The thing to remember about brewing with wild rice," says Kirby Nelson of the Capital Brewing Company in Middleton, Wisconsin, "is that a little bit goes a long way." Kirby is the master brewer responsible for the annual production of Capital's renowned Wild Rice Lager, a decidedly unusual seasonal beer. It's a pilsner style, with few specialty malts to distract the tastebuds from the central ingredient. "I want the wild rice to be up front and center," he says. "Nothing else should get in the way."
Kirby is one of the pioneers of wild-rice brewing. He's been at it since the late 1980s, when he started at Capital as assistant brewmaster. A year later he was promoted to brewmaster, overseeing the creation of the company's fine lagers. About the same time, the James Page brewery in Minneapolis started making two different kinds of wild rice beer. Today, James Page is generally credited with being the first commercial brewer to make a wild rice beverage.
Wild rice is not a traditional brewing ingredient. It was too rare and too pricey when other, cheaper grains were available. Just fifteen years ago, it was unknown even in the most elevated brewing circles. Even now, few breweries make it and many homebrewers have never heard of it, let alone brewed a batch themselves. Nevertheless, in the past few years Midwestern breweries have won a number of awards for wild rice brews, so things are looking up for those who prefer a touch of weirdness in their beer.
Wild rice beer almost qualifies as a regional specialty. The native grain grows best in the cold, deep running rivers of states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and most breweries that make wild rice beers seem to be located in these Midwestern states. Kirby Nelson is enthusiastic about his beer. "I like the warped nuttiness of it," he says. "It's a personal and cherished part of the Capital lineup." So how does he make this seasonal speciality?
Capital Steps: How Nelson Makes Wild Rice Lager
Kirby still uses the same formula he developed years ago. "It was my first experience brewing with adjuncts, so I wanted to get everything just right," he recalls. He uses a base of pale and Victory malt, with wild rice measuring about 10 to 20 percent of the total grain bill.
"Technically, it's not a pilsner," he says, because the alcohol content is too high and the beer is hopped with an IBU in the mid-20 range. The original gravity is 1.052 and the beer finishes at 1.011. "As a non-malted ingredient," Kirby explains, "wild rice has to undergo a cereal mash. We're set up for upward infusion here, and I use a pretty hefty malt charge of 18.5 percent. I start with the malt at 122° F. After the protein rest, I add the rice and then hold at 150° F for half an hour."
Next, Kirby brings the temperature up to 180° F and holds for ten minutes in a process known as "gelatinization." This step allows the rice to undergo the chemical processes that prepare it for conversion. He then boils the wild-rice mash for 20 to 30 minutes.Meanwhile, the rest of the malts are cooking in a separate mash. The two mashes are then added together. Kirby uses about 25 IBUs of hops, a blend of Cascade, Cluster and Willamette. "The secret to wild rice brewing," Kirby says, "is to create an especially well-balanced product." This is particularly true when specialty malts are being added with such a light hand.
For a beer with so few extras, Wild Rice Lager is expensive to make, because wild rice is not cheap. Capital does an annual limited release around Thanksgiving, and even though it's the least-commercial of his beers, it's one of his all-time favorites. "It sells like nuts for a few weeks and then tapers off," says Kirby. "People have to have it and then they move on to something else."
Award-Winning Tips from the Man in Minocqua
Rick Meyer is brewmaster at Minocqua Brewing Company in Minocqua, Wisconsin. He's the man behind Island City Wild Rice Lager, which won a gold medal at the 1999 Great American Beer Festival.
Meyer says wild rice is easy for homebrewers to use, but he warns that it easily can take over a beer. "Wild rice must be precooked with a small amount of two- or six-row malt to help get the conversion started," Meyer advises. "I would suggest that the wild rice never exceed 20 percent of the total grain bill, and 10 percent is a good starting point for most."
"The nutty flavor of the rice goes well in amber beers that use some 60° Lovibond crystal malt," says Meyer. "Even with the malt's dark husk, don't expect it to add much color. Wild rice also goes well with roasted malts. One of the best is Briess Malting Company's 'Special Roast.' Most of the good-sized homebrew stores carry it."
A Word From Omaha: A Homebrewer's View
Wild rice sugars add lightness, sweetness and boost alcoholic content at the expense of body. Usually, homebrewers counter this tendency toward a thinner brew by adding more malts. The more rice you add, the more malts you will probably need. Chester Waters, a longtime homebrewer from Omaha, says he's in love with the "rich, earthy" character of his award-winning wild rice, rye and caraway beer. He likes wild rice so much that he uses a lot more of it than the Wisconsin brewmeisters suggest, up to 35 percent of the total grain bill. After finding that wild rice by itself contributed plenty of flavor and full mouthfeel but seemed too soft and flat for his taste, he added malted rye (15 to 25 percent) and three ounces of caraway seed for spice. The resulting orange-brown brew "continues to meld and improve - as well as drop clear - over four to six months," Waters says.
The long period in the carboy also helps with a persistent chill haze that Chester has experienced with wild-rice beer. This may result from the heavy amounts of rice he likes to add to his brews. (Rick Meyer uses about 25 percent wild rice and has never had a problem with chill haze, noting that he doesn't even fine his beers with gelatin, the way some micros do. "I do filter down to 0.5 micron and I use Irish moss. We age our lagers 30 days so they clear on their own," Meyer says.) Getting down to particulars, Chester told us, "I'd stick to a neutral yeast (something like Wyeast 1056, American Ale) to let the earthy wild rice, the sharpness of the rye and the caraway shine through. You might consider a Kölsch yeast and lower-temperature fermentation and lagering, with a diacetyl rest, for an even cleaner fermentation. I expect these big flavors to go with a fairly dextrous wort, and low levels of flavor and aroma hops. I use reverse osmosis water and add calcium chloride to adjust, at 50 parts per million." Chester also suggests using rice hulls to prevent a stuck mash. And since his beer is lively, he uses a few drops of "no-foam" to help control blow-off.
A View From Down East
Our friend Brad Hunter, a homebrewer from Appleton, Maine, elaborated on the use of rice hulls in adjunct brewing. "This is a neutral addition. The hulls will keep the grains from compacting when using a significant amount of 'non-husk' grains like wild rice. I think the prudent use of foundation water under the grain bed when setting up the mash is just as important. It will help keep the whole thing buoyant." Kirby Nelson's advice to homebrewers is to use adequate water in the rice mash, no more than two pounds per gallon.
Wild Rice Extract Cream Ale
Roger Seaver of Mendota, Minnesota discovered that wild rice also can elevate extract brewing. He and some friends were planning an expedition to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and, in the spirit of James Page - whose wild rice beer is called Boundary Waters Golden Lager - he brewed a special wild rice cream ale for the trip. (He bottled it in plastic soda bottles to comply with the BWCAW's "no glass, no cans" rule.)
Roger started with a basic cream ale kit (a box, not a can), added a pound of light dry malt extract and mashed the grain in the kit with one pound of cooked wild rice for 45 minutes. He says the beer "was, in a word, great." It was lighter in body than the kit beer would have been, with a slightly higher original and final gravity.
Most of the wild-rice brewers we spoke with sounded the same note of caution: Wild rice is an ingredient of surpassing potency, not to be added lightly to any beer. At the same time, it's an easy and satisfying ingredient and deserves to be better known. As one homebrewer noted, "after the first taste, it really grows on you." So this fall season, give wild rice a whirl!
WILD RICE RECIPE FILE
Mad Fishmonger Wild Rice Ale
(5 gallons, all grain)
OG = 1.041 FG = 1.011 IBU = 49
- 4 lbs. lager malt
- 1.25 lbs. mild malt
- 0.75 lbs. wild rice
- 0.5 lbs. Belgian malt
- 6 oz. CaraHell malt
- 2 oz. CaraMunich malt
- 8 AAU of Kent Goldings hops (2 oz. of 4% alpha acid)
- 2 AAU of Mt. Hood hops (0.5 oz. of 4% alpha acid)
- Wyeast 1968 (London Ale)
- 2/3 cup corn sugar for priming
Step by Step
Boil wild rice in 1 gallon water until gelatinous (45 min). Add malts to 1 gal. 130° F water, stabilize at 122° F and hold for 30 min.. Add rice mash and stabilize at 152° F for 30 min. Add 1 gal. 180° F water, stabilize at 158° F and hold 30 min. Raise to 170° F. Sparge with 4 gal. of 170° F water to collect 6 gal. Add Kent Goldings hops and boil 60 min. Turn off heat, add Mt. Hood hops and steep 5 min. Strain hops, cool to 68° F and pitch yeast. Ferment at 65° F.
Hagbard's Wild Rice Vienna Lager
(5 gallons, partial mash)
OG = 1.063 FG = 1.017 IBU = 51
- 2 lbs. pale lager malt
- 1-1/8 lbs. wild rice
- 2.5 lbs. Munich malt
- 0.25 lbs. German crystal malt (40° Lovibond)
- 0.25 lbs. Cara-Pils malt
- 0.25 lbs. Vienna malt
- 2.2 lbs. Premier hopped malt extract
- 3.3 lbs. Northwestern gold malt extract
- 10 AAU of Hallertauer Hersbrucker hops (2.25 oz.of 4.4% alpha)
- 2 AAU of Tettnanger hops (0.5 oz. of 4% alpha acid)
- 1.75 AAU of Saaz hops (0.5 oz. of 3.5% alpha acid)
- Yeastlab European Lager yeast
- 3/4 cup corn sugar for priming
Step by Step
Proceed with step mash described above. Add extracts and Hallertauer and boil 60 min. Add Tettnanger to final 15 min. of boil. Turn off heat, add Saaz and steep 5 min. Strain hops, cool to 68° F, pitch yeast. Ferment at 40° F.
Eye in the Pyramid Wild Rice Helles Bock
(5 gallons, extract with grains)
OG = 1.066 FG = 1.016 IBU = 45
- 1 lb. wild rice
- 0.75 lbs. Munich malt
- 2/3 lbs. German crystal malt (20° Lovibond)
- 0.5 lbs. Cara-Pils malt
- 4 pounds Laaglander Dutch Light Lager kit
- 3.3 pounds Northwestern Gold malt extract
- 12 AAU of Hallertauer Hersbrucker hops (3 oz. of 4% alpha acid)
- Yeastlab L-32 Bavarian lager yeast
- 1/2 cup corn sugar for priming
Step by Step
Boil wild rice in 1 gal. water until gelatinous (45 minutes). Turn off heat, add malt, steep 30 min. Strain out grains and rinse with one half gallon of boiled water. Add malt extracts and Hallertauer Hersbrucker hops and boil for 60 minutes. Strain out hops, top up to 5 gallons with chilled water, pitch yeast when cool. Ferment at regular lager temperatures (40 to 50 ° F).
WILD RICE: What it is, how to find it
Wild rice is the seed of a native North American aquatic grass, Zizania aquatica, which is more closely related to grains such as barley than it is to true rice. It grows throughout the Great Lakes region as well as in Canada. Native Americans traditionally harvested this grass by bending the stalks over the gunwales of their canoes and tapping the heads, causing the grains to fall. This hunter-gatherer approach is still practiced on a small scale.
This “traditional” wild rice can be found in health-food stores, upscale supermarkets and mail-order outlets. It sells for about $8 per pound. (It’s even possible to obtain a “ricing permit” and harvest your own if you live in the Great Lakes region; to secure a permit, start by calling your state Fish and Wildlife department.) “Paddy grown” commercially raised rice is much more common.This sells for roughly $4 to $5 per pound. Jerry Bourbonnais, a Milwaukee homebrewer and co-host of the “Brewpot” radio show, suggests using only naturally grown and harvested lake rice if you can afford it and find it. “The paddy rice isn’t always as mature as the lake rice,” he says. “This can cause some flavor problems as well as making it more difficult and time-consuming to gelatinize.”
If you can’t find wild rice in your local grocery store, here are some additional sources:
1020 West Second Street
Thief River Falls, Minnesota 56701
Phone: (800) 424-5172; (218) 681-6901
C and G Wild Rice
2803 Harborview Parkway
Superior, Wisconsin 54880
Phone: (715) 398-5921
Grey Owl Foods
P.O. Box 88
Grand Rapids, Minnesota 55744
Phone: (800) 527-0172
Joe and Dennis Fisher are the authors of "The Homebrewer's Garden," "Great Beer From Kits" and "Brewing Made Easy," all published by Storey Books.