RYE IS A dirty grain – bitter and black and somber-looking. It is unfit for human consumption, except during famine. It is very “disagreeable to the stomach.”
This point of view is not mine, for I count myself among those delicatessen faithful who kneel in the presence of pastrami piled high between slices of rye.
Instead, these are the learned words of no less than Gaius Plinius Secundus, a/k/a Pliny the Elder, the first century A.D. philosopher who famously scribed a treatise on natural history and then even more famously found his way onto Russian River Brewing’s beer labels.
When it comes to grain, Pliny wrote, rye takes a back seat to wheat, corn, rice, spelt and almost anything else that grows out of the ground. In the lauter tun, it is a sticky, difficult mess. The few ancient brewers who managed to make use of it – notably in Bavarian Roggenbier and Eastern European Kvass – eventually discovered that those styles would never earn the popularity of beer made from barley.
And yet, Ol’ Pliny notwithstanding, rye has found its way back into the brew kettle. The grain has cropped up in at least 500 brands in the past decade.
Often, rye is used to give a new twist to a classic style. Founders (Michigan) adds it to bitter pale ale to create Red Rye PA. Great Divide (Colorado) spikes a Germany-style Marzen lager to come up with Hoss. In its Exit 6 one-off, Flying Fish (New Jersey) collaborated with Stewart’s Brewing (Delaware) on a Belgian-style ale with a grain bill of 20 percent rye. In all three cases, the rye adds a pleasing, spicy bite to the finish.
Not surprisingly, there is now a singular style known as American rye beer. Brewed as either an ale or a lager, the style is much like American wheat beer, in which the flavor of the grain adds a subtle complexity to barley malt. Often, it is highly kilned to provide both color and a distinctive, sometimes off-putting, nutty flavor.
It’s a delicate balance as brewers find themselves tweaking their recipes from batch to batch. Too little rye, and you’re left wondering what was the point; too much, and it’s like eating a PayDay candy bar coated in charcoal.
When you get it just right, it comes off something like Summit Brewing India Style Rye Ale, made with crystal, chocolate and flaked rye. Its spicy tang plays on a nutty, chocolatelike background with just a touch of coffee.
Blue Point Rastafa Rye Ale (New York), meanwhile, is a standard IPA that is positively transformed by the addition of rye.
Blue Point brewmaster Mark Burford said that over the years he and partner Pete Cotter have adjusted its rye content between 7 and 20 percent of the total grain. “It took us a while to figure out exactly how to use rye,” Burford said. “We’re looking for it to add a nutty, spicy complexity to the malt bill.”
I often get a bit of tartness in rye beers. Others say they’re fruity. Or refreshing, with just a bit of sourness that freshens up the palate.
But “disagreeable to the stomach”? Look, I realize his name is sacred in certain brewing circles. But in the case of rye, Pliny was wrong.
Here are a few more rye beers to try:
Dieu Du Ciel Route Des Epices (Canada): Spiced with black and green peppercorns.
Triumph Jewish Rye (Old City, New Hope, Princeton): Caraway seeds give it an authentic deli flavor.
Samuel Adams Revolutionary Rye Ale (Massachusetts): Roasted malts finish dry and spicy.
The Bruery Rugbrød (California): A dark, nutty ale whose name is Danish for rye bread.