Brewing with Rye: Tips from the Pros

Rye is a versatile ingredient that can lend itself to a variety of beer styles. It can bring a pepper/spiciness and earthy flavor to beers, while also contributing positive characteristics from increased head retention to a more rounded body and mouthfeel. Rye ales and rye IPAs may be the most common styles where rye plays a role, but craft brewers have been expanding its use as style boundaries continue to be pushed. For this column we found three pros that use rye in very different styles (and using different forms of rye) to get homebrewers thinking about the various uses of rye.

Michael Sutherland, Brewing Operations Manager at Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, Virginia

The addition of rye in beer leads to improved mouthfeel and head retention as well as some earthy and spicy flavors that work really well with an array of base styles.

Like any complementary ingredient, the base recipe and other flavors will dictate how rye may be used. When working with a recipe that is already bringing bold flavor characteristics to the table we may use rye to add some more depth of flavor and accenting flavors. In the case of our robust rye porter Black Ox, we are looking to pull that spicy and earthy flavor out to add depth to the roasty, bitter, and bready notes we’re already getting in the beer from the rest of the grain bill. This leads to some very pleasant, almost umami-like character that balances out the beer and sets it apart, while also rounding out the mouthfeel — all without adding too much additional sweetness. I like using 10–20% rye in a style like this with big, bold flavors.

We use a flaked rye product for Black Ox, but I’ve worked with a pale malted rye and some roasted and crystal rye in the past as well. I don’t necessarily think it’s pro vs. con when considering one of these vs. another. It is more of each one having different uses; a flaked rye I tend to prefer in a scenario where I don’t necessarily want too much spice but want to contribute mouthfeel and more earthy flavor. A malted rye I tend to use to highlight the spicy character and even impart darker bread notes. The crystal and roasted ryes tend to stay pretty true to their barley-based counterparts but do bring some extra layers of flavor to the table. So I think that they are useful to impart rye flavor to a brew while being able to achieve color targets as well as your caramel and/or roasted malt character.

I’m fond of working with local malting varietals whenever possible. My personal favorite right now is a Brasetto Rye grown here in Virginia that we are able to source from a craft maltster within the state. I find the flavor to be bolder as well as the enzyme package to be beneficial to the recipe as a whole.

We don’t make too many changes regarding the treatment of our mashes with rye, but we do try to build our grist in a way to layer the rye throughout to make the best use of the barley husk material for filtration. However, if you have the ability to do a step mash, a beta-glucan rest will help tremendously as well as getting a good temperature rise for mashout to decrease your wort viscosity for later.

The more you brew with rye the easier it is to understand as an ingredient and to get a better feel for how to best utilize it in a recipe. Play around with how rye interacts with the aromas and flavors from the other ingredients in your beer. It’s amazing how it can elevate more than just the malt character in a beer — the secret is knowing how to best utilize it.

Mike Thorpe, Owner/Brewer at Afterthought Brewing Co. in Lombard, Illinois

Rye adds a touch of peppery spice and enhances the body without detracting from fermentability, which makes it quite well-suited for a saison. At Afterthought Brewing, we use 10–15% rye to add protein and body while still maintaining a highly fermentable wort, especially when working with diastatic saison strains alongside Brettanomyces.

We have used flaked, malted, and unmalted types of rye and at the ratio we are using them have not noticed much of a difference in the resulting beers between the different forms. So I would recommend selecting whichever type is available from a local supplier and fits best with your mash tun’s capabilities as rye can gum up the mash without a good dose of rice hulls. We don’t treat the mashes with rye differently as we typically utilize a good dose of non-barley grains in most of our grain bills, so our mashes always have plenty of rice hulls. 

While rye-forward IPAs with hops that express citrus, pine, or tropical fruit character were once popular — and I loved them — I tend to use rye with noble hops and those expressing similar aroma and flavor profiles. I find that rye complements grassy and floral hops more so than New World varieties that are more tropical, though hops like Cascade that tend to bridge the gap also work well.

I’d recommend homebrewers who haven’t used rye too much to be open to experimentation! Try the same recipe with all barley malt and then substitute rye, oats, spelt, or other grains to see the differences in the resulting beer. Saison is all about what is available, so you may need to change ingredients on the fly, and it’s great to know how each grain changes the underlying recipe. You can then always use extra grains to create a saison with leftover grains, much as rural Wallonian brewers likely once did. At Afterthought, we brew a beer called Farmhouse Mild that is a rotating blend of grains and hops with each batch, as we brew the beer when we have leftover grains and hops that aren’t enough to brew a full batch of a typical recipe, but all come together to create a unique brew each time we make that beer.

Justin Krey, Brewer at Four Corners Brewing Co. in Dallas, Texas

Rye has a distinct malty spice to it. Usually seen in IPAs and rye ales, where the hint of spice is wanted in the style, it can also add interesting notes to other styles. For instance, we use rye in one of our flagship beers called Local Buzz, which is a golden ale. The unique characteristics found in the two most talked about ingredients in Local Buzz, being rye malt and local honey, take our base of an approachable and easy drinking golden ale with spice and a dry sweetness emitting a light honey aroma. For a more neutral style like this, I find the proper range for a rye addition is 3–5%. While this isn’t a significant part of the grain bill, it is plenty to shine through the more delicate flavors of a golden ale.

Local Buzz uses malted rye malt but we have used flaked rye before in small batch brews for our taproom. Flaked rye can cause issues during the lautering process and is far less common because of this. With a lower percentage of rye malt in Local Buzz we have no issues with our mashes or lauter speed. In other recipes where up to 20% of rye malt is used we would utilize rice hulls to help with runoff. When talking about how much rye to use for a certain style, it is important to scale the percentage of rye based on characteristics like the amount of bitterness from hop additions and the final target gravity of the recipe. This will avoid an issue created by using too much or not enough rye.

In addition to the form of rye that you use, another consideration is where that rye is harvested. I’ve seen slight variations in flavor based on the region of the world where the rye is grown. Minerals in water and composition of the soil play a large factor in this (these factors help make up what is called terroir), so it is something to keep in mind when trying to repeat flavors in a recipe.

Issue: May-June 2022