Beer: Rye Observations

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rye has a long and distinguished history in the distilling industry. George Washington made rye whiskey at Mount Vernon and sold it raw and unblended to his fellow planters.

Brewers also have long appreciated this hardy grain, which thrives in spite of cold, drought and rocky soil. Several indigenous home-brew styles are rye-based, including the juniper-flavored sahti of the Finns and the Russian kvass, a lightly alcoholic beverage fermented from loaves of rye bread.

Early settlers in America sometimes mixed rye with other fermentables when a steady supply of barley was unavailable. (To sample the type of kitchen-sink beer they might have brewed, try 1634 Ale from the Brewer's Alley brew pub in Frederick. This malty amber ale -- brewed to mark the 375th anniversary of the arrival of the Ark and the Dove with Maryland's first European colonists -- incorporates rye, wheat, caraway seeds and molasses in addition to malt and hops.)

Because of rye's bitter, peppery flavors, some modern brewers are adding it to their India pale ales to lend extra oomph to hoppy beers. Called "rye P.A.s," these intensively flavored multigrain brews go wonderfully (no surprise!) with a pastrami-on-pumpernickel sandwich slathered with spicy brown mustard. But they also will pair with any highly seasoned dish or a sharp cheddar cheese. Raw onions ruin my palate for most beers, but not rye P.A.s.

"Ours was the first rye P.A. in America," boasts Peter Kruger, head brewer at the Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, Calif., of his Hop Rod Rye, introduced in 2001. The beer is a mahogany color; that is due to specially roasted barley malts, notes Kruger, and not because of the malted rye, which by itself would produce a pale golden beer. Hop Rod gives a resiny blast of an aroma, almost like taking a deep breath in a pine forest, then follows up with a juicy underpinning of malt and leaves a lingering bitterness that stops just short of astringency.

Founders Red's Rye P.A. hails from a small (but rapidly growing) microbrewery in beer-savvy Michigan, which at latest count had more than 70 breweries, the highest tally among states east of the Mississippi. Founders is less alcoholic than Hop Rod (6.6 percent by volume, compared with Hop Rod's 8 percent) and a bit more balanced, with a dry, nutty flavor that becomes more intense as the beer warms up and the hops recede.

Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A., on the other hand, hits you like a double shot of rye whiskey. "It's on the verge of being liquor," says Jeremy Cowan, founder of Shmaltz Brewing Co., an operation best known for its Jewish-themed beers such as Genesis Ale and Messiah Bold. He says of his 10-percent-alcohol-by-volume brew: "I love whiskey and bourbon. This is our ode to that flavor category."

The label pays tribute to the late comedian Lenny Bruce. The beer was first brewed in 2006, Cowan explains, to mark the 10th anniversary of Shmaltz and the 40th anniversary of Bruce's untimely death at age 40. Like Bruce's stand-up act, the beer is earthy and abrasive. It delivers a palate-numbing assault of citrusy and resiny hops (six varieties are used). Two varieties of malted rye as well as torrified (pre-gelatinized) rye contribute a peppery burn in the back of the throat.

Bittersweet Lenny's contains about 20 percent rye, which for most brewers is the limit. "The high gluten content makes rye sticky," says Bear Republic's Kruger, whose Hop Rod has a rye content of 18 percent. Too much rye can make for a gummy mess in the mash tun and cause problems during runoff, in which the brewer separates the sugar-rich liquid from the spent grain and transfers it to the brew kettle.

Rye also has a high protein content, which can result in a cloudy brew. When used in significant amounts, the grain produces a thick, oily mouth feel in the beer. Two years ago, Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Easton, Pa., celebrated its 12th year in business by brewing a barleywine with 50 percent rye that had the viscosity of not-quite-congealed Jell-O. Last year, Bear Republic brewed a beer, called E-Z Ryeder, from 100 percent rye. "It was like a rich stock, with a velvety smoothness," says Kruger. But the brew day, normally seven hours, dragged on to twice that length.

"We most likely will not brew that again," he says.

Sometimes it's hard to tell where the hops leave off and the rye begins. The Microbrasserie Dieu du Ciel! in Montreal and Saint-Jerome, Canada, complicates the situation by brewing its Route des Epices (Spice Route) with not only rye but also black and green peppercorns. The beer packs great depth of flavor for its ordinary 5 percent alcohol content, delivering an herbal, slightly grassy taste upfront and leaving a prickly note of black pepper in the back of the throat.

Finally, Michelob Rye P.A. from Anheuser-Busch is available in the Michelob sampler pack. This ruddy golden brew has a citrusy hop character and a spicy pumpernickel flavor balanced by a caramel malt sweetness. It's a little more restrained than the other brews, but it is evidence of a new style's acceptance when the world's largest brewer picks up on it.

Greg Kitsock can be reached at

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