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In the late 1990s, Georgia was a barren land for hoppy beer. Brown ales, stouts and lightly bittered pales dominated tap lines. Seeing a niche that needed to be filled, Brian "Spike" Buckowski and John Cochran started planning Terrapin Beer, an Athens brewery specializing in bold brews with a bitter edge. They decided their first release would be a hopped-up, West Coast-style pale ale, something in the Sierra Nevada vein. Problem is, southern beer drinkers balked at the plan. “They said they didn’t like the bitterness sitting on their tongue,” recalls Buckowski, Terrapin’s brewmaster. “Remember, this was 1997 in the South. Back then, anything hoppier than a Budweiser was too bitter.”
While flipping through recipes, Buckowski fondly recalled college days spent sipping rye whiskey. “I liked that spicy character that dried out your palate,” he says. Perhaps rye malt could curtail lingering bitterness in beer? Buckowski crafted a beer that incorporated about 10 percent rye (the remainder was a blend of barley malts) and citric, earthy hops. The result was fresh and clean, with a crisp, thirst-quenching character and a bitterness as fleeting as a sun shower. “Thirty seconds later, you’re ready to take another sip,” Buckowski, 43, says of what became Rye Pale Ale.
Though it was “created out of necessity of pleasing palates in the Southeast,” Buckowski soon discovered that rye beer held national appeal. Six months after its spring 2002 release (hey, opening a brewery takes time), the Rye Pale Ale won gold at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. “As far as (American) rye beers go, we were definitely one of the pioneers,” he says.
Nowadays, Terrapin isn’t alone in its rye pursuits. Brewers nationwide have begun embracing the grain, which can add complexity, sharpness, subtle spiciness and dryness to beer styles ranging from piney IPAs to chocolaty porters and even more eclectic, experimental beers. New York’s Ithaca Beer makes the brawny Old Habit strong ale with a quartet of rye malts and ages it in whiskey barrels. Missouri’s O’Fallon Brewery offers the buttery Hemp Hop Rye. California’s Bear Republic and Texas’ Real Ale are resuscitating Germany’s hefeweizen-like roggenbier, while New Belgium is tinkering with Finland’s ancient sahti style, which derives its forest-fresh profile from juniper and, of course, rye.
With brewing, it’s helpful to think of rye as a supporting actor. Top billing on the grain bill is usually reserved for barley malts. This may be a matter of taste, but it’s mainly due to an evolutionary advantage: barley contains husks, which help keep the mash (the grains steeped in boiling water) loose and permit drainage of the wort—the broth that becomes beer. By contrast, rye is husk-less and can create a sticky, viscous mash, something “like concrete,” says Matt Van Wyk, 38, brewmaster at Oregon’s Oakshire Brewing. To prevent that coagulation, which is common when using 20 percent or more rye, brewers can add enzymes or, as Van Wyk does, rice hulls. They make the mash fluffy without altering flavor, allowing rye to work its magic without driving brewers bonkers.
For Van Wyk, rye was crucial in creating Line Dry Rye, Oakshire’s summer seasonal. “We wanted to make a drinkable, sessionable beer, but we didn’t want to make something that was boring,” he explains. “We wanted some complexity.” To achieve that, he dialed up several varieties of Pacific Northwest honey, citric Centennial hops and rye. “The rye adds crispness, a spicy character and helps dry out the beer, which is great in a summer seasonal,” says Van Wyk, who has seen Line Dry become a top-seller.
Besides summery beers, rye is ideal in robust ales and cool-weather brews. Real Ale Brewing in Blanco, Texas, employs rye to add complexity to its Sisyphus barleywine, while Nashville-based Yazoo Brewing’s chocolaty Sly Rye Porter gets a dry finish from the grain. A potent double IPA? It’s the perfect platform for rye, which balances the sweet, caramel character of Schmaltz Brewing’s Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A.
For Brian Owens, head brewer at Missouri’s O’Fallon, rye was the secret ingredient required to unlock a curious ingredient’s potential. One day, Owens’ boss mentioned that he’d like O’Fallon to brew a hemp-based beer. “I was skeptical, because the first thing that came to my mind was marijuana,” says Owens, 33. Duty-bound, he bought toasted hemp seeds and brewed several pilot batches, discovering that the seeds’ flavor had nothing in common with the skunky, pungent herb; instead, they possess a delicate nuttiness. To enhance the subtle taste without overpowering the seeds (they’re imported from Canada and tested to ensure there’s no THC content), Owens turned to rye. “It added a layer of flavoring and a spicy sharpness that makes it nice and drinkable,” Owens says of his silky, ruby-hued, Hemp Hop Rye.
Pleased with the results, O'Fallon has begun exploring new brews that deserve a rye dose. The brewery settled upon an amped-up IPA called Ryely Hoppy, which will be a special Brewer’s Stash release. It’s both a tribute to the grain and to Owens' four-year-old boy. “My son’s name is Ryely,” Owens says, laughing. “I love rye beers, so my wife and I thought, ‘Perfect, let’s name him Ryely.’ ”
Creating a new breed of rye beers can be thrilling, but other brewers are instead finding success in reviving long-forgotten styles. For Texas’ Real Ale, the opportunity to dig into history books arose after it bid good riddance to its old brewhouse in 2006. It was an indoor-outdoor setup (basically, a carport attached to a basement) that “was a glorified homebrewing system,” recalls head brewer Erik Ogershok, 44. Brewing on jerry-rigged equipment was a pain, especially when crafting the balanced, well-hopped Full Moon Pale Rye Ale. However, in the new building, brewing with rye was a relative snap.
Like teens given the keys to a sports car, Ogershok and Real Ale decided to take their shiny new equipment for a spin. While Full Moon possessed 17 percent rye, what would happen if they brewed a beer containing 35 percent rye or higher? To do “something different and prove a point, we decided to make a roggenbier,” Ogershok says.
You may draw a blank on the German beer that fell out of favor a century earlier, but you’re likely familiar with its summery sibling, hefeweizen. Whereas hazy hefeweizens are wheat-driven, roggenbiers (roggen is German for rye) contain up to 50 percent rye. When fermented with hefeweizen yeast, roggenbiers “end up with a smooth, velvety body. That clove-y spiciness of the yeast goes well with the spicy rye. It almost tastes like pumpkin pie,” Ogershok says of his beer, which has attracted a cult following, along with the darker, maltier Dunkelroggen.
Though it’s too early to call this a revival, roggenbier is slowly catching on with brewers bewitched by rye. Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery serves the Schleimhammer Roggenbier, while Boulder, Colorado’s, Avery turns out the creamy, chewy Jerry’s Roggenbier. Terrapin’s Buckowski crossed a roggenbier with a smoky rauchbier to create the RoggenRauchBier. It was big, smoky and challenging—just like roggenbier’s uphill struggle in the marketplace, especially when compared with hefeweizen.
The issue, says Peter Kruger, 40, the master brewer at California’s Bear Republic, might be less about flavor than semantics. “Hefeweizen has all these soft consonants,” says Kruger, whose brewery makes a roggenbier. “With roggenbier there are lots of hard consonants. Just the name sounds hard-core.” Adds Ogershok, “If we called it ‘German rye ale,’ it’d probably be easier to sell.” However, he has faith in this once-forgotten style. After all, he says, “in America, it took time for people to become familiar with hefeweizen. With roggenbier people are like, ‘What the hell is that?’ As brewers, it’s incumbent upon us to be rye educators.”
Germany is not the sole European nation with a rye-brewing tradition. That’s what a team from Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing discovered when they flew to Seattle’s Elysian Brewing to create a beer in the experimental Trip series. From a hoppy Belgian tripel to a sour brown ale, these artisanal releases explore craft brewing’s flavorful fringes. And for The Trip IV, released in fall 2009, the brewers looked to the forest for inspiration.
“I was trying to think of ways to incorporate juniper into a beer,” says human resources coordinator Andrea DiMatteo, 35, who had the idea for Trip IV. While doing research, she discovered a rye-driven, Finnish farmhouse beer called sahti. Traditionally, sahti is made with juniper berries, oats and rye, then lautered—a method to separate liquid wort from grain—over juniper boughs, which imparts notes of resinous pine. “We wanted to be consistent with the traditional style,” DiMatteo says.
Though this labor-intensive process is doable at home (where sahti was classically made), it’s a logistical nightmare when scaled up for a modern brewing system. For starters, where would New Belgium find the right juniper species? Luckily, the neighbor of Elysian’s marketing director grew the tree in his yard. The neighbor gave them permission to trim the juniper, which they cleaned and tossed—greenery and wooded matter included—into the lauter. To construct the sieve, an Elysian salesman strolled through a Seattle park and collected juniper boughs. The result of the urban foraging was a crisp, lively rye boasting aromas of the forest and citrus, thanks to orange and lemon peel and Amarillo and Cascade hops.
“The base of juniper and citrusy hops appeal to most people,” explains New Belgium’s assistant brewmaster Grady Hull, 38, “while the oats and rye add a nice texture.” The experiment was such a hit that, this fall, New Belgium re-created The Trip IV for its Lips of Faith series, calling it Sahti. (The brewery sourced the juniper from a nursery.) “Sahti is surprisingly drinkable,” Hull says of the appeal of that style of beer, which is also brewed by Goose Island and Dogfish Head. “The words ‘juniper’ and ‘rye’ may turn people off, but the style is not that far out there.”
Given that relatively small quantities of rye can create a gummy mash, it might seem like inviting disaster to craft an all-rye beer. But where others see a fool’s errand, Bear Republic saw a worthy challenge. One day in winter 2007, the brewers were unwinding with a couple beers, discussing rye malt. Rye had long been popular at Bear Republic, driving the flavor of its burly, aggressively bittered Hop Rod Rye. “One brewer said, ‘What would a 100 percent rye beer taste like?’ ” Kruger recalls. “We thought, ‘What do we have lose? Let’s go for it.’ ”
To transform the “brewing from impossible to very, very difficult,” Kruger says, the team used enzymes and rice hulls to break up the grain bed. They carefully monitored the mash’s temperature, since wild fluctuations could turn the wet grains to stone. This made the brewing somewhat easier—but it lasted much, much longer. An average Bear Republic brew day lasts about eight hours. This session lasted 17 nerve-wracking, grueling hours. “That,” Kruger recalls, “was not a fun day.”
But the hard work was forgotten when sampling the surprising result, cheekily called Easy Ryeder. Despite its grain bill, the hazy, coppery beer’s spiciness was restrained, resulting in a smooth, refreshing beer. Easy Ryeder was, well, easy-drinking. “If you didn’t tell people it had rye in it, they might not have known,” Kruger says.
Though Kruger has sworn off brewing Easy Ryeder again, the experience has not dissuaded the brewery from continuing its rye research. At last year’s Great American Beer Festival, Bear Republic won gold with its Belgian-style Ryevalry. “Even though it was so weird, it was a beer that all of us loved,” Kruger says of the double IPA that was brewed with 30 percent rye, then fermented with a Belgian ale yeast to create a bitter, spicy pleasure.
Terrapin’s Buckowski, too, continues to be bitten by the rye bug. His Rye Squared is a supercharged riff on his flagship. He collaborated with Colorado’s Left Hand to create the Terra-Rye’zd black rye lager (50 percent rye), and even snuck in 10 percent rye malt in the tart, hoppy, oak-aged Monstre Rouge he made with Belgium’s De Proef Brouwerij. As for the future, Buckowski dreams of perhaps blending chocolate rye and dark rye malts to create a rye stout. “There’s always a side project where we can use more rye,” Buckowski says. “Any way we can exploit rye, we certainly will.”