While American craft beer fans are clamoring for "sours" today, their history has been mixed. Two traditional sour styles in particular, which sound alike and share a similar history, are worth knowing more about: gose and gueuze. Forms of both are being made across the United States, with gose being among the country's fastest-growing session styles.
Gose (pronounced GOZ-eh) and gueuze (GOO-za) are beers born in regions not too far from each other. Differences emerge from there, though, beginning with their heritages and the source of their sour-ness.
Gose is a German style from Lower Saxony, named after the Gose River, whose brackish waters gave the beer a salty character. Gueuze (or geuze), a sub-style of blended lambic, originated with the Gauls in east-central Belgium. Both styles are wheat-based and originally open fermented —- exposed to airborne microbes to provide yeasts and bacteria for fermentation. Lactobacillus strains gave gose its earthy, dry-sour character. Strains of brettanomyces and bruxellenis gave gueuze a tart, acidic sourness. The original strains behind each style are lost, as both all but disappeared and were later reintroduced.
Gose enjoyed popularity in Germany's Harz Region from 980 A.D. until the 19th century. The Harz Mountains are the lands of fairy tales: dark forests, stormy mountains, and the highest elevations in Northern Germany. This isolation contributed to the style's longevity, but the writing was on the wall as industrialization and world wars came to the rugged region.
Beginning around 1824, the style's production decreased, as pilsner and kölsch became cheaper to make. Despite flashes of a gose renaissance in the 1930s and '50s, by the 1980s gose was lost and nearly forgotten.
A local professor, Lothar Goldhahn, is credited with reviving gose in the city of Leipzig around 1990. Since then, gose has been brewed with top-fermenting (ale) yeast and lactobacillus in closed fermentation. American versions of the style, including Avery's El Gose, similarly rely on improvised methods, including adding diverse salts and blending in citrus flavors.
Lambics appeared slightly earlier than gose. Records from Julius Caesar's campaigns reference an early sour wheat beer made by the Belgae Gauls in 57 B.C. Later records tell of Charles V's (1519-1556 A.D.) fondness for lambic blended with marzen beer for a sweeter taste — a precursor to gueuze.
By 1559, Belgian law embraced the financial potential of lambics, codifying specific ratios of barley to wheat to balance tax revenues and crop harvests. In 1839, the area in which lambic could legally be brewed was limited to Brussels and the surrounding two miles, and until 1860 foreign beers were virtually prohibited in Brussels. The protection zone insulated the livelihood of local brewers and the regional micro flora unique to lambics.
Ultimately, these efforts did not hold back the invasion of bottom fermented German beers — lagers. Occupying forces during both world wars confiscated brewing equipment or forced breweries to brew German beers, permanently changing the local beer paradigm.
After World War II, brewers with limited access to ingredients also began adding filler flavors and colors. Gueuze drifted from its roots as a wild-fermented wheat beer with aged hops into a sweetened concoction. This created confusion in labeling, and in 1965 Belgian law again stepped in to regulate use of the term "gueuze." Thereafter, original gueuze became known as "old gueuze."
In 1997, lambic brewers, recognizing the importance of keeping their traditions alive, formed HORAL (High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers). The group seeks to promote lambic brewing, its culture and to denounce irregularities and mislabeling. HORAL secured European Union protection under a Traditional Specialty Guaranteed label, designating the style and its sub-styles (including gueuze) as geographic specific appellations, uniquely identifying beers from the Brussels region.
For this reason, American brewers modeling sour lambics —- open-fermentation; 40 percent wheat/60 percent malted barley — are unlikely to call their beer "lambic" or "gueuze." Instead, brewers like Denver's Black Project use "méthode gueuze" or "spontaneously fermented" to identify their beers and honor the uniqueness of traditional lambics.
Though sour beers are hot in American craft brewing today, they remain a niche product. This is partially due to a lack of domestic tradition around the artistry and attributes of these styles. But as more U.S. consumers learn about and request these sour beers, their Old World and 21st century versions are experiencing resurgence.