These days, rye whiskey can do no wrong. Though it was once forsaken, bartenders and drinkers have begun rediscovering this classic American spirit that’s by turns spicy and crisp, with a dryness that sets it leagues apart from sweet, corn-fueled bourbon.
But rye is not a monogamous grain, only married to whiskey making. Lately, it’s become a preferred tool in the craft beer brewers’ cabinet of ingredients. When incorporated into a recipe, rye can add sharpness, complexity, subtle spiciness, and dryness to beer styles ranging from dark porters to pale ales, bitter IPAs, aromatic witbiers, sparkling pilsners, and just about any other style that catches a brewer’s fancy.
Unique styles notwithstanding, rye rarely dominates the grain bill. Instead, barley malts prevail over the brew kettle. This is largely due to an idiosyncrasy of evolution: Barley contains husks, which help keep the mash (the grains steeped in boiling water) loose and allow the drainage of the wort, the sugar-rich broth that yeasts eat to create beer. Conversely, rye lacks husks and has a spongelike ability to sop up water. Complicating the situation, too much rye creates a sticky mash that’s about as pliable as concrete. To avoid that, brewers can add enzymes or rice hulls, which make for a fluffy mash without impacting flavor. The process may be a pain, but there’s payoff in the flavor.
A bit of rye is ideal in a pale ale such as Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale or Oakshire Brewing’s Line Dry Rye, in which the grain imparts crispness and complexity. Rye is also great in IPAs, lending a lovely spiciness that’s well matched to the bitterness and aromatics of Harpoon Brewery’s Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA, Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye IPA, and Sweet-Water Brewing’s LowRYEder IPA, which is made with 25 percent rye and citrusy Centennial hops. When used in rich, chocolaty stouts and porters, such as Bell’s Rye Stout and Yazoo Brewing’s Sly Rye Porter, rye adds an appealing earthiness and drying finish that’ll leave you lunging for another luscious sip.
When it comes to pairing rye beers with cheese, it’s important to consider the beer style. For assertive IPAs, a mild cheese will easily be overwhelmed. Instead, look to a brawny blue, such as Caves of Faribault’s Amablu, BelGioioso’s Crumbly Gorgonzola or a bloomy-rinded camembert such as Haystack Mountain Camembert. For a hop-forward rye pale ale, your best bet might be a sharp cheddar, such as DCI Cheese Company’s Black Diamond; however, if the hops are dialed down, you might want to turn your attention to a havarti, a Muenster, or maybe a young gouda, such as Willamette Valley Cheese Company’s Farmstead Gouda. And for a stout or a porter, you’ll want to play off the roasty flavors of coffee and chocolate. Foolproof choices include nutty alpine-style cheeses, such as Beaufort or Challerhocker. As with most beer and cheese matchups, let the style of brewing lead your choice, and you won’t be going against the grain.
Five to Try
Terrapin Beer Rye Pale Ale
Rye is essential to the Georgia brewery’s flagship beer, which has converted countless Southerners into craft beer drinkers. The honey-orange ale offers an aroma of citrus and toasted malts, with a floral, herbal bitterness that’s tempered by sweet malt and a smidgen of spiciness.
Bear Republic Brewing Company Hop Rod Rye
Open Hop Rod and prepare to take a brashly bitter hike across a sweet and sticky amber landscape, leading to an earthy, peppery flavor trail. The aroma is unrepentantly hoppy, with a floral bouquet that’s blended with citrus and pine.
Yazoo Brewing Company Sly Rye Porter
Take a ride on rye’s dark side with this Nashville-brewed, British-style porter made with England’s Maris Otter malts. The rich brew smells of chocolate and caramel and features flavors of dark fruit and sweet roasted malts. The rye shines at the spicy, dry finish.
Harpoon Brewery Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA
Originally a one-off, this rye IPA was so well received that Harpoon put it into yearround rotation. The hazy ale is made with heaps of hops, resulting in a fruity, citrusy scent that’s married to flavors of caramel and nice, spicy bite of rye.
O’Fallon Brewery Hemp Hop Rye Amber Ale
The Missouri brewery dug deep into its bag of brewing tricks when concocting this flavorful curiosity, which is made with nutty hemp seeds and two kinds of rye. The result is a smooth, ruby-hued revelation with a touch of citrus and a spicy undercurrent.