Of the four primary ingredients in beer — malt, hops, yeast and water — the selection of malts is probably the least understood by beer drinkers. It’s relatively easy to distinguish the effects of various hop varieties in juicy IPAs, but more difficult to discern, or even learn more about, the malts. Take, for example, beers in which rye is used as one of the malts, in addition to the more traditional barley.
Rye is a type of grass that was once considered a weed among the fields of barley and wheat, but has long since been used as a grain for breads, cereals and animal feed. It’s also very popular for making whiskey, and it produces a spicier finished product than the sweeter corn-based mash used to make bourbon. In beer, rye is a versatile, albeit somewhat unruly, ingredient that adds complexity and additional flavors.
The flavor I’ve always associated with rye, being born in New York, is that of rye bread. But the rye bread of home is loaded with caraway seeds, which impart a bitter, almost licorice-like flavor to the bread, and that is not what rye tastes like. When I began tasting beers containing rye, I errantly found myself searching for more of that distinctly licorice-like flavor in each sip. The taste of rye is slightly nutty, peppery and crisp — closer to the flavors of pumpernickel bread.
When used in beer, rye imparts a subtle spiciness. I often detect its presence as an “earthy” note. Depending how much rye is used — brewers typically use between 10 and 30 percent rye among the malt, and 50 percent or more in some traditional German beer styles — its flavor may be distinct or just a twinge of taste among others. Because this grain can provide a foundation for the rest of the brew, rye can be added to almost any style of beer.
Rye lovers may wonder why brewers don’t brew entirely with rye as the malt. The problem is the lack of husks. Without husks to move around in the mash, it becomes nearly impossible to sparge (the process of spraying water on the spent grain), and the mash becomes a thick, concrete-like porridge. Brewers who put large quantities of rye in a beer need to be prepared to lose a few wooden mash paddles in the process.
Rye beers are not uncommon in Maine, and the more you search for them, the more you’ll find. Rising Tide’s session rye, Daymark, is a year-round offering that’s my go-to beer when I don’t know what to bring to a house party. Its ABV is a manageable 5.5%, it has a nice earthy note to complement its bright lemony hops, and it’s interesting enough to stir some conversation.
Bissell Brothers’ LUX is a bit harder to get — it’s released in cans on a rotating schedule. LUX earned the number three spot on Beer Advocate’s list of Best Rye Beers (among hundreds of user-submitted reviews). Its flavors are punchier than Daymark’s – a tropical explosion of hops layered atop the rye-malt base.
On tap at Flight Deck Brewing, on Brunswick Landing (where the Naval Air Station used to be), are two rye beers of completely different styles. The Wright Stuff (named for the Wright Brothers) is a pale, crisp beer that pulls back the hops a bit to let the rye do its thing. Slightly cloudy, this beer stands out among traditional pale ales, and at 4.5% ABV, it remains very drinkable. If you prefer the darker side, Rye Wing features chocolate malt in addition to the rye. The rye imparts a roasted, spicy flavor, but doesn’t contribute to the heaviness of the beer, thus providing the best of dark-beer flavors in a lighter package (and also a reasonable 6.2% ABV).
If you’re crazy for rye, the traditional German Roggenbier is for you. Made with more than 50 percent rye, this style makes the grass the star of the show. Gneiss Brewing Company, in Limerick, brews a Roggenbier each spring called Stryeation. They use 70 percent rye and 30 percent wheat, then finish it with a little bit of German Noble hops. The result of this difficult process is a smooth, dark, spicy beauty.
As brewers continue to seek ways to innovate, varying specialty malts is one way they can “spice up” their recipes without going completely non-traditional. We’ve already seen the trends of adding additional flavors or ingredients (like fruits, etc.). Using rye is a more technical way for brewers to create unique beers, and well worth taking some time to explore.
Originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Bollard