In the beginning -- by which I mean the '80s -- there were, like, five kinds of beer. They were yellow, fizzy, cheap, and widely available, lagers mostly, and people didn’t care that they tasted like metal and corn, or that they were prone to making claims like being "the Champagne of Beers," which is like being the zebra of motorcycles.
Then, after a few revolutionary rumblings in the '80s (Sam Adams, homebrewing), we were suddenly in the midst of a full-on beer renaissance in the '90s. Word began to circulate within the square population that all beer didn’t need to taste like metal and corn, that it could be more than just the substance you ingested in order to work up the courage to throw a D battery at Rafael Palmeiro at Fenway Park. It could be culture, art, worthy of obsession. And as brewers pushed the boundaries of the American beer palate, ingeniously creating new styles and reinventing lost or neglected ones, customers in turn became even more emboldened, literate, and demanding.
Warm, it tastes like spicy sweat; cold, it tastes like cold sweat.
In time we had the craft beer revolution on our hands. And it was a glorious revolution. And now it’s over. It ended last Thursday when I walked into a popular Brooklyn brewpub and blindly ordered something off the menu. It came highly recommended by the bartender, though he couldn’t seem to actually explain what it was. A minute or so later it arrived and I took it up with relish, having looked forward to this drink all day, and drank it. I made a face and tried it again. It tasted like it had been squeegeed off the back of a German day laborer toiling in a coriander processing plant. As I frantically attempted to wipe it off my tongue like a cartoon child, the bartender pointed to a beer menu he had found, which identified the beer thusly: “Gose.”
Gose. You’ve heard of Gose. It’s German, a sour beer. Pronounced "Go-zuh," like the thing that wrecked New York in Ghostbusters. Reported to be between 200 and 1,000 years old, it’s sour and salty, amber, a low-ABV session beer (which means it both tastes bad and won’t get you sauced). Over the last year, it has turned up in most of the stories forecasting beer trends, and so far, those stories appear to have been correct. I had drank Gose in the past, but I went to three craft beer stores today in search of more varieties to cement (or rebut) my opinion, and the first two were completely sold out. The third had two left. I bought them, I drank them. Served warmer, they tasted like spicy sweat. Served cold, they tasted like cold sweat. One, the vaunted Original Ritterguts Gose, which got a BeerAdvocate score of 90, left an aftertaste that simply could not be effaced. Not by wine, or stout, or, in the trough of my desperation, sausage.
I have never begrudged anyone their beer taste. I don’t love the palate-scorching high-IBU IPAs, but I’ll drink them on occasion and I understand why hopheads love them; same with lambics. Not my thing, a little treacly, but I can see the appeal. But this is the first time I’ve been completely unconvinced by people’s enthusiasm for a kind of beer. And what the rise of Gose says, at least to me, is that the craft beer revolution has run out of ideas. We’re 20 or 25 years into the Golden Age of Beer. If Gose was that worthy of so much excitement and attention from America’s world-class brewers and drinkers, we simply would have gotten to it by now.
But it’s not, and we didn’t. And the reason we’re getting to it now has to do with the fanboy ethos that dominates the world of beer geeks. Like any area of obsessive enthusiasm, novelty becomes more and more tightly equated with value, prized above nearly everything else. The more mainstream types begin to take an interest in craft beer, the more the cognoscenti are forced to seek out weirder, more challenging, more distasteful fare to retain their credentials and slake their curiosity.
It was a glorious revolution. And now it’s over.
I’m not judging. As a beer snob, and a music snob, and probably just an all-around snob, I know from snobbery. Suddenly you find yourself proclaiming Ariel Pink is the new Prince, until you hear him at Starbucks, and then some even lesser-known performer becomes the real new Prince, only to be supplanted by some pseudonymous Icelandic tone-poet that dresses like a tree. Or put it in terms of food: you like beef tenderloin, but then others like it, so you start liking the cheeks, the snout, the ears.
When those start turning up in gastropubs in the suburbs, you scramble. Brains? Bones? Hooves? And in time all that’s left is the penis. And you’re eating it like nom nom nom this bull penis is so good! But in reality, Ariel Pink gives you the fantods and you’d kill 10 men for a steak.
I’m not saying fanboys and -girls are incapable of sincere interest, nor am I disparaging the ceaseless pursuit of the new, nor the value geeks of all sorts provide to the culture; but when obsession enters its late stage and novelty comes to edge out all other criteria for approval and enjoyment, the whole thing is rendered completely senseless. For beer, Gose is that moment. It’s the bull penis, that Icelandic tone poem, the B-side, prized for its rarity, its status as an unexplored horizon. It means the glorious revolution has turned in on itself. Bad flavor is the new good flavor, because all the good flavors are taken. Gose is upon us. We are all sweat drinkers now.
Joe Keohane is a former Esquire editor. He’s also written for the New York Times, New Republic, and other gose-related publications. Follow him in all his salt-beer glory @JoeKeohane.