Brewing with rye

Jacopo Mazzeo looks at the resurgence of the traditional multi-purpose grain that adds spice and depth to many popular craft beers


In central and northern Europe, rye is a staple food. It’s a popular ingredient in bread and crackers yet it’s employed well beyond the kitchen walls: rye is also a common animal feed, and contributes to the production of biofuels and building materials, too.

Historical documents however, provide evidence that it was used as a brewing ingredient well before its architectural applications. It constituted the main beer ingredient for the Phrygians, which inhabited Anatolia (today’s Turkey) since the Bronze Age, and a number of historical rye beer styles still survive across Europe, including Finland’s Shati - a juniper flavoured farmhouse ale - and Kvass, a low-alcohol brew common across a number of Slavic countries.

As Roggenbier, it was once popular in Bavaria, but the style went into sharp decline with the 1516 Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law), which declared that beer could only be made with water, barley and hops.

In recent years however, progressive brewers have shown interest in its assertive flavour profile, leading to a gentle rye comeback. Brewers are engaging with rye both to reinvent historical styles – multiple Roggenbier-inspired brews have been released across the States, and Bavaria’s Thurn und Taxis still commercialise Roggen, a fairly historically credible interpretation – and to add a twist on classic beers. “We use rye in IPAs, NEIPAs, Stout, Ryewine... it's good in everything,” says Tempest Brew head brewer Douglas Rowe.


Rye can be a difficult cereal to work with across the entire production process. Carl Heron, craft brewing sales manager at malt supplier Crisp Malt, explains that being a long and thin huskless cereal, rye tends to absorb more water when compared to other grains, including barley. “The biggest challenge is during the mash,” says Paul Anspach, director and head brewer of London brewery, Anspach & Hobday. “It can get very gelatinous, sticky, gluey and lead to a stuck mash.” For this reason, brewers tend not to use rye on its own but rather as an adjunct to malted barley. “We have to make sure we are balancing the amount of rye with other malts with a good husk component and that we are keeping the mash temperature high,” says Anspach.

Douglas Rowe, head brewer at Tempest Brew, found rye’s sweet spot to range between the 15% and the 20% of the grain bill. “This makes lautering [the process of separating the mash into clear liquid wort and residual grain] slow, but manageable. Any more than that we can use glucanase, an enzyme to the mash which aids lautering without impacting the final beer. In theory,” continues Rowe, “this may slightly modify the wort profile, but at a low rate I don’t think we saw much of a difference in the finished beer,” but points out that adding oat husks can be an alternative, less invasive option to help lautering.

For Crumbs Brewing, which makes its Rye Ruby and Rye Coffee Porter by replacing 25% of the grain bill with discarded rye bread plus added rye malt and crystal rye malt for flavour, things can get even stickier. “We do notice that rye bread crumbs are a little more dense and sticky versus the other varieties [of bread] we use,” explains Morgan Arnell. “It increases the risk of a stuck mash, which is a risk generally with brewing with bread.”

Meanwhile, Adnams brewery, which uses rye in a wide range of brews including Crystal Rye IPA and Red Phantom Rye Session IPA made in collaboration with Magic Rock, has pushed the amount of rye a grain bill can withstand to the limits. The first batches of Adnams’ rye whisky Expression involved a full 100% rye bill, which head brewer recalls turned out being a rather unfortunate choice: “We have brewed a 100% rye beer wash [the ‘beer’ destined to be distilled] for our distillery, so we are fully aware of rye’s potential to ruin your day. At 100% rye, the wort didn’t run off, it was dragged off,” recalls head brewer, Fergus Fitzgerald. He explains that the wort’s consistency wasn’t dissimilar to “wallpaper paste”. 

As the brew was destined to be distilled, Fitzgerald had the benefit of not requiring a clear wort, yet “unsurprisingly, the brew day was about twice the time needed for a normal brew”. He explains that they persevered with the 100% rye recipe for a few more batches, but “rye brew days seemed to very quickly become popular days for the brewers to try and take as holiday,” so they eventually adjusted the recipe down to 80% rye and 20% barley. “A few other changes were made as well over the years and now it runs off ok. Not great, and not bright, but ok.”


Despite being a tricky raw material to work with, Crisp Malt’s Heron says that rye can cover different roles in a recipe depending on the amounts used, and hence has the potential to offer a positive contribution to a wide range of beer styles.

“Rye is characterised by having a higher colour than other cereals [so] it is popular in all types of red ales. It’s also added for flavour and depth in darker beers. More modern IPAs are also being brewed with rye in combination with spicy hops.” He even suggests using a small percentage in a classic London Porter recipe.

In small amounts, says Heron (up to 5% of the grain bill), rye can bring palate fullness and good head retention, while when used between 5% and 17% it lends the beer “a pleasant spicy undertone”.

Just 3% of rye goes into Adnams’ Ghost Ship, which Fitzgerald believes lends the beer nutty, bready, and spicy notes. “We started using Rye when we first brewed Ghost Ship. I wanted something to play off the notes of Citra hops, so we used some crystal rye malt to add bready, nutty flavours and a light peppery spice to the beer.” Meanwhile, rye represents 15% of the grist in Adnams’ Crystal Rye IPA. “We use a mix of rye malt and red rye crystal malt from Simpsons Malt… When we brewed Crystal Rye IPA we wanted the same nutty, bready notes [of our Ghost Ship] but we also used malted rye to bring up the spice, which I think enhances and works well with the piney [aromas] and the citrus elements in the hops.”

With a rye-led portfolio that ranges from a Brett Pale to a whiskey barrel aged Export Stout, Ireland’s Kinnegar is somewhat of a rye specialist. “We think rye makes a great beer,” says Kinnegar’s Thomas Carroll. “It adds a certain depth and richness that you just don't get from barley. And, it keeps us on our technical toes working with a raw material that presents some challenges to brew with. In the earlier days of our brewery the rye beers could sometimes take several hours longer than a regular brew. Fortunately, we’ve got the techniques pretty well nailed by now.”

Part of the brewery’s core range, Rustbucket is a 5.1% Rye IPA where the rye lends delicate liquorice notes on the palate and a fragrant spicy nose, while Black Bucket - its “big brother” - is a 6.5% Black Rye IPA with piney, resiny aromas followed on the palate by balanced blend of roasted and ginger spice flavours from the rye. Kinnegar makes three seasonal rye beers too: Bucket Brigade (6.5% ABV Red Rye IPA), Bucket & Spade (4.2% ABV Session Rye IPA); and Shuttle Bucket (8% ABV Double Rye IPA). “More recently we brewed Rye Lager, a one-off German-style lager with the addition of rye,” says Carroll.

For Tempest’s Rowe, rye’s appeal goes beyond flavour: “As well as some spice character, the rye adds a really nice viscosity to the mouthfeel of the beer,” which comes in handy in his recently released 9% ABV Marmalade on Rye, a DIPA whose mouth-coating texture is in perfect harmony with its jammy personality, and the rye-derived peppery and gingery notes complement the bittersweet orange addition and the malt’s caramel flavour.

Adnam’s Fitzgerald highlights that rye’s viscous character is particularly visible in their whisky’s 80% rye wash: “With a normal beer, the small carbon dioxide bubbles break the surface frequently, popping at the surface like you might see when you open a bottle of a fizzy soft drink. On the [80%] rye wash the viscosity is higher, so the bubbles need to be much bigger to break the surface. The effect is that you get eruptions every now and then that look like the giant bubbles in swamps often portrayed in horror films set in the deep south, just before something crawls out.”

McColl’s Brewery co-owner and head brewer Danny McColl believes there is also an environmental element that makes rye attractive to modern brewers. He claims that rye elevates the flavours of other ingredients, “similar to salt and pepper in cooking” (he named Pepper Bitter the 3.6% ABV ale he released to help tackle men's mental health issues), but argues that it can be a more sustainable crop too, as it’s “less intensively, mono-culturally grown. Slowly but surely the focus of beer is swinging back towards malt and I believe that rye and what it brings to a beer will become more and more popular.”

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