Brewing with Rye

I have always had, in my brewing and beer drinking life, a curious fascination with rye, a strange and under-appreciated grain that is beginning to become more and more popular with craft and home brewers.  Rye adds body, viscosity, and a cloudiness similar to wheat, but also contributes a unique bouquet of flavors that is hard to describe: a peppery-spicy aftertaste and a tartness that lingers on the palate. I have decided to draft this blog post to document my past and future experiments with rye beer brewing, to be updated periodically as I experiment with different rye-based recipes.

Why brew with rye? As everyone knows, barley is the most common base malt used for brewing beer. This is because barley is, among grains, ideally suited for producing beer – containing the right combination of protein, starch, and enzymes, as well as great flavor and husks that assist in the mashing and lautering process.  But any malted grain that contains diastatic enzymes (the enzymes that convert starch to sugar in the mashing process, namely alpha- and beta-amylase) can be used to brew beer; and even grains or other starches which do not contain diastatic enzymes can be mashed together with barley in order to produce fermentable sugars. In American lagers, rice and corn are traditionally added to lighten the body and flavor (rice and corn contain less protein and non-fermentable sugars than barley and ferment more fully, resulting in a lighter, drier beer). In Germany, wheat and rye have traditionally been used to produce hefeweizens and roggenbiers; both wheat and rye have more protein and much different flavor profiles than barley; adding then to the mash generally results in a fuller body, softer mouthfeel, and frothier, longer-lasting head. Wheat and rye malt contain enough diastatic enzymes to convert their own starches into fermentable sugars, and can theoretically be used for 100% of the mash, though in practice they are usually used for 50% or less as the protein content makes for a thick, viscous beer and the lack of husks on the grains makes lautering a nightmare as you increase the proportion of wheat/rye past 50%. I don’t intend to brew anything like a 100% rye beer, but rather to experiment with adding different proportions of rye malt to more standard barley-based beer recipes, such as pale ale, stouts, and other traditional, malty ale styles.

Although rye was once a common brewing malt used in German beers – rye is a much hardier grain than wheat or barley and can grow in poorer soil and colder weather – its use in beer was restricted by the government after the 15th century as a food security measure in order to guard against famine resulting from poor harvests (the peasant classes relied on bread made from rye as a dietary staple – more on the Reinheitsgebot here).

The primary traditional German rye beer still around today is roggenbier, which is essentially a dunkelweizen that uses rye in place of wheat. American rye beers are more diverse and non-traditional. Roggenbiers and the occasional rye brown ale can be found in some craft breweris, but most American rye beers tend to be of the pale ale or IPA variety, in which the hops tend to dominate the beer and mask the flavor contributions from the rye. The most popular or well-known examples are probably Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye, Blue Point’s Rastafa Rye, and Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale. I am a big fan of Ruthless Rye but not crazy about Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale or the Rastafa Rye – mainly because I can’t taste the rye in either. In my opinion if you are going to go through the trouble of brewing with rye, why cover it up with a mountain of hops? In my opinion, the flavor contributions of rye are too easily confused and lost in beer with a lot of late-hop flavor and aroma. If you really want the rye to be center-stage, a maltier beer with less late hop additions is a better way to go.

A peculiar thing about brewing with rye is that it tends to make the mash and wort thick and syrupy, but results in a dry finish (in flavor but not mouthfeel) in the fermented beer. Most of what I have read online suggests that the biggest challenges in brewing with rye stems from stuck sparges (as with wheat, oats, and other flaked or huskless grains) but also from the viscosity of the wort clogging up equipment.

My first recipe to incorporate a good amount of rye was a pale ale with 21% rye (half rye malt, half flaked rye). It was basically a shot in the dark, a fairly standard, moderately-hopped pale ale with rye replacing a portion of the typical pale malt base. The idea was to use a typical pale ale recipe see what sort of flavor contribution I would get from the rye. This beer suffered due to low efficiency in the mash, and should have been a bit more full-bodied and less bitter if I had hit my usual 75-80% efficiency rather than the 65% I ended up with. The results were interesting: Tart, fruity and dry, with a definite spiciness. The major lessen I took away was that the hops need to be scaled back in order to compensate for the dry spiciness that the rye imparts. The perception of bitterness from the hops seems to be increased in Rye beers.

Shackled to a Corpse” Rye Pale Ale

Ingredients

Amt

Name

Type

#

%/IBU

6 lbs

Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM)

Grain

1

63.2 %

1 lbs

Munich Malt – 20L (20.0 SRM)

Grain

2

10.5 %

1 lbs

Rye Malt (4.7 SRM)

Grain

3

10.5 %

1 lbs

Rye, Flaked (2.0 SRM)

Grain

4

10.5 %

8.0 oz

Caramel/Crystal Malt – 40L (40.0 SRM)

Grain

5

5.3 %

1.00 oz

Centennial [8.10 %] – Boil 60.0 min

Hop

6

29.6 IBUs

0.75 oz

Centennial [8.10 %] – Boil 15.0 min

Hop

7

11.0 IBUs

0.50 oz

Centennial [8.10 %] – Aroma Steep 0.0 min

Hop

8

0.0 IBUs

1.0 pkg

Safale American (DCL/Fermentis #US-05) [50.28 ml]

Yeast

9

Mash 60 minutes at 152’F. Primary at 60’F.

Beer Profile

Measured Original Gravity: 1.042 SG 
Measured Final Gravity: 1.010 SG 
Alcohol by Vol: 4.2 % 
Bitterness: 40.6 IBUs 
Calories: 138.1 kcal/12oz

I brewed that beer last November and was intrigued but shifted my attention to other styles and ingredients and put the rye on the back burner in the meantime. But I had recently been contemplating putting together a stout recipe and it seemed like as good a beer as any to add rye to. I have always been a fan of stouts with a subtle, sour twang and thought the tartness of the rye may make a good substitute to a sour mash. I hashed out the below recipe in October but do to the recent move I did not get around to brewing it until late November, just in time to tap the keg for our annual Christmas party. The beer was a bit young when first tapped, and was initially dominated by a somewhat astringent bitterness from the roasted grains, which needed a bit more time to mellow out. Within a week or so the beer had become much more mature and balanced. Overall I am very satisfied and the rye definitely makes for a one of a kind stout. Creamy, very subtly tart, spicy, and with a flavor quite reminiscent of dark chocolate. Once again the perception of bitterness is heightened and the beer feels quite a bit lighter than its 1.02 final gravity would suggest. The major advantage of this style of beer is that I can serve it lightly carbonated and at 45’F, which makes the flavors from the rye all the more perceptible and prominent.

Coyote Stout

Coyote Stout” Foreign Extra Stout

Ingredients

Amt

Name

Type

#

%/IBU

7 lbs

Pale Malt (2 Row) UK (3.0 SRM)

Grain

1

48.3 %

4 lbs

Rye Malt (4.7 SRM)

Grain

2

27.6 %

1 lbs

Barley, Flaked (1.7 SRM)

Grain

3

6.9 %

1 lbs

Carafa I (320.0 SRM)

Grain

4

6.9 %

1 lbs

Caramel/Crystal Malt – 60L (60.0 SRM)

Grain

5

6.9 %

8.0 oz

Chocolate Malt (350.0 SRM)

Grain

6

3.4 %

1.25 oz

Galena [11.00 %] – First Wort 60.0 min

Hop

7

42.6 IBUs

1.0 pkg

Nottingham Yeast (Lallemand #-) [23.66 ml]

Yeast

8

Mash 60 minutes at 156’F. Primary at 62’F.

Beer Profile

Measured Original Gravity: 1.065 SG 
Measured Final Gravity: 1.020 SG 
Alcohol by Vol: 5.9 % 
Bitterness: 42.6 IBUs 
Calories: 222 kcal/12oz

Next I am going to try my hand at a Roggenbier. I had put together a dunkleweizen recipe which is a clone of Hacker-Pschorr Weisse Dark (which I recently tried and loved), so I am going to brew two versions of that recipe back to back: one version with wheat and one version with rye, to see just how different they taste side by side. While the Weihenstephenan yeast will contribute much more flavor and complexity than the US-05 and Nottingham used in my previous rye beers, I am hoping that by having a side by side comparison I will be able to get a more nuanced understanding of the differences between wheat and rye malt in the finished beer.

Dunkelweizen/Roggenbier

Ingredients

Amt Name Type # %/IBU
5 lbs 8.0 oz Wheat Malt  (2.0 SRM) /  Rye Malt (4.7 SRM) Grain 1 50.9 %
2 lbs 12.0 oz Munich Malt – 10L (10.0 SRM) Grain 2 25.4 %
2 lbs Pilsner (2 Row) Ger (2.0 SRM) Grain 3 18.5 %
8.0 oz Caramunich Malt (56.0 SRM) Grain 4 4.6 %
1.0 oz Chocolate Wheat Malt (400.0 SRM) Grain 5 0.6 %
0.50 oz Northern Brewer [9.40 %] – Boil 60.0 min Hop 6 14.4 IBUs
1.0 pkg Weihenstephan Weizen (Wyeast Labs #3068) [124.21 ml] Yeast 7

Mash 60 minutes at 152’F. Primary at 68’F.

Beer Profile

Est Original Gravity: 1.055 SG
Est Final Gravity: 1.011 SG
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 5.8 %
Bitterness: 14.4 IBUs
Calories: 151.6 kcal/12oz

I plan to brew the dunkelweizen version of this recipe tomorrow, and the roggenbier immediately after (probably dumped directly onto the yeast cake). I decided to brew the dunkelweizen first so that I have a “control” to give me an idea what flavors are contributed by the yeast, specialty grains, hops, etc so that I can distinguish these from the flavors contributed by the rye.  I will report back on these of course, and update this post with future rye beer experiments on an ongoing basis.

Update: 24 Feb 2013

As promised I have finally completed the side-by-side comparison of my dunkelweizen/roggenbier recipe and was quite impressed with the differences in the final products. I did make one additional change in the roggenbier recipe besides substituting rye malt for the wheat malt – I also substituted chocolate rye for the chocolate wheat. Chocolate rye is a bit darker than the chocolate wheat and may have contributed to the difference in the flavor profiles (at 1 oz it can’t contribute all that much) but I just decided it made more sense that way. Also I didn’t just use the same strain of yeast, I collected the yeast/trub from the bottom of the dunkelweizen fermenter in a quart mason jar and pitched that into the roggenbier (no starter). This may have resulted in a less vigorous fermentation in the roggenbier as there was quite a bit of yeast lost to blow off in the dunkelweizen’s ferment.

Visually the difference is striking. The dunkelweizen is a soft, golden-amber color with a frothy white head. The roggenbier is a beautiful reddish-copper with a less exaggerated but long-lasting white head. In truth it is the type of beer one could just stare at for hours:

Dunkelwiezen vs. Roggenbier

The flavor and aroma of the dunkelweizen is dominated by the banana-like esters of the hefeweizen yeast. Slightly sweet, smooth and fragrant, very little caramel flavor. Mouth feel is soft and very drinkable. At 6.0% abv it is very easy to get carried away with. Color wise it is far too golden-amber to be a true dunkleweizen (more of an amber weizen).

The roggenbier tastes very different. The banana and clove flavors from the yeast are much more subdued and the dominant flavors are earthy, caramel,  and malty. Not sure if that was due to the less vigorous fermentation or just the inherent nature of the beer. The rye definitely stands out compared to the soft, neutral flavor of the wheat. Simultaneously sweeter and more complex than the dunkelweizen, the peppery/tart flavors often associated with rye are either absent or hidden. Much more than simply a “dunkelweizen with rye instead of wheat” this is a unique, complex, delicious ale which I am quite sure will become one of my regular recipes.

Both beers were very good and the dunkelweizen was a crowd pleaser (no chance for feedback yet on the roggenbier but I most def give it two thumbs up). Frankly I doubt anyone would guess they used the same yeast let alone the same recipes.

Today I am brewing up an earthy, amber rye ale with 50% rye and Northern Brewer and Bramling Cross hops that I have high hopes for. Will report back once again when that one is ready to pour.

Update: 24 March 2013

My latest rye beer experiment has been on tap for a week now and I am quite pleased, especially considering the haphazard way I threw the recipe together. Basically an amber ale built around “earthy” hop varieties with 50% of the base malt replaced by a combination of flaked and malted rye.

IMG_9085

The result was a beautiful, copper-amber ale with a frothy, long-lasting head. The flavor is rich and malty, dominated by the spicy overtones of the hops and rye. Probably the most “representative” rye beer I have ever brewed, with all the flavor characteristics one would expect from rye. Based on my experience with the other rye beers I have brewed I am somewhat convinced that the choice of yeast, hops, and specialty grains used are what really determines how much rye character is present in the final product. In this case the Bramling Cross and Northern Brewer hops definitely complement the rye and bring forward the tart/peppery/spicy notes rye beers are known for.

Earthy Amber Rye Ale

Ingredients

Amt

Name

Type

#

%/IBU

4 lbs

Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM)

Grain

1

39.5 %

3 lbs

Rye Malt (4.7 SRM)

Grain

2

29.6 %

1 lbs

Amber Malt (22.0 SRM)

Grain

3

9.9 %

1 lbs

Caramunich Malt (56.0 SRM)

Grain

4

9.9 %

1 lbs

Rye, Flaked (2.0 SRM)

Grain

5

9.9 %

2.0 oz

Pale Chocolate Malt (200.0 SRM)

Grain

6

1.2 %

0.75 oz

Northern Brewer [9.60 %] – First Wort 60.0 min

Hop

7

26.0 IBUs

0.50 oz

Bramling Cross [4.70 %] – Boil 15.0 min

Hop

8

3.8 IBUs

0.25 oz

Northern Brewer [9.60 %] – Boil 15.0 min

Hop

9

3.9 IBUs

0.50 oz

Bramling Cross [4.70 %] – Aroma Steep 0.0 min

Hop

10

0.0 IBUs

1.0 pkg

Nottingham Yeast (Lallemand #-) [23.66 ml]

Yeast

11

Mash 60 minutes at 154’F

Beer Profile

Est Original Gravity: 1.046 SG
Measured Original Gravity: 1.050 SG
Est Final Gravity: 1.010 SG
Measured Final Gravity: 1.012 SG
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 4.7 %
Actual Alcohol by Vol: 5.0 %
Bitterness: 33.7 IBUs
Calories: 166.1 kcal/12oz
Est Color: 11.8 SRM

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