Let’s Demystify Rye | Craft Beer & Brewing

I love rye—always have. In fact, I’m pretty sure I brewed my first roggenbier long before my first hefeweizen. Rye is versatile, interesting, and readily accessible. That’s why I don’t know which is more surprising: that brewers have such strong and divergent opinions about brewing with rye, or that some have no opinion at all because they never use it.

Maybe we can blame the challenges of using rye, which are mostly overstated. Maybe it’s because we have so many grains to choose from in 21st-century brewing. (The other day I saw something called “cookie malt,” and I’m intrigued.) Maybe it’s something as simple as all palates being distinct, which leads to confusion as to what sort of character rye can bring to a beer.

Whatever the reason, let’s take a crack at demystifying rye, in the hopes of getting y’all off the bench and using this fantastic ingredient.

Rye, Explained

Rye isn’t just old-fashioned—it’s verifiably ancient, among the first grains to be domesticated about 13,000 years ago. It’s also hardy, able to grow better than wheat or barley in colder, less fertile soils. That has made it an important grain since the Middle Ages in the baking-and-brewing cultures of Northern Europe.

To the modern brewer, rye is a huskless grain that can be used either malted or unmalted, and maltsters can kiln it into a variety of specialty versions. We’ll get into those later, but first the elephant-in-the-room question: Just what, exactly, does rye taste like?

For every brewer or vendor who will tell you that rye is “spicy” in flavor, you’ll find another who claims that’s internet-fueled “babble” (to quote one brewer friend of mine)—a kind of urban legend passed around by those who haven’t really tasted it for themselves. I’m not here to settle that question, but I will say this: Given the breadth of flavors that seem to manifest in finished rye beers, it shouldn’t surprise us that “spicy” ends up on the list.

So, what does rye taste like? “Earthy” is a common descriptor. Jonathan Porter, owner and brewer at Smog City in Torrance, California, describes rye as “like dirty wheat with more ‘field’ character.”

For certain, we can imagine that “earthy” and “spicy” are different pews in the same church, so maybe this comes down to a difference in flavor interpretation. I’d also argue that the kinds of recipes in which we use rye account for some of this. After all, a great many rye beer recipes (such as German roggenbier, of course, or my rye altbier, shared here) use spicy hops—caryophyllene is a peppery, woodsy essential oil that is plentiful in some varieties—or spicy fermentation profiles.

So, is rye spicy, or does it just seem spicy? Having simply eaten malted and flaked rye—and brewed some teas with it—I’d argue that rye definitely has a spice-like flavor, though not necessarily the “peppery” flavor that some ascribe to it.

Some of the “spicy” debate also comes from the fact that rye tastes like lots of things, depending on its treatment and usage. Amanda Kozina of Imperial Yeast knows more than a thing or two about malt, being a former technician at the Malt Innovation Center at Great Western Malting. Her laundry list of rye flavors is impressive for being both evocative and exhaustive: “Peppery, spicy, and spiced rum are all great words to describe what rye contributes to flavor,” she says, “but there are others that don’t get expressed as much unless there is a bit more kilning involved. Biscuit, pretzel, cereal/bran flake, and toasty can all be present when there is a bit more color development. I’ve even had times where samples tasted almost umami, savory, or meaty. Rye is awesome!”

Another trait of rye that has a tangential effect on flavor is its high levels of beta-glucan. Its primary effect is contributing to texture, but that fuller body and more viscous mouthfeel can soften other flavors that may allow the spicy/earthy notes of rye to emerge.

About those beta-glucans: Beside potentially creating a gummy mash, they also add a hefty, easygoing smoothness to a beer. Swapping out even 5 to 10 percent of the grist for rye will lend gravitas to recipes that may otherwise come out too thin. The next time you’re struggling with how to add body to a session IPA or low-ABV British beer—or, for that matter, to an imperial stout that’s expected to jolt the scales—consider an addition of rye. As we’ll see, there’s no shortage of rye products from which to choose.

To sum up, rye is a highly versatile cereal grain with an earthy base flavor and significant “thickening” power. Just what it tastes like in your finished beer is going to vary greatly, and that will depend on what kind of rye you include.

The Wide World of Rye

Once you decide to drop some rye into your beer, the next question is which tool to use for that job.

Like barley, rye comes in numerous forms, and each contributes something different to a finished beer. We can use rye as a malted base grain, complementary caramel/crystal malt, high-impact pre-gelatinized flakes, cocoa-imparting chocolate malt—with even more possibilities appearing as craft maltsters crank out an ever-expanding selection of rye products.

Most of the major maltsters produce a base rye malt, typically pale at 3–4° Lovibond and fully modified. It can either comprise most of the base grist or serve as a complementary addition as a smaller portion of the base. If using it as complement, 10 to 20 percent of the grist is enough to build mouthfeel and impart a low level of rye flavor—however, depending on the rest of the grist, the flavor contribution may be so subtle as to get lost in the background. If you go bigger—say, 20 to 50 percent—you can expect the aforementioned earthiness to be more prominent.

If you’re something of a masochist, you can even push the rye percentage higher, displacing all your base with rye malt, but the results may not be worth the additional effort. This is a good place to note that if you’re using more than a token amount of rye—anything north of 10 percent—you’ll probably want to include some rice hulls to prevent the mash from sticking. Even with the rice hulls, don’t be surprised if your lauter and sparge run more slowly than usual.

Moving beyond that base malt, we find several specialty ryes.

A common variant is crystal rye (sometimes called caramel rye), and you’ll want to keep a sharp eye on the specs before using it. Unlike caramel/crystal barley malt, crystal rye doesn’t usually feature the degree of kilning (in degrees Lovibond) in its name, so the color and flavor contribution may not be as obvious. Check the specs to see whether you’re getting something in the 40–60°L range (which will add more bready, toasty flavors) or the 80–150°L range (which trends more toward toffee and stone fruit). Either should be used sparingly, in the 5 to 10 percent range, since they might (or might not) add some out-there herb-and-spice flavors.

I’d attach this same caveat to flaked rye, an unmalted, pre-gelatinized product that adds body and helps head retention. The flakes can really ramp up rye flavor even with a smallish addition—though your mileage may vary.

Moving to the upper end of the Lovibond scale, we find chocolate rye, a much more predictable favorite of mine. This malt also solved a vexing problem for my Irish red ale: See, Irish Red recipes often feature a dash of chocolate malt or roasted barley to dry out the finish, but the beer itself shouldn’t feature roasted flavors. I tried to solve this dilemma by adjusting the amount of pale chocolate barley in the recipe, but that was hard to control. Likewise, I tried out the darker Carafa malts, but they tended to add sweetness and not much dark malt flavor (which defeated the purpose in two ways). Chocolate rye, however, turned out to be a fantastic option because it imparts a touch of drying “dark” flavor, but—because it’s huskless—it tends to lack those “burnt” flavors. In your own recipes, you can sub in chocolate rye on a perfect one-to-one basis for other chocolate malts—definitely worth considering whenever you want a more subtle roast character.

This list is hardly exhaustive, and new products are coming out all the time, but there are already plenty of options available.

Brewing with Rye

Now that we’ve explored the options, we can get down to the details of actually brewing with rye. A few tips on process and recipe design should get you a good beer, and then you’re off and running to dial in exactly the flavors you want.

Rye’s foremost asset is also its greatest impediment in the brewhouse: all that gumminess. A conventional response to address high glucan levels is a step mash—specifically, mashing in with a 20-minute beta-glucan rest in the 104–122°F (40–50°C) range. Reports vary on how much this helps, and arguably it defeats some of the purpose of using rye in the first place: We want what the beta-glucans add to mouthfeel.

Instead, there are two good solutions you can employ to preserve those viscosity-building beta-glucans without driving yourself insane while lautering:

First, as I mentioned above, rice hulls are your friends: Just half a pound should be enough to improve the flow of liquid through the mash for a five-gallon batch (or roughly 250 grams of rice hulls for a 20-liter batch).
Second, consider increasing your water-to-grain ratio to produce a thinner mash. This can slightly reduce the fermentability of your wort, but you can address that in the recipe or by simply mashing longer. Most importantly, it will reduce the viscosity of the mash without reducing the viscosity of the finished beer.

In terms of the recipe, the big question beyond which rye to use is “how much?” As I mentioned, the amount of rye character you get is highly dependent on what percentage of the total grist is comprised of rye. That is not as obvious a point as it sounds because many brewing grains can make a big splash with smaller amounts, while others max out their impact early on even when you crank up the percentage.

Broadly, the pros suggest starting small and building from there. Patrick Chavanell, the R&D brewer at Allagash in Maine, says that using as little as 5 percent can enhance the mouthfeel of a lower-ABV beer, while upping to 10 percent is enough to add some subtle flavors. Kozina, the malt technician, also suggests starting at about 10 percent and dialing it up from there to find the flavor level you want in your recipe.

I also recommend that you consider the other components of your recipe and how they’ll mesh with rye. For example, if you usually like to add some flaked barley for body and head retention, you’re probably safe leaving that out if you’re using rye. Also, if spicy flavors are your goal, there are other ingredients that can work with the rye to give it a nudge. Rye may or may not be spicy, but Tettnanger hops certainly can be. In other words, take the same flavor-echoing approach to rye that you would with any essential flavor in your recipes, and you’ll be in great shape.

Don’t Be Shy

If you’re new to the rye game, dive right in: You can try it out as a drop-in to your base grains, swap it in for a crystal malt addition, or use it as a nice chocolate malt substitute. You don’t need to go full-on roggenbier to enjoy rye, and most beers can benefit from it.

There’s no style too new or classic that it can’t include rye, and we see it in both the oldest of old-school recipes and at the cutting edge of experimental ones—and now, perhaps, your own.

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