that round out many a “best of” list.

But if the rumblings issuing forth from some quarters are any indication, 2014 might well signal grounds for hope. Beer writers like Bryan Roth represent a segment of the craft beer community concerned with how ratings drive consumption. Among this growing chorus of critical voices, John Frank has written a newly-minted article stressing a return to sanity and focus on quality, and Jeff Alworth of Beervana hails the return of lagers to the Pacific Northwest, a region where you couldn’t give them away a few years back. As an avowed malt head, I’ll drink to those potential changes.

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Postscript: You can read my follow-up article on beer and taste here:

Tasting Against the Craft Beer Grain

Other Related Tempest Articles:

The MaltHead Manifesto

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Image Sources:

Sasquatch: Wikipedia

La Rochefoucauld: Wikipedia (France)

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

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