God knows how much time has passed since I last saw a gooseberry. It seems to me that nations have risen, civilisations have collapsed and entire continents have drifted apart since I last set eyes on any of those translucent little fellows in their furry phlegm-coloured jackets.
I’m not trying to make out that this is one of those ‘white dog poo’ enigmas by the way. I know gooseberries still exist. It’s just that I no longer frequent the places where, in my experience, they always tended to congregate, namely my friends’ back gardens in about 1976.
That was the age of peak gooseberry wasn’t it? I don’t have the figures but I’m sure it’s true. They were part of the soft fruit scenery as me and my mates wandered from garden to garden on those endless moisture-free afternoons – a glass of Quosh here, a couple of custard creams there, and then as many rasp/logan/gooseberries as we could pluck from the bush while waiting for the kids’ telly to come on (because we didn’t love the outdoors so much that it was worth missing The Tomorrow People).
And yet here I am pouring a gooseberry-flavoured beer and feeling nostalgic for a time when those emerald-green fruit eyeballs last crossed my garden path.
This article is my second Brew North piece for Northern Soul, an occasional series in which I sample randomly selected beers from Northern breweries and submit them to the touch of my analytical tongue. Fresh out of the fridge today is a beer called Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose from Huddersfield’s Magic Rock brewery. According to the can, it’s 4.1 per cent ABV and is ‘lightly sour, fruity and refreshing’, with ingredients including the familiar water, barley, wheat, hops and yeast, plus sea buckthorn, gooseberries and salt.
In this case, salt is essential because as its name makes clear, this is a gose beer. Gose is an old German wheat beer style that originated in the town of Goslar, Northern Germany, and which remained a local favourite around Leipzig. Traditionally it was pale, a little sour, and flavoured with coriander and the region’s naturally salty water. However, while other German beer styles developed towering global reputations throughout the 20th century, gose stayed in its salty niche until the late 1960s when the final producer gave up the gose(t), and the style was rendered extinct.
It was 20 years before gose production restarted in Germany but, more recently, American and British craft brewers – always on the search for obscurer-than-thou beer styles deserving some time on the bar – have proved partial to this quirky brew. The US craft giant Sierra Nevada recently launched Otra Vez, a gose beer brewed with Californian cactus, while Chorlton Brewing Company’s Dark Matter is a dark, strong version of the sodium-enriched Germanic treat hailing from closer to home. And then there’s this Salty Kiss from Magic Rock which, according to their website, has already existed in versions flavoured with pink grapefruit and lime.
Regular Northern Soul readers may recall that I recently came out as a salt addict when I wrote about a trip to the Lion Salt Works in Cheshire, so holding onto this strawberry Angel Delight-coloured can without busting it open with my bare teeth has been a challenge. Now though, with notebook in hand and laptop fired up and ready, I can finally liberate the contents and pour the salty goodness down my neck.
Let the gooseberry foolishness begin.
But first, a few moments to give it some eye. The beer is a pale yellow-orange with a thick, brilliant white head. It’s a little hazy, and gives off a very faint citrus aroma with a woody touch of…pencil shavings? Oh yes indeed. And on first glug, the liquid churns up like breaking surf, the mousse-like head surging in the mouth like that expanding foam filler you can buy in B&Q. I swallow and wait for the irresistible saline hit – but it doesn’t really come. It’s clear that this is never going to replace a bag of Discos as my sodium chloride delivery system of choice.
As the beer disappears down my gullet, I smack my lips and try to pick out the flavours that hang around. My initial thoughts are that it’s all very subtle and polite. Even the promised sourness is of a mild persuasion, more quenching tang than face-scrunching kick in the sensory goolies. It tastes like well-watered lemon or very pale yellow grapefruit, and there’s certainly some gooseberry too – but this acidic edge doesn’t slice at the palate like beers brewed for bitterness, and it has none of the stickiness of a hopped-up strong IPA. This is beautifully restrained, brewed to refresh rather than to enable reverential sipping, carrying the merest hint of a brine-edged sea breeze of the type that never, ever reaches Huddersfield.
Describe the gose style to a trad British bitter drinker and they’ll shake their jowls at the lunatic excesses of craft beer’s headlong rush for novelty. A sour beer? With salt in it? I can almost hear their eyes rolling in their sockets.
In the telling, the recipe may sound like the mad ravings of someone scrabbling around at the back of the kitchen cupboard, but in reality it seems that gose beer is a lot less challenging than you might expect – even when dressed in the hip cartoon grimace of Richard Norgate’s tripped-out circus artwork (his illustrations have helped the Magic Rock brand stand out a mile since its launch in 2011).
It’s less tart than a Fentimans lemonade, less puckering than a dry white wine, less weird than dandelion and burdock. Mention that it’s perhaps a little herbal and people will screw up their noses – the same people who launch themselves into the weekend on a rocket made of medicine-like Jägerbombs.
If I detect a mild disappointment in myself that the salt content isn’t more aggressive, I must accept that this can only be a good thing when it comes to the beer’s surprisingly easy drinkability. Having said that, this is certainly a savoury drink rather than being sugary or juicy like some other fruity beers – more akin to a lightly flavoured vinegar than a rich fruit-soaked syrup. It would make a perfect summer afternoon quencher – whether you prefer to spend your time outside playing at pea shooters with your pals, or in front of the telly with the curtains decadently shut.
Ah, you see – the pull of childhood summers is never far away. And though nothing more potent than a cider lolly passed my lips in the long hot holiday of 76, it seems that those gooseberry-scented days were setting me up to appreciate a subtly summery beer like this.
Once, the garden landscapes in which I wandered grew wild with Swingball sets, washing-line poles and festering dad-built sand pits – and yes, with gooseberries too. You could snack on them of course, but to be honest we preferred them as deadly ammunition.
They were the sight, smell and – when hurled at the back of the legs – agonising sting of summer.
Which gives me an idea for the next version of Salty Kiss.
Magic Rock…have you ever heard of crab apples?
Beer: Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose
Brewery: Magic Rock Brewing
ABV: 4.1 per cent
More info: www.magicrockbrewing.com