When you think of the grains that go into making beer, barley probably tops that list. While barley is the most prevalent grain for brewing, others, including wheat and oats, also make the grade. But recently, rye has seen a rise in popularity among both beer makers and beer drinkers.
“Rustic” is one descriptor that has been applied to the flavor of rye in beer. It brings sharp, almost bitter spiciness with softer, bready undertones. Imagine the crust of a freshly baked loaf of rye bread crusted with cracked black pepper.
Rye has been a part of the brewer’s tool kit since at least the Middle Ages. Rye beers like the spruce-infused, Finnish sahti or the Russian kvass made from stale rye bread have been traced back to the ninth and 10th centuries. They may be much older. Bavarian Germans have been making roggenbier — a style similar to the German wheat beer, but made with rye instead of wheat — for at least that long.
In this country, any rye beer brewing that may have occurred was quashed by Prohibition, its spicy product lost to the homogenization of the American beer landscape that followed. But adventurous American craft brewers have brought it back, and the number of rye beers available has proliferated in the past decade.
For those who like lighter beers, Hoss Rye Lager from Great Divide Brewing Co. is a great place to start your rye excursion. This moderately strong, golden lager is dominated by malt, with light, honey sweetness up front that dissolves into a dry finish. The honey is accompanied by flavors of rye bread and pepper. It’s a simple beer, but that lack of complication lets the rye character shine through.
Rye IPA — or Rye-PA — is all the rage. The zippy spice of rye is a perfect accompaniment to the bitterness and spicy/fruity flavors of hops. Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Rye of the Tiger IPA has a brilliant blend of both. Balanced bitterness leads the way, along with citrus and tropical fruit hop flavors. The peppery rye spice is apparent, but melds seamlessly with the hops, making it a part of the ensemble rather than the leading character. It lingers in the finish, though, giving it a brief moment to shine.
Real hop heads will love Green Flash Road Warrior Imperial Rye IPA. At 9 percent alcohol and 80 bittering units, it’s a bruiser. While the beer’s aromatics are fully focused on hops, the flavor is fairly balanced. Bitterness and hop flavors like grapefruit and blueberry are at the forefront, but there is ample malt sweetness to back them up. Rye is subdued at first, but comes on stronger as the beer warms. Some hop-derived garlic notes that detracted a bit in the beginning seemed to lessen as I worked my way through the glass.
Anchor Brewing Co. employs an unusual process to make their limited-release Potrero Hill Sour Mash IPA. The brewery also runs a distillery. They start this beer with a 100 percent rye sour mash just like they would when making their famous Potrero Hill Rye Whiskey. That’s blended back into a regular barley and rye mash in the brewhouse. The resulting beer is a real showcase for the spicy, peppery flavor of rye malt. The rather moderate bitterness stays out of the way. Nelson Sauvin hops bring herbaceous, lemony and grape-like notes that combine with light acidity from the sour mash to give a vinous impression.
Cane and Ebel from Two Brothers Brewing in Illinois puts a zesty rye twist on a West Coast-style amber ale. Malt is the focus here, with luscious layers of burnt caramel, toast and low bitter chocolate. An addition of Thai palm sugar brings some brown sugar and dark fruit notes. Peppery rye and moderately high hop bitterness provide the counterpoint, while citrusy and resinous hop flavors add the high notes. This has long been one of my favorites.
For a completely different take on rye beer, try Royal Nektar from Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy Series. Royal Nektar is actually braggot, a half-beer/half-mead concoction made by blending beer wort and honey before fermentation. This one uses Wisconsin cranberry blossom honey and plenty of rye malt to create a beverage with just the right balance of sweet and spice. Loads of vinous fruit flavors, like grapes, oranges and apricots — along with a light touch of acidity — will have you pouring this into a wine glass. Leinenkugel has been doing great things with the Big Eddy Series, and they’ve come through again with Royal Nectar.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.