Magical Mystery Pour 23: Magic Rock Salty Kiss + Special Guest Star

The penultimate beer of a set chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is an old favourite: Magic Rock’s take on the salty, sour native beer style of Saxony.

We’ve drunk this beer many, many times, and have written about it often, including in our short and short-lived columnette in the Guardian Guide back in 2015. Nonetheless, we were very happy to give it fresh consideration, especially as we had a twist in mind.

People have been telling us to try Westbrook Gose (South Carolina, USA) for ages but despite its being theoretically widely available in the UK we’ve only ever seen it accompanied by the words OUT OF STOCK. But this time luck was on our side and we managed to nab a single can at £4.90 for 330ml from Honest Brew.

Which leads us to a first point of comparison: Salty Kiss cost £1.99 per 330ml can from the same source, which means Westbrook Gose has to be more than twice as good — stratospherically brilliant, in fact — to justify its asking price.

We drank both side by side. They looked remarkably similar in the glass — hazy gold, soft peaks — but the Westbrook gave off a more obvious sour smell, like a lemon in the compost bin.

The head on a glass of Salty Kiss.

Salty Kiss is made with gooseberries but does not taste of them, is not green, and will not strike you as all that weird if you’ve ever had a Fentiman’s lemonade. If any fruit comes to mind, it’s strawberries, but maybe that’s because of the design of the can, like a grown-up version of that experiment from Home Economics lessons at school where banana-flavoured milk dyed pink so easily fools the palate. Gose’s eyebrow-raising headline ingredient is salt but we don’t really taste it, perhaps because it is in balance with beginner-level sourness. Nor do we particularly latch on to any coriander, which presumably means its been used with the light touch 21st Century craft brewers (def 2) are so often chided for lacking. Our impression this time, as always, is that this is a classy, well-constructed beer that closely resembles the beers currently sold as Gose in Leipzig and around, only with a bit more punch, which is why it’s on the A Team.

Our first impressions of Westbrook Gose were of a much greater sourness. If Salty Kiss is Victorian pop, then this is some kind of sports drink designed to be chugged from a plastic bottle under the Friday Night Lights. The sourness is of a particular type: a sweaty, cheesecake funk; milk left too long in the sun. The obligatory fruit comparison: peaches. It clings to the tongue like peach tin syrup, too. There’s a line beyond which this kind of thing ceases to taste much like beer and, from our perspective, this beer is on the wrong side. Which is not to say we didn’t enjoy it — there is something moreish about it, and it’s not insanely sour or anything. If you always Go Large when the option is presented then, of the two, this might be the Gose for you.

Going back to Salty Kiss after the Westbrook Gose was a revelation. It was almost a different beer — lighter, fresher, hoppier, its pale ale DNA suddenly rampant. Different and, yes, better. Amazingly great. We’re still in love.

Session #116: Slightly Wrong Gose is Better Than No Gose

Gose, an obscure German beer style, has become a (small scale, low-key) battleground, and we’re not sure why.

Derrick Peterman is hosting the 116th edition of The Session where beer bloggers around the world post on one topic. This month, Derrick says:

Want to talk about the history of the Gose?  How about how American breweries are taking this style and running wild with it with different spice and fruit additions?  How else has the Gose manifested itself outside its German homeland?  Is the Gose here to stay or will it go the way of the Black IPA, once the hot style but slowly becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity?

We first encountered Gose in The Bible, AKA The Great Beer Guide by Michael Jackson. Back in 2008, when this blog was a year and half old, we travelled across Germany to the Czech Republic, stopping off in snowy Goslar and Leipzig on the way. So, before we’d ever tasted a fancified craft beer take on Gose, we had a good go on as near as there is to the real thing, at source.

We liked it, though some takes were better than others. It reminded us of a quirky cousin of Belgian wheat beer, and we like Wit, even, or maybe especially, Hoegaarden. (We realise this gets us thrown out of both The World Kraft Klub and the Ain’t Wot It Used to Be Society of Great Britain but we cannot lie.) Ritterguts had a bit more to it being a bit more tart. But, in general, what German Gose isn’t in the 21st Century is a deeply profound, complex, challenging beer: it’s a fun refresher, no more tangy than a can of Fanta, no saltier than a Jacob’s cream cracker, and with coriander present but hardly obtrusive.

For a long time Gose’s big champion was Ron Pattinson who called for the salvation of this endangered style while providing history lessons and setting some standards along the way. But the exuberant UK craft movement, focused primarily on IPAs and other hop-led styles, took a while to respond.

A breakthrough moment was the arrival of Magic Rock Salty Kiss in February 2013, brewed by Giada Maria Simioni (who has since left Magic Rock) in collaboration with Anders Kissmeyer. We don’t know that it’s the first example of a UK-brewed Gose — almost certainly not — but it was the one that made a splash. Magic Rock were, and still are, one of the buzziest breweries around and gave Gose a contemporary twist with the addition of sea buckthorn, rosehips and English gooseberries.

A can of Salty Kiss, close up.

We first tasted Salty Kiss in Sheffield in the summer of 2013 and, from the off, loved it. We’ve liked every variation we’ve tried — they’ve messed around with different fruits from time to time and tinkered with the recipe — and it’s become one of those beers we like to keep in the fridge at all times, if possible. If you’ve never had it you might imagine from the gloriously garish graphic design and the description that it is bright pink and tastes like fruit juice. It isn’t, and doesn’t: those additives are seasonings, not flavourings, and it really doesn’t seem hugely different to the beers we drank in eastern Germany eight years ago.

We tested that judgement recently when we got hold of some bottles of Bayerischer Bahnhof Gose from Beers of Europe. It was great, in that bright uncomplicated way — the kind of thing it would be a pleasure to drink from the bottle with a barbecue on a hot day. Salty Kiss is in the same territory but dialled up just a notch or two, arguably better, certainly no worse. It tastes how Gose tastes, it isn’t some sick mutation.

So when we read that Ron regrets wishing for more Goses (because everyone is getting it wrong, as we read it), or Ed being disgusted by Salty Kiss, or Alan describing most modern Gose as ‘Gatorade alcopop’, we feel a bit downhearted. Is their distaste about beer, or beer culture? We agree that a few more straight Goses without fruit and other sprinkles would be nice but, still, this feels like at least the beginning of a success story — a beer style so neglected it nearly disappeared altogether is now nearing ubiquity! As with IPA, getting people excited and engaged about the idea — letting them have fun — is step one. Getting the history right, at least at the sharp-end, in the brewhouse, can come later.

Why Brew Gose Instead of Mild?

There’s a simple answer to this question: because no-one in Britain actually likes mild.

Of course that’s not quite true — a few people are obsessive about it, and quite a few others like the occasional pint for a change. In the Midlands through to the North West, it seems there are even some regular mild drinkers left.

In general, though, it’s a style that the Campaign for Real Ale has been trying to get people excited about for 40 years with little success. First wave CAMRA members prefered cult bitters; in more recent years, they’ve turned their attention to hoppy golden ales.

And many (most?) post-2005 craft beer enthusiasts think like Tony Naylor — what’s the point of it?

[Mild] as it developed in the 20th century, was a low-strength (around 3%), very-lightly hopped beer, that became a staple thirst-quencher for miners, factory workers and anyone keen to sink eight pints and still get up for their shift the next morning… Flavours… were deliberately dialled-down to an innocuous level. Even its most misty-eyed fans admit that this was a beer designed to be undemanding, easy drinking.

They’ve got a point, too: if ‘connoisseurs’ rejected Foster’s lager and Watney’s Red because they were weak, sweet, bland and fizzy, then mild’s only point of superiority is that it isn’t usually highly-carbonated. Not much of a sales pitch.

“But no-one likes Gose either!” That might well be true but, if they dislike Gose, it’s because it tastes weird, which is preferable in marketing terms to tasting bland. And, as it’s usually bottled or kegged, not that many people have to like it for it to be worth brewing or stocking. Cask mild, on the other hand, needs a few people to drink several pints a night if it’s to be any good at all.

Nor does it help that lots of milds are, regrettably, bloody awful. We do like mild (mostly, it must be said, for sentimental reasons) but even we struggle with pints of sweet bland bitter dyed black with caramel or, worse, mislabelled, watery stouts that taste like the rinsings from a dirty coffee percolator.

We’d love to see more mild around — we can go months without a taste of the stuff — but let’s not kid ourselves that, if only, say, Magic Rock would make one, it could be cool again.

Gose in Leipzig

We really liked Leipzig. It’s a fascinating and lively city with an interesting history and several great pubs. We weren’t there for very long this time round, so we only got to try a few places. Naturally, being beer geeks, we focussed on the Gose.

We almost didn’t make it to the Bayerischer Bahnhof. Ron Pattinson’s not joking when he says it’s hard to find. Or rather, the problem is that it appears to be a massive building site, with no way in. Boak’s stubbornness prevailed, and after walking through a couple of estates, we made it.

Inside, we found an extremely popular and busy brewpub. It hasn’t changed much from Ron’s description, and is definitely worth the trip for all of the beers, not just the Gose. This Gose was orangey and a bit sour — like a wheatbeer with a drop of Tango in it. That makes it sound bad, doesn’t it? We liked it.

There were four other beers on offer. The “Heizer” schwarzbier was a little smokey and had good coffee notes; the “Kuppler” weizen really tasted like Schneider; the pils was decent enough; and there was a Bock which tasted a little Belgian (burnt sugar and pear drops). All were very well made, i.e. not like some German micro-brewed efforts. The food was also very good, and they do an interesting cumin liquour.

We tried the other Leipziger Gose in Sinfonie, a trendy cafe near the city centre. Doellnitzer Ritterguts Gose is reckoned by those who can be arsed to research these things to be the “most authentic” and it certainly is an extremely interesting drink. We were immediately reminded of a Belgian gueuze (shurely shome relation?). There is an immediate sour kick that gives way to a fruity, spritzy finish. Strangely drinkable.

We also tried “Kigo” – a trendy “kirschgose”. It’s more interesting in the fact that it’s being done at all than for its flavour — unsurprisingly, it was like one of the more boring, sweet krieks. But if it gets the Leipziger kids interested in their local beer, then that can only be a plus…

For more on Leipzig pubs and the history of Gose, see Ron’s guide. This has lot more detail on the pubs visited, including how to get to them.

Gose in Goslar

Crystal clear gose hell in Goslar
Crystal clear gose hell in Goslar

We’d barely been in Goslar an hour before we had our first glasses of Gose in front of us. It’s one of those legendary regional styles that fascinates beer geeks — salt, coriander and sourness? About as far from the boring “premium pilsners” that are the norm in Germany as it is possible to get.

We tried the big brand first, Brauhaus Goslar Gose. Lars Marius had suggested the Goslar gose was dumbed down and, sure enough, its only distinguishing feature was a distinct saltiness. It wasn’t cloudy, either. Odd and pleasant enough, but not Earth-shattering.

That night, we tried our second gose, about which we can find very little information. It’s apparently micro-brewed and served, as far as we can tell, only at the Worthmuehle restaurant. It was much more interesting — a dead ringer for a Belgian wit, and very unlike anything we’d had in Germany before. There was a little more sourness, less salt and a lot more coriander than in Brauhaus Goslar Gose.

We liked it so much, we came back for more the next night.

Little did we realise how much more interesting things were going to get when we tried the two goses available in Leipzig. More on that in our next post. Incidentally, there were dark versions available of both the Goslar intepretations, but they were not particularly noteworthy.  They were similar to the pale versions but tasted a lot more like homebrew.

Restaurant Worthmuehle also does excellent food, making a real point about sourcing its meat locally and ethically. Which got us wondering… why do you never ever see a pig? Pigs must outnumber humans in order to deliver that much Schnitzel and Schweinhaxe…

Also, Goslar is a really interesting and pretty place, and definitely worth a visit even if you’re not intrigued by the Gose thing.