“We’ll never brew it again.”
Todd DiMatteo, owner and brewer at Good Word Brewing & Public House in Duluth, Georgia, was speaking of Rye So Serious, a collaboration beer brewed with HopFly Brewing Co. in Charlotte, North Carolina.
More than half of the beer’s grain bill consisted of malted rye, a notoriously hard to brew with ingredient due to its gumminess. This gumminess contributed to an especially slow lauter. Thanks to this and a decoction mash, the brew day lasted almost 12 hours.
Rye So Serious was a Roggenbier, a style of beer which originates from Regensburg, Bavaria, but has never been broadly available. Under Bavaria’s infamous Reinheitsgebot, Roggenbier was even illegal for a time to reserve rye for baking bread.
Today, Roggenbier is essentially the rye equivalent to Hefeweizen. The grain contributes flavors reminiscent of pumpernickel or rye bread, which is accented by the banana and clove flavors contributed by the Hefeweizen yeast.
“It drinks pretty light,” says DiMatteo. “People say rye is spicy, but I get phenolics and tobacco. And I’m a big fan of foam. When you have that much protein [from the rye], you could [float] a nickel on the foam.”
Other historic rye beers
In Slavic areas of Europe, Kvass was made from actual rye bread soaked in water to create the wort. Kvass has been brewed for at least 500 years, though vague definitions of beer styles may mean it has existed for twice that long. Regardless, the rye flavor in Kvass is balanced against a light tartness. Any number of herbs, spices, fruits and sugars may be added, making Kvass a very diverse beer style, though the flavor of actual fermented rye bread unifies Kvass beers.
In Finland, rye has always played an important role in the brewing of Sahti. Made with barley, rye and juniper twigs and berries, Sahti has been brewed in Finnish farmhouses for centuries, though some commercial examples exist now. The beer is brewed throughout Finland and regional variances exist, but broadly, Sahti is described as malty from the grains, resinous and herbal from the juniper, and clove-like from the yeast. In all cases, rye contributes the style’s essential spiciness.
Modern use of rye
While historic beers like Roggenbier, Kvass, and Sahti might never have been universally popular beer styles, modern brewers are now using rye to add that certain something to set their beers apart.
“[Ruthless Rye IPA] is still our highest volume producing beer in the ‘Spring’ seasonal slot of all time,” says Terence Sullivan, production manager at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “Rye malt does add some hardy malt profile and mouthfeel that you don’t see in IPAs of today.”
While Ruthless Rye was only ever a seasonal beer, and now makes occasional appearances in variety packs, Sierra Nevada did have a full-time IPA, from 2019 to 2022 with rye in it – Dankful IPA. “Rye adds an amount of richness or hardiness and backbone to higher ABV, higher hop profile beers that adds needed balance to the final beer,” says Sullivan.
For years, The Bruery made a sour beer with rye comprising 40 percent of the malt bill. Sour in the Rye was aged in barrels where it was soured by the action of a microbial menagerie. “I think rye is a great addition to any beer that is going to see time in wood,” says Ash St. Pierre, senior brewer and barrel lead. “In the same way that wood imparts unique flavors and character to a beer, rye works in the base beer to add an almost wood-like element to the base beer before it sees contact with wood.”
The Bruery has used rye in a broad range of beers, from Black Tuesday (barrel-aged imperial stout), Humulus Rye (hoppy rye lager), Rugbrød (dark rye ale) and a number of barleywines. “Rye is not something that is solely bitter, or solely spicy, or solely usable in one style of brewing,” says St. Pierre. “It helps curb perceived sweetness, rounds out a flavor profile, and adds a pleasant bitterness.”
Maltsters seeing increasing interest in rye
Rye’s versatility in many beer styles is thanks in part to the work of maltsters. The same way there are different types of barley malt, maltsters make different types of rye malt – toasted rye, biscuit rye, and others.
“Rye is primarily grown for bread,” says Tyler Schoales, the director of commercial sales for United Malt Group and a maltster who works with rye. “Sourcing rye for malting is difficult because we need large kernels and in order for us to malt it, the rye can’t have had [herbicides] applied.”
Rye kernels are generally smaller than barley kernels.
“It is a pain in the ass to malt,” says Schoales.
Despite the difficulty of working with the grain at all stages of production – from malthouse to brewhouse – brewers continue to use the grain. Rye adds flavors to beer that cannot be found from any other source. Often described with vague terms like “spicy,” “sturdy,” or “rich,” it is precisely the inability to describe it that makes rye unique. Brewers can use rye in varying amounts in beers from light lagers to imperial stouts and in malt-forward, hop-forward, and yeast-forward beers. And it contributes a beautiful color to any beer – touches of amber-gold in small amounts right through to brown in greater quantities.
While rye has never threatened to supplant barley as the brewing grain of choice, Schoales is seeing a steady uptick in the use of rye. More brewers are exploring historic beer styles like Roggenbier, Kvass, and Sahti or experimenting with providing different flavors in modern beers in a crowded market.
This increased demand drives innovation at the malt house, with Schoales experimenting with different rye malts to satisfy brewers’ curiosity.
Despite saying he would never brew another Roggenbier, DiMatteo loves beers made with rye.
He continues to use the grain in small proportions in other beers.“Consumers should be curious,” says DiMatteo. “That feeds humanity. If you see a rye beer, order it!”
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