Rare German beer survived the Cold War — barely
LEIPZIG, Germany - Many people take the 80-minute train ride from Berlin to Leipzig to experience the east German city's rich classical music heritage. Leipzig, after all, is the birthplace of composer Richard Wagner and was also the longtime home of Johann Sebastian Bach.
But while those factoids are music to the ears of anyone who appreciates operas and cantatas, Leipzig also offers an unusual treat for those who love beer.
Just off the beaten path from the city center, visitors can raise a glass to a style of ale known as gose. When they bring the salty, sour concoction to their lips, they will be tasting a beverage that nearly disappeared during the Cold War but is gradually being revived by a handful of breweries in Germany and other countries since the fall of the Iron Curtain and reunification of Germany in 1989-91.
Still, to this day, gose (pronounced "GOZE-uh") can be tremendously hard to find. Many Germans, particularly those raised in the country's western side, have never heard of it.
"It definitely doesn't taste like German beer," said Romy Eckert, a public relations representative who lives in Berlin but grew up in western Germany. There, many world-famous brewers such as Beck's and Warsteiner advertise that they strictly comply with the country's nearly 500-year-old "purity law" mandating that beer ingredients be limited to water, barley and hops.
Gose - also commonly known as Leipziger gose - most definitely doesn't comply with that law. Coriander and salt are among the ingredients added to each batch. But gose is granted an exception from the strict German brewing rules because it is considered a regional specialty.
Eckert sampled gose on a recent afternoon while visiting a Leipzig brew house. She noted a hint of lactic acid in her 22-ounce glass of draft draught beer, which featured a cloudy, light-orange hue and a two-inch head of foam.
"I can taste the milk," she said. "It has a sweet aftertaste. But I don't know ..."
I got a taste of gose on a recent afternoon while traveling to the International Transport Forum, an event held annually for journalists from around the world who cover transportation and mobility issues. I was one of 35 reporters awarded a media grant that covered the travel costs from Dallas-Fort Worth to Leipzig, where the forum is staged in an enormous, modern convention center on the outskirts of town.
Most Leipzig visitors stay in the many hotels in the quaint city center, which features historical buildings such as Thomaskirche, the church where Bach performed his works from 1723 to 1750.
I first learned of the existence of gose while doing research for my trip to Leipzig. Gose was originally brewed nearly 1,000 years ago in the central Germany mountain town of Goslar, using a combination of malted wheat and barley and water from the naturally salty aquifers in the region, according to the German Beer Institute. As mining opportunities dried up in Goslar, the brewing style migrated about 115 miles southeastward to Leipzig, where as recently as 1900 it was served at more than 80 brew houses.
But two world wars, followed by decades of economic isolation as Leipzig fell under communist rule, led to the closure of essentially all these gose brew houses. It wasn't until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent reunification of East and West Germany that a handful of beer enthusiasts sought out old recipes for gose passed down by Leipzig families - and began brewing the strange concoction in small batches.
Given all that rich history, I decided I had to find gose and give it a try.
I arrived in Leipzig by train from Berlin. I was in a traveling party that included Eckert, Mexico City journalist Hector Zamarron and reporters from China, Turkey, Kazakhstan and many other exotic places. Some of the travelers were jet-lagged and wanted to rest, but I persuaded Eckert and Zamarron to join me in a search for gose.
We had three hours to kill before we were scheduled to meet with the other travelers for dinner.
Although English is widely spoken throughout Germany, Eckert offered to serve as a German-language interpreter for Zamarron and me, to somewhat speed up our communication efforts as we searched for the rare drink.
We stopped at several taverns and restaurants in Leipzig's center, where Eckert repeatedly asked if anyone knew where we could try gose. The first three or four people said they had never heard of it.
Finally, a waiter in a tavern said he knew a place we could go - the Gasthaus & Gosebrauerie at Bayerischer Bahnhof (train station), which would be about a five-minute taxi ride or 10-minute tram ride from the middle of town.
On the way, we asked our cabdriver if he had ever heard of gose. He was aware of the beverage but was not a regular drinker of it.
"The beer is quite sour and the context is not that strong," the driver said. "You usually drink it with some syrup, for example, raspberry syrup, to make the taste nicer."
Syrup? Not an encouraging endorsement, if you ask me. What beer could be so sour that anyone would want to desecrate it with liquified, fruity sugar?
We arrived at the Gasthaus & Gosebrauerie and discovered it was part of a large, decade-long effort to restore a former train station on the south end of Leipzig. The station, known as Bayerischer Bahnhof, Bahnhog, had served as a connection to Munich and the rest of the Bavarian region to the south before it was heavily damaged by bombs during World War II. The building was subsequently abandoned but never completely razed.
The redevelopment plan includes building a tunnel to connect the old train station to Leipzig's new, hugely-modern train station on the north end of the city center.
Our taxi driver dropped us off near the still-standing, historical facade of the old train station. However, our view of the grand facade was obstructed by construction fencing.
The brew house had enough seats for several hundred guests, including a large outdoor beer garden. But when we arrived on a chilly Tuesday afternoon, there were just a handful of occupied tables. We took a seat near the bar, which included a railing fashioned from railroad tracks.
When our server arrived, we explained that we just wanted to try the gose - no syrups, please. She brought three tall glasses, and a four-page newsletter/menu called the Bahnhofs Depesche ("Train Station Telegraph"), which offered quite a bit of history about Gasthaus & Gosebrauerie and its offerings.
Owner Thomas Schneider has been offering gose and other beers and ales brewed on-site since the restaurant and brew house opened in 2000.
Eckert confessed that she couldn't get used to the unusual taste of gose compared to other German beers. But she appreciated that brewers were attempting to keep alive a piece of East German culinary history.
Zamarron held his glass of gose up to the afternoon sunlight peeking through the glass walls of the brew house and took several sips before offering a critique.
Noting its color, Zamarron, who works for a multimedia company known as Milenio in Mexico City, said, "I thought it would be light, but it isn't. It's not bitter. You can say that it has (the taste of) honey."
I was pleasantly surprised at the refreshing quality of the drink. I had expected the saltiness to leave a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, but instead it served the purpose of cleansing the palate, so there was very little aftertaste. The coriander offered a subtle layer of flavor and helped gose somewhat resemble a glass of Belgian wheat beer.
The lactic acid served to give the beverage a touch of creaminess.
My only regret was that we only had time for one glass of gose. We were expected back at the evening dinner.
Luckily, Gasthaus & Gosebrauerie sells souvenir 750-milliliter bottles of gose. It's a really cool contraption, shaped a bit like a genie bottle. (Back in the day, the original brewers of gose didn't cap the bottles - and instead they allowed the yeast to rise up the long neck of the bottle and form its own natural cork.)
I bought a bottle for about $12, so I could enjoy it upon my return to the New World.
IF YOU GO:
FLYING THERE: I flew KLM Royal Dutch Airlines from Dallas-Fort Worth nonstop to Amsterdam, The Netherlands (which is also served by Germany's InterCity Rail). Flights cost roughly $1,100 to $2,000 with early booking. My airfare was about $1,500 (although the cost was covered by the International Transport Forum through its media travel grant program).
Flying to Berlin or Leipzig is not recommended, especially considering the high-quality rail options that are available. It is possible to fly from Amsterdam to Berlin on KLM Royal Dutch, but Berlin's Tegel Airport offers limited flight choices and lacks modern amenities.
Leipzig's airport is small, with limited flight connections to surrounding countries.
A modern Berlin Brandenburg Airport is under construction and is scheduled to open in 2014 and replace both Tegel and Schoenefeld airports in Berlin. However, Brandenburg Airport has undergone major construction delays, and for now does not have a specific opening date.
TAKING THE TRAIN: From either Frankfurt or Amsterdam, Germany's InterCity rail system offers reasonable train fares to Berlin and / or Leipzig - roughly $80 to $200 each way, depending upon time of travel, booking, etc. Although cheaper fares are available by booking in advance, it's much easier and more convenient to simply show up at the train station as your schedule allows, buy a ticket and hop aboard.
From Amsterdam, I stepped off my flight and walked directly to the train station in the bowels of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. From there, I took a 20-minute train ride to the Amsterdam Centraal station, then hopped on a German InterCity train for the six-hour ride to Berlin.
Once in Berlin, I took one of the high-speed InterCity Express trains to Leipzig. These trains leave almost hourly, and it takes about 80 minutes to travel from Berlin to Leipzig.