Nature has a way of taking care of our needs and balancing things out. Take grains. Certain grains, such as barley for instance, are great for making beer. Others, such as corn, are better suited for breakfast cereal. Rye makes great whiskey, while rice makes excellent sushi. And wheat makes delicious bread.
But brewers have long been unwilling to be limited to just barley malt. One of the exceptions the Germans make to the Reinheitsgebot is for wheat. Some brewers use corn and rice as adjuncts, while the latest wave of grain in vogue with American brewers is rye.
I like the texture and complexity of the malt profile that the rye contributes,” says Taylor Rees, head brewer at Great Divide Brewing in Denver, CO. Great Divide Hoss is a rye lager that was first brewed as a fall seasonal two years ago, but now is available throughout the year.
In a sense, brewers are rediscovering what Bourbon distillers have long recognized. Bourbon must be at least 51 percent and no more than 79 percent corn whiskey. Distillers add a combination of whiskey made from barley and rye to the blend, with some also adding some wheat whiskey. Changing the level of rye in the blend has the most direct influence on flavor and mouthfeel of the Bourbon. Shifting consumer palates has resulted in the reemergence of rye whiskey as a category, with most companies now offering a rye version of their leading Bourbon labels.
Rye is a great ingredient for flavor,” says Spike Buckowski, brewmaster at Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, GA. “Some people over do it a bit. We use rye for the nuance of the flavor.”
Rye helped put Terrapin on the beer map. Buckowski had been homebrewing with rye since 1993. When the brewery made its first beer in 2002, contract brewed at Dogwood Brewing in Atlanta, it was Terrapin Rye Pale Ale. The recipe calls for 10 percent rye in the grist. Six months after making the beer commercially for the first time, it earned a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.
People wondered why we wanted to start out with a big, imposing pale ale,” Buckowski says. “The rye actually dries the palate out and pulls the bitterness forward. You have to remember that for a long time in the Southeast if you brewed anything hoppier than a Budweiser people would freak out.”
American brewers did not discover the joys of brewing with rye. German brewers have made roggenbier for several hundred years. According the German Beer Institute, brewers traditionally used a grist that was half malted barley combined with wheat and rye. The style has survived, with Paulaner making one of the wider distributed roggens. Brewers in Russia and Finland also make traditional rye beers from the grain.
Rye is not a friendly grain for brewing,” Buckowski notes, saying his cellarman is not a big fan of brewing Terrapin Rye Pale Ale. “Brewing with rye kind of gums up the system,” he says. “It is kind of like quicksand.”
Rees agrees with the assessment, pointing out that rye does not have a husk like other grains and the soft kernel can cause trouble as brewers try to move the beer from the mash tun to the kettle. “We add rice hulls to the brew. They add stability to the mash bed and help prevent clumping in the screen,” Rees says.
Andrew Marshall started homebrewing in 2000 and launched Black Market Brewing in Temecula, CA, in 2009. BMB Rye IPA uses 21 percent rye in the grain bill and is a “major pain” on brewing days.
We thought wheat was a hassle, but rye is something else,” Marshall says. “Rye is gross and sticky. Anything it can do to make your brew day miserable, it will do.” So why does Black Market Brewing use rye?
Rye has spiciness and an herbal quality that we really like,” Marshall says. “We brew an American IPA with rye and Amarillo and Cascade hops. I wanted to use hops that would let the spicy aspects of the rye come through.”
All of the work paid off for Black Market Brewing, earning the brewery the gold medal in the rye beer category at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. Marshall had been looking forward going to the Denver festival as a professional brewer for the first time and receiving “all-access” credentials to the big event. But, ironically, the demands of brewing kept him 1,000 miles away in Temecula.
We just wanted to participate in the GABF. We had no realistic hopes or dreams to win a medal,” Marshall says. He sent a couple of brewery representatives in his place.
It was pretty unbelievable,” Marshall says. “A little bit after two in the afternoon my cell phone started to go crazy. I was getting messages and calls saying we had won the gold medal.”
You might not get the message at first, but the chances are with the growing number of brewers going to the trouble of producing this style, your next beer just might be a rye brew.
Rick Lyke is a freelance drinks journalist living in Charlotte, NC. He is the founder of the Pints for Prostates campaign.