Germany rye beer (Roggenbier) is a fairly rare style today that predates the German purity laws, made from a grist where the majority of the grain bill is malted rye. This week we take a look at the history of rye beer, the style itself and how to brew it at home.
The History of German Rye Beer
Brewers throughout Europe made beer with rye for many centuries, and in fact beer was often made with whatever grain was at hand. During the medieval period after a series of bad harvests, many German states decided that rye should be reserved for bread making, and its use in beer declined. In 1516, the German Purity laws were adopted in Bavaria (called Reinheitsgebot), and dictated that only barley would be used for brewing. The purity law was eventually extended to all of Germany, and rye beers declined and disappeared.
Almost 500 years later, in 1988, a handful of Bavarian brewers began brewing rye beer again. The modern version is dark, with a formulation similar to Dunkelweizen, but using rye as about half of the typical grain bill. It is not clear how close modern rye beer is to the historic version.
The Rye Beer Style
Roggenbier (literally rye beer) is a specialty ale produced with 50-60% rye malt. Rye is a somewhat dry beer that uses the same type of yeast as hefeweizen resulting in a light, dry, spicy taste.
Many American microbreweries produce wide variations of rye beer. Some are made using traditional American yeast and hops resulting in a cleaner finish and hoppier flavor. A popular US variant called “Rye-P-A” resembles an India Pale Ale (IPA) in flavor – with a very strong hop presence. Rye porters, saison, ales, and wheat variations are also popular.
Other variants include Sahti, which is made from a combination of rye, juniper berries and wild yeast, Kvass which is a low alcohol beer made from rye bread, and Rauchroggen which is made with rye dried over an open flame for a smoked finish.
German rye beer has a light copper-orange to dark red copper color (14-19 SRM), white head and is often cloudy as it can be served “with yeast” much like hefeweizen. The Bavarian version is essentially a dunkelweizen (dark wheat) made with rye instead of wheat with greater body and light on finishing hops.
The flavor grainy with a strong spicy flavor like that of rye or pumpernickel bread. The style is made with medium to low bitterness, and a moderate weizen yeast character (clove-banana hints). The finish is also dry and grainy with a slight bitterness from the rye itself. It has no diaceytl (fruity flavors), though citrus is sometimes present from the yeast. Ryes are served highly carbonated.
The beer has moderate alcohol content (4.5-6%) with an original gravity of 1.046-1.056, and 10-20 IBUs of bitterness which provides a fairly malty/rye finish due to the low bitterness ratio.
Brewing a Rye Beer
German rye beers are made with 50-60% rye, with the remainder of the malt bill consisting of pale malt, wheat malt or Munich malt. Crystal malts are often used in small quantities to add body and color. Occasionally debittered dark malts are used to darken the color.
Rye is a huskless grain, which makes it difficult to mash. Using 50% or more in a mash results in a sticky, gummy mash that is prone to stuck sparge where the sparge filter and grain bed get blocked. Therefore, many home brewers also add rice hulls (which add no flavor) to the mash to help reduce the chance of a stuck sparge. Rye also has one of the strongest flavors of all cereals, so it must be balanced carefully when designing the beer.
Decoction mashes are traditionally done with rye beers, as with many other Bavarian styles. However, it is not required. A single step infusion mash is sufficient. If you want to get the “decoction” malty sweetness in your beer, consider adding a small amount of Melanoidin malt instead – as it simulates the flavor.
Continental hops are traditionally used with rye beers. Popular varieties include Hallertauer, Saaz, Tettnang, and other noble and semi-noble hops. Hop levels are low, so finishing and dry hops are not often used.
Bavarian Weizen or Hefeweizen yeasts are used in this style to produce a distinctive clove and banana flavor. The beer is often fermented at a slightly low fermentation temperature to help emphasize the clove flavor and also prevent the formation of esters (fruity flavor). The finished beer is served highly carbonated and chilled, and may be served either with yeast like a Hefeweizen or without like a traditional Weizen.
Rye Beer Recipes
Our new recipe site at BeerSmithRecipes.com has a ton of rye recipes listed now – and you can refine the search here to find the top rated ryes and also search by recipe type:
Thank you for joining me this week on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. I hope you enjoyed this week’s article and will consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter to get more articles, or listening to my podcast on iTunes.
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