When I think of autumn and winter seasonals, the first thing that comes to mind are festive dark brews spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, or rich, nutty brown ales. However, a style that originally found footing as a winter beer and has recently become more popular as a year-round offering falls at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum: dry, spicy rye beer.
Rye beers are a tough subject for me. I love rye and pumpernickel breads, and nine times out of 10, I'll pick the rye whiskey for my cocktail before I choose Bourbon. I enjoy the extra spice and complexity the rustic and hearty rye grain brings to these products. But no matter how many 95-plus ratings that rye beers receive on beer web sites, and despite constant recommendations and acclaims from friends, I have yet to find a rye beer that really does it for me.
Brewing with rye goes back to at least the 10th century. During that time, Russians regularly enjoyed kvass — a mild drink made from fermented stale rye bread — and Scandinavian Vikings were known to stock ships with Finnish sahti, beer made from rye malt and juniper berries. Before the 16th-century Reinheitsgebot purity law restricted beer production to only 3 ingredients, Roggenbier was a popular German beverage, with a grain bill featuring as much as 60 percent rye.
Despite rye's long history as a fermentable grain, it's only within the past few years that rye has gained traction in the American craft brewing scene. Most commonly, rye is used to add an extra layer of depth to heavily hopped American pale ales and IPAs, leading to the formation of an unofficial new style category: the "Rye-PA."
While some beers, such as Great Divide's Hoss Rye Lager (a rye-infused Märzen), The Bruery's Rugbrød (a rich, dark ale brewed with three types of malts) and Twisted Pine's Red Rye-deR Anniversary Ale (a red ale spiced with rye) flirt with the use of rye grain in a range of different styles, the vast majority of rye beers produced in the United States fall into the first category: amber-colored, heavily hopped pale ales with an added kick of rye.
Everything about these beers seems appealing — up until the second I take a sip. While the flavors usually associated with rye — spice, earthiness, dark fruit notes — sound exactly like something I would want in my beer, the end result usually comes across to me as being heavy, too dry, and lacking any refreshing quality.
I decided to sample a few of the year-round rye beers available locally to tackle my tumultuous relationship with rye beers once and for all, and, hopefully, to begin to appreciate what everyone else seems to be enjoying so much.
Terrapin Rye Pale Ale was one of the first rye beers on the market, and although only 10 percent of its grain bill is made up of rye, it has a noticeable spiciness to it. I would suggest this as a gateway brew for pale-ale fans looking to try something a little different, as it has a fairly traditional palate for that style, with just a hint of rye character. Fans of more aromatic, citrusy IPAs might prefer Rich & Dan's Rye IPA from Harpoon. This is a very flavorful IPA with floral hops on the nose and black pepper on the tongue. The finish is extremely dry, which again, did not work well for me in terms of refreshment, despite the beer itself being quite tasty.
Next was Hop Rod Rye, a big, full loaded Rye-PA from California's Bear Republic. This one was clearly a fine beer, boasting a finely balanced body and rich malt flavor, joined by an assertive rye flavor in the finish. But for all its pleasant depth, there was a dry, bark-like quality that left me parched.
Finally, I tried the He'Brew Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A., a beer from Shmaltz that pays homage to comedian Lenny Bruce and is as heavy in body as its name is in puns. This is for experienced beer drinkers only, consisting of a very complex and bold palate, heavily spiced with everything Shmaltz could throw at it — "an obscene amount of malts and hops," in their words.
Of these, rye is clearly a big player, giving the beer a sharp, spicy bite to balance out a hefty malt profile. Of the four beers I tried during this tasting, this was my favorite.
Ultimately, this re-examination of American rye beers left me close to where I started.
I like rye beers in principle, but I'm not sure that I'll ever be in the mood for one. Perhaps I'm still acquiring a taste for them. But for those of you who could use a little bit of spice in your life, I suggest trying a few yourself to see how you feel about beers brewed with this bold, flavorful grain.