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Brewing a 100% Rye Beer

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by Lynn Ashley

About three years ago I was exploring some of the ways by which red beers got their color.  I referred to the Homebrew Digest archive and ran across a claim that rye imparted a deep red color and some counter claims that it did not.  Having always enjoyed rye whiskey, however, I became interested in rye in beer for its own sake, independent of any possible color contribution.

Searching the internet and other sources I quickly learned that there was not much information available on using rye in beer.  The few references which I did find all stated that the higher the percentage of rye in the mash, the more difficult it was to lauter.  Though I don't recall anyone stating that a 100% rye beer was impossible, the implication was clear.

My first use of rye was in April 1996, 25% (wt) rye flakes.  It was the worst multiple stuck sparge I ever had.

Figuring that those slimy flakes were partly the culprit, I started looking around for malted rye.  Lautering concerns also led me to examine wheat which is also know to be difficult to lauter.  In October 1996 I brewed a beer with 56% (wt) rye malt. Based on some information in Eric Warner's book, German Wheat Beer, I did a triple decoction. The wort lautered normally.

This success perked my interest in making a 100% rye.  After some procrastination and additional research I began in August 1997.  I purchased a 50 lb bag of BRIESS Rye Malt. Based on my research, I developed a three fold strategy for insuring that the wort would lauter -

  1. a long protein rest: 80 minutes at 122F,

  2. a triple decoction and

  3. 1 lb of rice hulls for lautering: 2/3 in the mash and 1/3 over the lauter tun's false bottom (10 lb rye malt).

Unfortunately, I could not find if rye malt had sufficient enzymes to accomplish sacharification on its own.  I assumed it did and proceeded anyway.  With no sacharification rest of the decoctions and a 150F, two hour, sacharification rest of the main mash, my extraction was 26 pt/lb/gal.  Sparge water was adjusted with phosphoric acid to 5.5 pH and heated to 170F.  Although slightly slower that normal, the sparged wort ran continuously.  After the boil, however, a minor problem arose which I did not anticipate.  The wort became very viscous as it went through the counter-flow chiller.  Siphoning the 5.8 gallons of boiled wort took almost an hour.  Although only 1.044 gravity, the wort was like syrup, almost dripping into the fermentation bucket.  Fortunately, fermentation somewhat nullified the syrupy effect, but the finished beer still had a slight viscous quality.

In designing the 100% rye recipe, I attempted to use a hop level and a yeast which would not mask the characteristics of the rye: ~20 IBU of Northern Brewer and Tettnaag hops and Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast.

Many of you had an opportunity to sample this beer at several BURP meetings.  It won 1st place in BURP's Weird Beer club competition in October 1997.  Following are some observations of some fellow BURPers and myself.

  • After a year in a refrigerated keg, the beer was still slightly cloudy. No finings were used.

  • Pale wheat color, with a very slight copper tint.  Even despite a triple decoction, the beer was in no way red, let alone deep red.  Decoction seemed to have less effect on color than with barley and wheat mashes.

  • The beer was surprisingly like a regular (barley malt) pale ale but it possessed subtle qualities which seemed to confuse the unsuspecting.

  • Slightly sharp aroma.

  • A medium-light body was masked by a slight viscous quality.

  • The rye flavor was more subtle than expected.

  • Generally it was judged to be quite drinkable, even refreshing, with a dry, almost tannic, finish.  Mouthfeel was sometimes judged to be a bit "numbing".   One woman said it "kind of left my tongue furry".

On hearing that the beer was 100% rye, a National Beer Judge gave me a blank stare and asked, "Why?"   Well, I guess like Adjunct Boy, I just don't want to be a style slave.