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Brewing with Rye: Tips from the Pros

Rye adds a distinctive character to beer, often described as crisp, refreshing, slightly spicy and subtle. Its primary downfall is its reputation for causing stuck mashes. Even many advanced brewers can share stories about rye brews that ended in catastrophe. Homebrewers should remain undaunted, however, for this issue’s professionals offer great ideas and tips on successfully brewing with rye.

Erik Ogershok, Real Ale Brewing Company in Blanco, TX

While we use rye to make a hoppy pale ale, rye works and tastes just as good in a malt-accented beer. Rye adds a fullness or richness to the malt character and imparts a nice spicy zest to a beer. Rye malt also complements the citrusy hop character and adds silkiness to the body. It’s not quite as snappy as wheat, though.

A pale rye ale would contain something like 80% pale ale malt, 15% rye malt and 5% crystal malt (40–60° Lovibond). The small amount of crystal malt adds color, flavor and texture.

A step mash works well with rye beer. This is because the enzymes that break down the beta-glucans — and hence reduce the gumminess of your mash — are active in the lower temperature range (98–113° F). You can take your choice of mash schedules.

Many types of hops can be used to make a rye pale ale. We recommend the spicier varieties, to complement the spiciness that rye adds to the beer.

It’s a good idea to make your first few batches with a clean yeast, one that doesn’t impart too much yeasty flavor to the beer. This helps accentuate the rye and brings out the hops as well. You can always try different yeasts later and experiment with how they change the flavor of your beer. Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast is a good strain to start with.

Homebrewers may want to use rice or barley hulls in their grist, to prevent a stuck mash. Between 1.5–3% of the total malt bill should do the trick.

R. James Ray, Titanic Brewery and Restaurant in Miami, FL.

My version of an American rye beer is brewed in a way that is similar to a German altbier. I like it to be a full-bodied beer that accentuates the unique malt character of the rye. I like a firm hop bitterness that accentuates the rye flavor. I have found that any form of finishing hop detracts from the character of the rye, as well as the caramel flavors of crystal malt. So I don’t use late-addition hops.

I think a rye beer needs to have a significant rye flavor. Rye has a sharp, spicy character. I make mine to be a full-bodied amber ale that is dry and refreshing, but not hoppy.

I like to use malted rye. It is nearly, if not fully, modified and I do not have to worry about conversion. There are other choices available, including flaked rye (which is probably the easiest for homebrewers) and whole rye (which requires cooking and gelatinization). Malted rye falls somewhere in between and adds a very distinctive flavor. Since rye has no hull, I feel that the type of crush is not that important, although it is a smaller grain and will require readjusting a roller mill to prevent the grains from passing through whole. A basic Corona mill is probably the easiest way for homebrewers to crush the rye malt.

Rice or oat hulls in the mash are a big help. For a five-gallon batch, try about eight ounces. I have done many batches with no hulls, but have always had problems with stuck mashes.

I have used both ale and lager malt in my rye beers. I think a lager malt base accentuates and adds sharpness to the rye flavor, while pale malt rounds out the flavor. Lager malt has better results if the amount of rye is small. Either will work well if rye makes up over 10% of the grain bill.

My yeast of choice is German ale yeast because it brings out the rye flavor the most. A lager yeast would also do very nicely. I have also done very well with American ale yeast. I would avoid any yeast that is very fruity because it may hide the rye flavor.

I use German Perle and Spalt hops for my rye. I calculate for 40 IBUs and do not use any hops in the last 15 minutes, so I don’t cover up the rye.

Michael Altman, Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery in Boulder, CO.

My approach to brewing rye ale is to make a beer that is well-balanced and delicate on the palate. I feel the beer should taste just as good on your third or fourth pint as it does on the first.

Our Chazz Cat Rye is made from a single-infusion mash with a strike temperature of 152° F. We start with a bed of rice or barley hulls to prevent the mash from sticking, due to the high percentage of rye that we use. We use 55% Crisp Maris Otter pale malt, 32% Briess rye malt, 5% Munich malt, 3% crystal malt and 5% CaraPils. The OG of this beer is 1.060. The FG is 1.008. We do a standard 90-minute boil with three hop additions.

On the homebrewing side, making rye beer should be no different than producing it on a commercial level. Use a small amount of rice or barley hulls to cover the bottom of your lauter tun. This will improve the sparge. If you are concerned that you might have sparging problems, a lower percentage of rye is warranted. When you add the rye to the mash, do so only after you have mashed-in all the other malts, as this also will help prevent the mash from getting gummed up.

Although it has a lighter flavor, homebrewers may find flaked rye easier to use. For this reason I would recommend experimenting with Briess flaked rye, if only to see if it works well in your homebrewing system and to find out if you get the desired flavor from it.

We have received lots of great feedback from customers when the rye beer is poured from a nitrogen tap. This is probably because nitro, with its smaller bubbles, makes the beer more creamy and improves the taste. It also makes the head look better, which improves the beer’s appearance.