Rye: The Killer Cereal

Rye (Secale cereale) is a grass grown extensively as a grain and as a forage crop. It is a member of the wheat tribe (Triticeae) and is closely related to barley and wheat. Rye grain is used for flour, rye bread, some vodkas, animal fodder, some rye whiskies, and our favorite, rye beer. Recently you may have had the opportunity to sample some flavorsome rye brews that have become more available as brewers tinker with inventive ingredients. In a variety of these beers, rye, generally malted, is substituted for some portion of the barley malt.

The Bruery Rugbrød is a beer brewed in Orange County, California that has taken inspiration from the Danes. Its namesake, rugbrød, refers to a Danish rye bread quite common in Denmark. The common rugbrød usually resembles a long brown rectangle, no more than 12 cm high, and 30–35 cm wide, although shapes and sizes may vary, as well as the ingredients. Sourdough is almost always the base; the bread may be made exclusively with rye and wheat flour or contain up to one third whole rye grains. Variants with whole sunflower or other seeds also exist. This particular brew, also called a “robust brown,” employs the use of three different rye malts. According to The Bruery, Rugbrød “showcases the earthy, spicy character of the grain, complemented by bready, nutty barley malts and a hint of roast. Loosely based on the Scandinavian Christmas beer or “Julebryg” tradition, this beer is perfect for the colder weather of winter, although it will be available year-round (because who doesn’t love a dark beer now and again, regardless of weather?)”  A hearty 8% ABV with a decent dose of hops (30 IBU) makes this beer a very approachable sipper. The hardest part of this beer, apparently, is trying to pronounce its name…

Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye: A truly American style rye beer, this brew melds an 18% rye malt bill with 80 IBUs of piquant and floral Northwest hops. Also referred to as a rye IPA, Hop Rod possesses subtle caramel notes alongside the earthy, spicy rye flavors. The amber body reveals both crispness and sticky fortitude. At 8% ABV, this beer teeters between quaffer and sipper. Readily found statewide in 12 ounce and 22 ounce bottles, as well as kegs, Hop Rod Rye is a perennial favorite amongst West Coast beer enthusiasts with a tooth for bold hoppiness and distinct complexity.

Terminal Gravity ESG: Terminal Gravity’s Rye beer, the ESG, or “Extra Special Golden,” is often thought of as an American golden ale more than as a rye beer. This pale, dry and very drinkable beer is perfect for sessioning away the warm days. It is very refreshing but with a bit more body and attitude than the typical American lager. According to the brewers at TG, “The surprise is that it has a bit of a kick. More bang for your buck as our regulars say!” A moderate 5.4% ABV allows for multiple tastes. Nowhere near your typical American light lager, ESG offers both citrus hop character and a unique spiciness derived from the rye. This peppery presence allows for some spectacular food pairings with a diverse range of dishes.

Oakshire Line Dry Rye: Making its debut around Oregon and the West Coast this June, this beer from Eugene, Oregon’s beloved brewery is sure to please a variety of palates. Line Dry Rye initially gives the impression of an American Pale Ale. It’s glowing orange body with a thick whitish head exudes some inviting citrus and flowery hop aromatics that should immediately induce salivation for any hophead. According to Oakshire, LDR is “crafted with 10% rye malt and 10% flaked rye for a complex malt profile. American hops give Line Dry a crisp bitterness and a slight citrusy flavor. Clean and refreshing , it ends with just a small note of honey in the finish that brings all of the elements together.” According to brewmaster Matt Van Wyk, the name ‘Line Dry’ was chosen as the perfect fit for summer in the Willamette Valley. Founder Jeff Althouse says “With only a small window of opportunity to practice this energy saving practice, we think it is time you sit back with a pint of Line Dry Rye and watch the clothes dry!” We had a chance to try this beer at The Hop & Vine recently, and were quite impressed.

Upright Six: One of the more nonpareil beers made with rye is Upright’s Six. According to brewmaster Alex Ganum, Six uses approximately 16% rye, some malted, some flaked (rolled). Like many of Upright’s “standard” lineup of year round beers, the Six is often pegged as a Saison. Ganum calls it a “dark farmhouse beer” because it is inspired by French farmhouse ales. But this one is its own entity. “I like the flavor that rye provides,” says Ganum. “(Rye) is a beautiful grain. It’s spicy and bitter and quite unusual, pretty distinct.” He adds “The spicy, bitter component plays with the saison style of yeast wonderfully.” Ganum recommends pairing this brew with hearty meat entrees and with aged cheeses. At 6.75%, a nice 750ml bottle is great to share over an intimate dinner. Get a sample of this and other Upright brews at the Portland Farmers Market on Saturdays throughout the summer.

Dick’s Rye Ale: From Centralia, Washington comes this golden colored and crisp 4% pale ale with some distinctive rye character. According to the commercial description “We combine the highest percentage of flaked rye possible with 2-row malted barley to extract the maximum rye flavor. We carefully sparge the mash and the boil the wort. We make three hop additions during the boil with an emphasis on balance in the finished beer.” Fans of the Terminal Gravity ESG will surely appreciate this light and spicy yet chewy brew. “Fermentation proceeds relatively quickly at slightly higher but controlled temperatures to create fruity esters which complement this unique style. Ours is a real rye ale and very drinkable.” It’s hard to pass up on this staple beer in Dick’s lineup.

The aforementioned brews are a small sampling of what’s out there. More or less, its what you might find in the Pacific Northwest region on shelves. However, if you travel the world, you’ll notice many other styles of beer that make use of this awesome grain. One distinct example is the roggenbier, a specialty beer produced with up to sixty percent rye malt. The style originated in Bavaria, in southern Germany and is brewed with the same type of yeast as a German hefeweizen resulting in a similar light, dry, spicy taste. Similarly, a rauchroggen, or smoked rye beer, can be made by drying some rye malt over an open flame rather than in a kiln. There are few commercial examples of this sub-style found in America.

Finnish sahti is another style of rye beer, produced by brewing rye with juniper berries and wild yeast. Sahti is an ale (top fermented), and while baking yeast has been used traditionally, ale yeast may also be used in fermenting. The result is a hazy bodied, mildly alcoholic beer with yeasty and phenolic flavors and distinct taste similar to banana. Sahti is traditionally homebrewed but in recent years commercial versions have become available. Commercial Sahti usually has around 8% ABV.

Also in the rye beer realm is kvass, although the alcohol is low enough to be considered an NA in many cases, kvass is a fermented beverage made from black rye or rye bread  It is popular in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, and other Eastern and Central European countries as well as in all ex-Soviet states, like Uzbekistan, where one can see many kvass vendors in the streets. Its origins go back 5,000 years to the beginnings of beer production. The alcohol content is so low (0.05% – 1.44%) that it is considered acceptable for consumption by children.It is often flavored with fruits or herbs such as strawberries or mint. Kvass is also used for preparing a cold summertime soup called okroshka.