As much as I would like to write about my “Top 5” examples of Roggenbier, which is German ale that originated in Regensburg, Bavaria, there are so few commercial examples available in the United States, especially in Upstate New York, that I don’t believe I’ve ever tried any. So to that end, I’d like to talk about what I’m just going to call Rye Beer, which is another more modern style that has developed in America in the past 20 to 30 years.
History of Rye Beer
Roggenbier set the stage for Rye Beer in the United States way back in the 15th Century, when rye malt was commonly used for brewing. However, after a series of bad harvests, a rule was established that rye may only be used for baking bread, therefore making barley the only grain that could be used for brewing beer. This action was one of the major reasons the Bavarian Purity Law was created, which decreed that beer could only be made from water, barley and hops. At any rate, Roggenbier disappeared for 500 years until it showed up again in 1988 in Bavaria. Great news, but again unfortunately, if you live in the US, trying some is most likely going to involve an expensive plane ticket and a week off from work. So, to focus on rye beer in America, it’s basically any beer where rye has substituted a portion of barley malt. Typically a clean American ale yeast is used, however they can be made as a lager with delicious results as well. Additionally, a large portion of wheat malt can be used, with a mix of rye, but there are no guidelines, so it can be a style open to a lot of variation.
Rye Beer Characteristics
Rye beers are usually pale yellow to gold in color, with their German cousins bordering on coppery-brown. A hallmark of the style is a big, billowy, long lasting white to off-white head. Fairly clear in most cases, with a touch of haze, they’ll smell delicious, with a low to moderate grainy, spicy rye character, along with some various fruity esters. You’ll also smell some telltale citrusy American hops, or possibly a more noble, subdued hop character. Keep your nose peeled for a slightly acidic aroma, courtesy of the rye. The prominent flavor in rye beers is a grainy, rich, spicy flavor with some malty sweetness on the back of the tongue. In a lot of cases, especially as of this writing, you’ll get a lot of the aggressive American hop flavors found in India Pale Ales. The spiciness that the rye provides is a great partner to the bitterness of the hops being used. The finish is normally dry, crisp, and a bit sharp with some of that spicy rye lingering in the back of your mouth after the swallow. Rye beers are generally medium-bodied, with a bit of variation on both ends of the spectrum. Carbonation will usually be pretty high, and you might get a bit of alcohol heat, but rarely do these beers land North of 6% ABV, so they’re a prime candidate for sessioning and the warm weather that’s heading our direction.
Rye Beer Food Pairings
Do your best to order some food with some heat if you’re hungry and drinking a rye beer. Any kind of cuisine that has some spice to it, like Jamaican-jerk chicken, Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine, Thai, Vietnamese, or Indian food of any kind is guaranteed to pair very well. The spice in the rye and the hops will complement the bold flavors in the food beautifully. If you see gumbo or jambalaya on the menu, go for it. A strong, oily fish like salmon or a couple of crab cakes with plenty of remoulade is also a big winner. One of my favorites to pair with rye beer is a big, bad, loaded burger with a grocery list of toppings. Be sure to ask the chef to toss that beef patty in Cajun or blackening seasoning; you won’t regret it.
A very unique and, these days, a very American style, rye beer to me is underrated and underappreciated, and I really wish every brewery had their own twist on the style, utilizing this versatile ingredient. Nonetheless, I had absolutely no difficulty picking my Top 5, all fantastic beers.
Those will have to tie me over until the importers and brewers can bring the real deal over from Germany, but you won’t hear me complaining one bit until that happens.
[techtags:BEER REVIEWS, RYE BEERS, TOP RYE BEERS, ROGGENBIER]