Creativity is inseparable from the past. The cardigan’s short-term revival as fashionable outerwear, reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars, and Michelin-starred chefs being inspired by recipes from their grandmothers’ kitchens; all of these moments highlight the time-tested theory that if something was once cool, it’ll probably catch a second wind sooner or later.
Beer these days proves no different.
Over the past decade, brewers around the nation have had their eyes glued to their history books. At the moment, there’s no end in sight regarding the craft beer world’s love affair with mind-numbingly strong imperial stouts and bottles full of hops. Still, once-nearly-extinct beer styles like the gose and the berliner weisse, as well as botanic-based beers reminiscent of the alcoholic beverages commonly consumed pre-Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law, are coming to a frothy head. Just like how wearing gramp’s army fatigues from World War II was the interesting and hip thing to do, for brewers it’s creating beer recipes based on the sour pints he might have spilled on said jacket when stationed in Berlin.
The gose (pronounced “goh-suh”) and the berliner weisse, two sour beer styles of German origin that benefitted from the use of second fermentation or lactobacillus, are the poster children of beer that has managed to pull off the sort of phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes stunt. Although both achieved notable popularity during the early 19th century, by the end of the 20th century the gose and the berliner weisse beer styles had become a shadow of their former selves. In the late aughts-early 2010s, however, American craft brewers, itching for something truly different from the run-of-the-mill hop fixation that had dominated the craft beer scene stateside for decades, quickly jumped on these old styles.
“We were looking to create new beers that weren’t like everything already out there,” said Steve Miller, the marketing manager of Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, California. “So we looked to forgotten styles like goses to set ourselves apart.”
Since 2013, the brewers at Anderson Valley have been toying with their take(s) on the gose. Beginning with Kimmie, the Yink, and the Holy Gose, Anderson Valley’s take on the coriander and salt-flecked slap in the face to the Reinheitsgebot, the brewery has taken modern artistic liberties with its variations on the gose style. Inspired by the “Migoses” or gose-based mimosas that it served after the 2014 Boonville Beer Fest, further experimentation led to a fruit-inspired recipe development for the Blood Orange Gose; the Briney Melon Gose and the GT Gose, an homage to the gin & tonic that uses botanic adjuncts like lemon peels and juniper berries. They are Anderson Valley’s most recent variations on the old-world beer style.
“Craft beer drinkers are always looking for different flavors, the shiny new toy, if you will,” Miller said. “And the wide latitude of new takes on ‘old styles’ gives them the chance to experience the best of both worlds.”
While sours have become increasingly popular in recent years (a search for “Gose” on BeerAdvocate.com comes to 1046 results; “Berliner Weisse” comes to 1765), a handful of breweries are going further than Anderson Valley in terms of herbal recipes. Off Color Brewing, based in Chicago, recently produced Wari, a contemporary spin in collaboration with the Field Museum of Chicago on the ancient Andean corn beer chicha, as well as Bare Beer, their interpretation of sahti, a traditional Finnish ale that relies heavily on juniper berries as a flavoring agent. And recently, Two Road/Evil Twin’s collaborative effort, Two Evil Geyser Gose, flexes pan-European backgrounds by using botanical ingredients that you are more likely to see in a brew by Forbidden Root, including Icelandic moss, rye, herbs, and sea kelp.
“People want a story,” Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, the head brewer behind Evil Twin, said. “It’s not good enough to drink a beer and say it’s good. They want to know that they’re drinking something that was made on a remote island 600 years ago.”
Jarnit-Bjergsø explained that just how Rene Redzepi of Noma uses foraging techniques for local ingredients to make modern meals, brewers are looking to their roots for innovation and then adapting recipes to their own likings. He conceded, however, that while this historical interplay might sound intriguing on paper, brewers are aware that not everyone is going to be on board with such experimental tastes.
“You can make an IPA and expect it to sell,” he said. “You can’t make a sahti and expect it to sell. Is it for everybody? Probably not.”
The niche factor, however, has not dismayed Forbidden Root, a botanic brewery in Chicago. It proudly goes to an extreme in this herb-based brewing revival by predominantly adhering to brewing philosophies that were often the norm in making beer for over 9,500 years. According to Robert Finkel, the founder of Forbidden Root, for each beer, the brewery’s use of botanicals “gives [it] many more degrees of freedom” to focus on an idea instead of a particular flavor, although doing so within a modern context.
Their eponymous flagship beer, a literal “root beer,” boasts an ingredients list of more than 20 herbaceous extracts, all of which add slightly to an overarching idea of an ancient, earthy brew. Some of them, like sandalwood and yerba santa, you’re probably more likely to find at an alternative medicine shop than in your beer.
Finkel explained that the brewery’s success in terms of popularity lies in the fact that “a huge percentage of the population [of beer drinkers] don’t want a palate wrecker all the time,” referring to the increase of imperial and double IPAs prevalent in bottle shops. The more obvious factor is that, like brewing a gose or a berliner weisse 10 years ago, botanic beers are still an innovative concept.
“I love beer, and God bless anybody who’s got their flag out,” Finkel said. “But for me, and for us, when you go to the Great American Beer Festival, there’s a lot of sameness.”
Uncovering and reproducing extinct or long-forgotten beers has been a lifelong project for Dr. Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Bimolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and author of “Ancient Brews Re-Discovered and Re-Created.” As part of a collaboration with Dogfish Head Brewery, McGovern has helped produce the “Ancient Ales” line, comprised of modern recreations of ancient ales through DNA analysis of the beverage residue found during the archaeological excavations. Previous brews include Midas Touch, which was based on remains in the drinking vessels in the tomb of King Midas, as well as Chateau Jiahu, the recreation of a fermented honey-rice-fruit beverage found in 9000-year-old pottery jars in Henan Province.
Of course, when creating these ancient-style ales, there’s a bit of room for approximation.
“You’re going to get different end products, and we can’t be 100 percent sure what the beverage tasted like,” McGovern said. ‘But the theory [is that] we have basically the same sensory organs as ancient humans, so we know what we liked.”
Although the possibility that drinking bizarre, thousand-year-old ales would in theory whet the thirsts of true-to-the-grain craft beer geeks, McGovern echoes Jarnit-Bjergsø’s concern about the financial feasibility and market demand for the ancient ales. For him, the fact that individuals grow up drinking hoppy, Big Beer suds affects the degree of palatability ancient ales could have for newer craft beer drinkers. Still, the archaeologist holds onto the hope that these ancient brews will provide drinkers a special experience unachievable by most other beers, and that some connection to the past will help increase their cult following.
“As you drink the beverage and eat the suitable food and have the right music on … it’ll transport you back into the past, which I think is a great attraction of an ancient ale,” McGovern said. “If you really feel you’re somehow reliving the past and drinking something that was drunk 3000, 7000 years ago, that’s what’s really exciting about it.”