Rye is not a commonly used grain in brewing, but beers that do use it are distinctive and noteworthy. Rye is employed for a variety of reasons. Remnant farmhouse brews, like Finnish sahti or Russian kvass, include small amounts of rye as a matter of tradition, stemming from necessity. Bavarian rye beer, known as roggenbier, is relatively new to the scene. But, leave it to the Americans to poke and prod the grain in a more experimental fashion. Rye beers may not be frequently featured on a brewer’s ledger, but the variety of brews that use the grain is certainly interesting.
As envelope-pushing brewers are always looking for something different in the practice of their craft, don’t be surprised if rye takes on a larger role.
Rye is a hearty grain that grows with vigor even in substandard conditions. It is also the most assertively flavored of all the grains used in the food and beverage industry. This robust feature has garnered rye a supporting, rather than starring, role in brewing. Like wheat, rye is huskless and very high in protein and glutinous components, making it a challenge to work with. It is used in several forms: malted, flaked, and, in the case of kvass, as a leavened loaf of rye bread. A tour through the world of rye beers is a trip that runs from the most primitive of all beers to the more modern and experimental examples from Bavaria and the United States.
The most primordial beer still being made today is kvass, produced primarily in western Russia. It is generally accepted that the original beers were produced in Mesopotamia from loaves of bread soaked in water, then fermented with wild yeast. Today’s kvass, which is Russian for leaven, is made in the same fashion. In yet another link to its ancient past, kvass is flavored further with herbs and/or fruit and augmented with some form of sugar. It is fermented with bread yeast, of course, and most of the known recipes use raisins, peppermint, and some sort of sugar, honey or molasses.
Kvass is more or less a peasant’s drink, being brewed by farmhouse homebrew-type operations, and it is not readily available. It is also considered a summer beverage because of its low strength. Though impossible to find on any commercial scale, kvass is significant because it might be the brew that made rye an acceptable ingredient in more modern beers.
Finland is a somewhat isolated country, with its distinct language and relative geographic remoteness. Its indigenous brewing culture is equally detached from the rest of Europe. Many centuries of Finnish brewing tradition are manifested in the rustic, rye-accented beer known as sahti, a malted barley-based brew that usually contains just a small amount of dark malted rye. The rye adds just enough of a footprint to give this complex beer even more depth.
The commercial production of sahti is less than 20 years old, but sahti brewing dates back over a millennium. As Germanic tribes were among the first to inhabit what is now Finland, there is no doubt a brewing prehistory associated with the land. A Viking ship from the 9th century salvaged off the coast of Finland held barrels that once contained some type of fermented beverage, probably an early sahti. Rye and hops were introduced from the south in the 12th century. These ingredients cast the mold for what we now know as sahti, and it has changed little in the past several hundred years.
Modern sahti brewers, even those on the farm, do make some concessions to modernity, but others do not. It begins with the malt. Maltsters now provide the brewers with their own special sahti grains, both barley and rye. The traditional method of malting, though, was very different. Sacks of grain were steeped in the clean, cold creeks of Finland until they germinated; they were then dried in the ubiquitous saunas.
The actual brewing makes use of three special vessels, a mash tun, a lauter tun, and a fermenter that also serves as a dispensing vessel. Traditionally, all were made of wood and no kettle was needed. The mash tun—a large, sturdy, wooden tub—is filled with crushed malt. The temperature is raised by either adding hot water in increments, or by adding heated stones to the saturated malt. By slowly heating the mash this way over a long period of time, the brewer ensures that all of the important enzyme-specific goals are met. The mash might actually be boiled briefly with the heated stones to sterilize it. This process can take hours. Some forgo the boiling and go directly to the lauter tun.
Once the malt is converted, it is then scooped into the lauter tun, the vessel that separates the grain from the liquid. The sahti version is a trough, several feet long that is fashioned from a split log, much like a hollowed-out canoe with flat ends. The lauter tun is prepared prior to the malt transfer by putting rungs crosswise along the length of the vessel. These provide a false bottom of sorts and act as small dams that trap the floury grain residue and help the wort run free. To further aid the filtration of wort, and more importantly, to flavor the beer, a mat of straw, juniper twigs, and maybe some hops is built upon the rungs. The contribution of the juniper is not overpowering but does give a distinctive quality to the beer. Juniper, in essence, takes the place of hops as both a spice and as an antiseptic agent.
At the end of the trough is a fitted gate with a bung. The bung is removed and the wort runs outs, infused and filtered by the false bottom and mat, into the fermenting vessel. The wort might be recirculated briefly to further clear the runoff. The fermenter is often just a wooden tub with a lid, on a set of legs or stilts, and with a serving spigot at the bottom. Once the liquid is in the fermenting vessel and chilled, the yeast is pitched. As with kvass, a baker’s yeast is used.
The yeast used for today’s commercial operations might be a special brewer’s yeast derived from a baker’s variety. The rambunctious yeast strain makes the primary fermentation swift and vigorous. Secondary fermentation is tempered by using a cellar. Once finished, the beer is allowed to sediment and is served from the spigot if the traditional methods are used.
In general, sahti takes on a light amber color and a silky mouthfeel, both owing to the rye malt. It is generally cloudy because of the unrefined nature of the production and is noticeably absent of hop character. The flavor is reminiscent of Bavarian weizenbier, thanks to the unusual properties of the yeast. The rye and juniper add a peculiar spicy, resinous, and minty background, too. Sahtis are brewed from wort that is usually above 1.075, producing a beer of 7 to 9 percent alcohol by volume, but some special brews can be as high as 11 percent.
Since licenses were first granted to commercial sahti brewers in 1985, seven have come into production. If brewed in the traditional manner, sahtis have a somewhat short shelf life. As of now, they are newcomers to North America. The Lammin brewery imports two of their rye beers, one a true sahti, the other a fully boiled juniper beer.
The beers that make the most use of rye, in this case, malted, are the roggenbiers of Bavaria. They are brewed in the image of a weizenbier, essentially an alternative to dunkelweizen. The brewers of roggenbier simply replace the measure of malted wheat with malted rye and use the house weizenbier yeast. The few breweries that make roggenbier use about 60 percent malted rye. The inherent spiciness is evident in the brew. Like a sahti, the extra protein content results in a glutinous, silkier palate.
The yeast presents a lineup of the usual suspects that are familiar to weizenbier lovers: banana, clove and vanilla. They are bottle conditioned, and if they were more common, they might be called hefe-roggen. They are wonderful beers; it would be nice to see more.
Modern Rye Beer
It is doubtful that rye will cement a prominent spot in the brewing world, but in North America, and even in England, rye is finding its way into the grist. Rye flakes are a readily available form of the grain that is easy to work with and can be added to a mash in small quantities to enhance the overall complexity of the beer. It is used much like oats. Malted rye is also used in these experimental-type beers, and any brew could conceivably benefit in some way from the addition of either form.
Pale ales, stouts, bocks and porters are no stranger to rye in commercial breweries and brewpubs. The 2002 champion pale ale at the Great American Beer Festival was a rye-enhanced brew from Terrapin Brewing Co. in Athens, GA. Perhaps it was the depth added by the rye that got the judges’ attention. English breweries are using more wheat in their recipes these days, so perhaps rye will one day make similar inroads. As envelope-pushing brewers are always looking for something different in the practice of their craft, don’t be surprised if rye takes on a larger role. Craft beer lovers will be the ultimate arbiters if the result is worthy.