What’s In A Rye Beer?

If you’re anything like me, the term “rye” makes you think of Reubens and that other bottle of Wild Turkey you’d never buy. Well, walk into a nice, hip brewery, and you may find yourself face-to-face with a rye ale, IPA, or anything, really. Rye beer is just a beer that uses rye in the malt.

Why’s Rye So Uncommon?

Although you may not have heard much about them, rye beer has a long history – long, but uneventful. Rye beer, once a common counterpart to the humble hefe in much of Germany, was actually outlawed in Bavaria about 500 years ago by the legendary German purity codes for beer (Reinheitsgebot).

Only “purity” was not the motivation for passing the law. In reality, barley was seen as preferable for beer brewing only because it wasn’t acceptable for human consumption.

You see, back in the 1500’s, Germany was still very susceptible to famine. Making sure that bread-worthy grains, like rye, were reserved for the bakers made living affordable for a lot of hungry Germans (fast-forward 500 years, they tout it as a “purity code”; guess sometimes you just have to save face).

And You May Ask Yourself; Well, How Did Rye Get Here?

Much like Megatron and Clay Aiken, the rye beer all but disappeared for hundreds of years. Lucky for us, a renegade German of a modern persuasion said: “to hell with the purity code!” and made himself some rye beer anyway.

Owing to the craft beer explosion in the U.S., it’s now made all over the States and, like most things that come here from Europe (i.e. pizza), it’s been bastardized into something almost unrecognizable to the original. And also much, much better.

Finally, Why Rye?

Ryes can be pretty damn good, but why choose a rye when something more familiar is right there on the menu? Well, there’s plenty of reasons!

Ryes are refreshing. They have less of the malty sweetness that barley beers tend to have. Consequently, they have much less of the malty sweetness that a wheat beer would offer. They taste a bit drier and snappier, albeit a bit less flavorful.

It’s not an offensive flavor, either. It’s subtle to the point that you might not realize there’s something different about your beer. Taste it against a similar beer with barley or wheat malt and I’m sure you’ll be able to tell.

Now, the difference between a RyePA and an IPA will be less pronounced than the difference between, say a maibock and a ryebock. This is because a mai/ryebock tends to derive more of its characteristic flavor from the malt, while an I/RyePA relies much more heavily on the hops for flavor.

In any case, ryes are still pretty uncommon, so if you see one on the menu, it might be worth trying it just to take advantage of the opportunity. Remember, fortune favors the bold!

Kevin Short

Kevin Short is a sometimes contributor who can be contacted at kev.pat.sho@gmail.com.

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