BrewingTechniques

Brewing with Rye

by Rosannah Hayden

Republished from BrewingTechniques' September/October 1993.

An ancient grain is making a new name for itself in the small-scale brewing scene.

Necessity is not always the mother of invention. This is especially true in the world of brewing, where the spirit of inquiry and the pursuit of new and different styles and flavors have inspired countless innovations and variations in the methods and materials used. For the small-scale brewer in particular, experimentation and curiosity, not necessity, are guiding forces in the development of new brews. Enter rye (Secale cereale), an often overlooked grain with a distinctive flavor, which has been kindling interest over the last couple of years among microbrewers, home brewers, and beer drinkers alike.

Rye's ability to thrive under poor soil conditions and cold temperatures has long made it a staple in the diets of Northern and Central Europeans. Although perhaps best known for its use in baked goods, rye also has a history of use in the production of whiskey, gin, and, yes, even beer. This scrappy, nutritious grain has over the years made its way into the hearts and beers of Germans, among others, and is rapidly making headway among brewers in the United States.

"Why rye?" you may ask, and not without good reason. Mention rye and the average person thinks of dense, flavorful breads, crisp crackers, distilled spirits, or possibly a city in New York. "Beer" does not immediately leap to most minds. Yet rye makes for an interesting recipe component, contributing a distinctive, refreshing flavor; its growing presence on the beer frontier is well justified in light of its unique contributions to the taste and quality of beer.

Most rye beers currently available in brewpubs across the United States don't have an instantly recognizable rye quality to them. Indeed, rye's main contribution as an ingredient is its enhancement of the overall complexity of the beer's flavor. Although the crisp, slightly spicy rye flavor does emerge somewhat distinctly (usually at the finish), at the proportions generally used it is neither too forceful nor overpowering. The subtlety of the rye flavor is due to a variety of factors, including the amount of rye used in the recipe, the form of rye used, the hopping level, the type of yeast used in the recipe, and the other ingredients involved in the brew.

Yet despite rye's many positive attributes, it is not without drawbacks when used as an adjunct or recipe component; unexpected difficulties can arise when brewing with rye, and first batches have proved disastrous for many skilled brewers. Part of the purpose of this article, then, is to review some of the potential complications as well as the advantages of working with this grain.

BREWING WITH RYE

Most microbreweries use a 10-20% rye concentration in their recipes. Higher levels of rye can result in both brewing and marketing complications. Rye is a strongly flavored grain, and too much rye in the batch can result in unsold beer. Home brewers, on the other hand, have reported using proportions of rye as high as 50%; the rye really comes out in this concentration, and such a strong brew is neither for the faint of heart nor the beer drinker with ambivalent feelings about the taste of rye. Most experienced brewers of rye beer, or Roggenbier, as it is called in Germany, agree that a recipe calling for 10-20% rye makes for a good starting point; if a stronger flavor is desired, levels can be gradually adjusted upward in subsequent batches.

In many ways, the flavor of rye beer is reminiscent of wheat beers. Light bodied and somewhat dry, rye beers tend to have a nice head and an interesting grainy, slightly spicy flavor. Brewers have also discovered similarities in the physical properties of rye and wheat, which lead to similar problems when brewing with these grains.

Like wheat, rye comes in hulled form. The lack of a hull, combined with rye's high water retention capacity, can create a very sticky mash prone to setting. These and other considerations behoove the brewer to both carefully consider the form of rye to be used (some forms, such as grits, are more troublesome and trouble-prone than others) and to make adjustments during the brewing process.

One important factor to consider is rye's high beta-glucan content. beta-glucans -- starches made up of long strands of glucose molecules -- greatly increase wort viscosity. A slow runoff and sparge time can be expected; given rye's high beta-glucan and protein profile, filtration problems and a set mash are typical problems.

When brewing with rye, it is a good idea to keep the following hints in mind:

  • Increase the mash temperature 1-2 degrees to increase the runoff (note: increasing the temperature too much creates off flavors, so care is required)
  • Add extra water to the mash, as needed, to keep it as thin as possible
  • Give the mash a good beta glucan rest
  • A simple one-step infusion is best, especially if you use a lot of rye in your recipe
  • Use good equipment
  • Avoid combining rye with raw barley; raw barley also has high levels of beta-glucans, and this could make for an extremely sticky combination.

    You might also consider using rye sparingly in your first batch to get a feel for the process of working with it. Expect a long sparge (approximately 30-50% longer) regardless of precautionary measures. Like oatmeal, rye becomes heavy and sticky in the mash. The form of rye used (malt, flakes, rolled or crushed) will not only affect the intensity of the beer's rye flavor, but will also greatly affect the wort and mash consistency.

    Rye's chemical makeup makes it tricky to use, although the more you know about its properties, the fewer problems you are likely to encounter when using it in beer. Lab studies indicate that rye worts contain less maltose and more nitrogen (total and formol) than barley malt worts. Further, rye malts tend to be richer than barley malts in alpha amylase, although barley malts provide slightly higher diastatic power. Including rye also increases the wort pH, so you may want to monitor the pH and make adjustments accordingly (1).

    RYE FORMS

    Rye can be obtained in a variety of forms. Selecting the right form for you is a matter of deciding on the type and intensity of flavor desired, how much time you want to spend on the brewing process, and how much you are willing to spend on the rye, among other considerations. Rye is commercially available as malt, roasted malt, and in rolled, flaked, and whole grain form. The diversity of rye forms gives the brewer many options, but several important factors merit consideration.

    Commercially available forms of rye.

    Whole rye berries can be used, but they must be cracked first and then cooked in a cereal cooker for gelatinization. The cereal should be heated and stirred until it stops thickening (an indication that most of the starches have been exploded) and then added to the mash. Using this several-step process not only adds preparation time to the brewing process, but, compared to using rye flakes, whole-grain rye tends to increase runoff and sparge times because the cracked rye is quite sticky and doesn't dissolve in solution as readily as commercially available rye flakes.

    Rolled rye, available in bulk at health food stores and grain suppliers, is also a fine, inexpensive form of rye. During the rolling process, the rye is flattened under hot, heavy rollers. The heat and pressure from the rollers gelatinizes the rye starch, thus eliminating the need for precooking the rye. Rolled rye makes a good, readily available adjunct, which is why so many brewers began their first rye beer experiments with it.

    Roasted rye, more difficult to find but available through specialty stores such as Liberty Malt Supply (Seattle), provide yet another option for experimentation.

    Rye malt adds a distinct flavor to the brew. Malting modifies the rye grain in a way that eliminates some of the unwanted effects that are present when using unmalted rye. According to the authors of a study published in Crop Science, "Such a qualitative modification apparently cannot be accomplished by enzymes from the malted barley when they act on unmalted rye" (1).

    Rye flakes may provide the most trouble-free source of rye for your recipe; rye flakes available from Briess Malting Company (Chilton, Wisconsin) disintegrate readily and can be obtained through homebrew supply stores.

    As demand increases, the varieties, forms, and sources of rye will likely also increase; rye beer pioneer Grant Johnston has already experimented with a smoked rye, pushing even further the possibilities of taste and color. Ultimately, market demand will dictate the general availability of the various strains and forms of rye. Increased interest in rye should motivate suppliers to diversify and expand their rye stock. For now, at least, there is enough rye and resourcefulness to keep most brewers busy for some time.

    RYE SOURCES

    Rye can be obtained through a variety of sources. As previously mentioned, however, the limited demand for this grain makes it difficult for suppliers to stock either large quantities or diverse strains. What they have is what you get. Still, by inquiring at different grain outlets and suppliers, the imaginative brewer can locate at least a few rye varieties with which to experiment.

    Briess Malting Company has provided rye malt on request for more than 15 years; their catalog has listed rye products for more than four years, and customer interest is reportedly on the rise. Briess currently uses a Midwestern Spring rye variety in the production of their rye malt and flakes. Through a special processing technique in which the rye is gelatinized before being rolled, Briess claims that they can achieve 100% gelatinization in their flaked rye. These flakes dissolve right into solution. Ordinary rolled rye is said to be less than completely gelatinized, so Briess's product may have some advantages, not the least of which are the reduction of runoff and set-bed problems. Because the rye contains no husk, rye malt lends itself to bed compaction and slow sparging.

    In addition to the small handful of American suppliers (Briess, Liberty Malt, and most recently Great Western Malting of Vancouver, Washington), rye malt is also available from Canada Malting in Toronto. They receive occasional requests from microbrewers here in the States, but their primary rye customer is a prominent Canadian whiskey distillery that uses their rye malt in their whiskey flavoring. Canada malting uses a rye strain grown in Western Canada and provides custom rye malt on order.

    Whole-grain rye can also be found at retail health food stores, a good source for those wanting to buy only a small quantity. Happily, bulk rye is cheap (around $0.40/lb for whole organic kernels or rolled rye), giving brewers a good reason to try experimenting with different recipes. Perhaps because of lack of demand, supermarkets don't tend to carry rye grain, so this isn't an option, although home brewers can also buy small quantities of rye at homebrew supply stores. Bakeries and grain distributors are also good places to inquire about rye, although the options will be limited to rolled or whole grain.

    MALTING

    The decision on the part of many maltsters not to produce rye malt is likely due as much to the difficulty of malting rye as it is to limited market demand. No labor of love for maltsters, malting with rye is difficult and time consuming. Rye is a small, slippery grain, and because malt houses are set up for barley malting, working with rye can be a nightmare. Mary Anne Gruber of Briess jokes that she likes to schedule her vacations right around the time they receive an order for a batch of rye, and in light of some of the problems associated with malting rye, this sentiment is understandable.

    Even with the development of the larger tetraploid hybrid ryes now used by maltsters, a good deal of rye is lost in the malting process, and cleaning the equipment afterwards is difficult and time-consuming. For these reasons, most commercial malt houses can't produce small batches; Gordon Anderson of Canada Malting notes that a 70-ton batch is usually the minimum amount needed to make the process feasible for them.

    Although malting rye is fundamentally the same as malting barley, several adjustments are necessary throughout the process. First, because rye takes up water so quickly, the steeping time must be shortened or the rye will become mushy. Oversteeping sets growth back and inhibits the malting process. Rye malt steeping time needs to be one-third shorter than that of barley malt.

    Rye's absorbent qualities also necessitate the use of slightly less water during the steeping process. The absence of a hull and the grain's thin bran layer allow moisture to enter and exit the grain very quickly, thus speeding up both steeping and kilning time. Still, the absence of a hull can also compound germination problems for the maltster. The acrospire is exposed and is susceptible to breakage. Modification stops when the acrospire is damaged, so rye must be handled with extreme care during the malting process.

    Because of the expertise, time, and equipment modifications required to malt rye, this grain is processed primarily by the larger, more versatile malting houses. But a market victory such as this can be a little sour; rye isn't very lucrative to produce, and it requires a great deal of care and clean-up time. Equipment must be adapted; for example, some maltsters use drop-bottom conveyors to facilitate cleaning so that subsequent malt batches of barley will not be tainted by rye. Even with these modifications, tainting occurs, and major handling losses are common.

    Amazingly, large malting companies are still willing to supply rye in whatever quantities the market demands. Despite all the nuisances, in the spirit of providing consumers with as many brewing options as possible, they are, for the most part, glad to oblige their customers' call for rye. Rye's unique qualities seem to assure maltsters and consumers alike that rye will continue to add an interesting twist to specialty brews.

    Sample homebrew rye recipe, courtesy of Grant Johnson of Marin Brewing Company, Marin, California.

    REFERENCE

    (1) Y. Pomerantz, N.N. Standridge, J.J. Schreck, and E.D. Goplin, Crop Science 13, 213-215 (1973).

    Rosannah Hayden grew up surrounded by brewers, though none used rye. She is a free-lance writer.

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