Tim Prendergast is a Certified Cicerone® and the Assistant Beer Director and Cellarman at Meridian Pint. Read Tim’s previous column on session beer here.
“(Rye) is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation”
-Pliny The Elder
Pliny the Elder was a 1st century Roman historian who is sometimes credited with the first written mention of hops. His name also graces the label of one of the most highly sought after IPA’s in all of the world. His name has gravitas in the beer world. Unfortunately, I will have to disagree with him about rye and I’ll take the majority of this space to do so. But before I get to rye and beer, I’d like to steer this weeks’ column towards bread, specifically the king of breads, rye bread.
As far as I’m concerned, nothing comes close to rye bread. Where white bread or wheat bread is simply a vehicle to keep your hands from getting mayo on them, rye bread becomes a memorable part of the sandwich. When it comes to the best sandwiches on the face of the earth nothing beats a corned beef or pastrami on rye. In fact, there is no such thing as a corned beef or pastrami sandwich if they aren’t followed by the words “on rye”. Don’t believe me? Go watch Annie Hall. A pastrami on white can help end a relationship.
Why all the rye love? I’m espousing my love for rye because I recently realized that it’s not just the bread that I love. It’s the grain itself. My most recent affection for rye has manifested itself as love for rye whiskey. Rye whiskey, once the dominant whiskey of the colonies, has enjoyed a huge resurgence in recent years. I recently enjoyed a Rendezvous Rye from High West Distillery that floored me. It had a pronounced citrus and lemon character that made me rethink the flavors that I thought possible in whiskey.
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Now, to the beer. Finally. As you probably know, the majority of the grain that goes into making beer is barley. Barley is the ideal brewing grain for many reasons but chiefly because it makes good tasting beer, it’s easy to brew with, and it’s high yield makes it a profitable crop. In our globalized world it is easy to source barley from many countries around the world and have it shipped to your door in a few days. Obviously, this was not always the case. Before large scale industrialization farmhouse brewers would brew with whatever grain was locally available. These beers were usually a mashup of grains that were would often include, spelt, oats, wheat, and of course rye. Brewers in cooler northern climates could grow barley but it did not always thrive, in these areas the climate was better suited for growing rye. This led brewers in Northern Europe to often brew with rye. These beers brewed with rye were certainly a reflection of seasonality and likely very tasty but there was a problem, It’s hard to brew with rye. Rye can make beer thick and goopy and messy in the production process. As agriculture industrialized and barley became readily available brewers largely abandoned rye because of it’s propensity to muck up the brewing process.
What does a beer brewed with rye taste like? In beer rye is known for lending a signature spicy character as well as contributing a full-bodied mouthfeel that is often described as creamy or slick. Words on a page not good enough for you? Want to taste it for yourself? You’re in good luck. 3 Stars Brewing Co. here in D.C. and Oliver Ales in Baltimore have teamed up to produce a series of beers featuring my favorite of grains, rye. The project which seeks to explore the flavor profile of rye in a variety of styles of beer is called “B.W. Rye”, a play on the Baltimore Washington Parkway that connects the home cities of both breweries. The first fruit of the collaboration dubbed “BW Rye #1” was released during DC Beer Week back in August. The beer was a rye pale ale that showcased the spicy character of rye and blended it perfectly with a bold citrus flavor and aggressive bitterness imparted by American hop varities.
Now the project is on to its second phase. This week saw the release of B.W. Rye #2, an 8% well hopped porter that juxtaposes the spiciness of rye with a deep roasted malt character. I’ve been excited about the release of this beer since I first heard it was being brewed, and now I’m even more excited to taste it.
BW Rye #2 has a heady aroma that is a mix of roasted coffee, espresso and dark chocolate. There’s also a big fruit character on the nose that’s a complex interplay of Fuggle hops, a classic English variety prized for it’s fruity character, and a lemon-candy like aroma of rye. The more I smell it, the more appealing it is. I could smell this beer for 20 minutes and be satisfied enough to not even have to drink it. Fortunately, I get to drink it as well.
At first sip, the body of the beer is the most striking thing. On the tongue the beer feels luscious and velvety without being overly rich. This is a characteristic of rye that I love, it feels luxurious but isn’t too rich or palate fatiguing to prevent you from wanting multiple pints. The flavor also mimics the nose, it is dominated by an interplay of roast and chocolate that brings to mind those chocolate covered espresso beans. The roast is followed by that classic fruity english hop character, and lots of it. As the hop flavor slowly fades it is met with a slight citrus character from the rye.
This is where the beer gets truly beautiful. Remember the classic rye spiciness I talked about? That citrusy rye character starts to slowly transition into the enticing spiciness that is the hallmark of rye and then that rye spiciness blends perfectly and seamlessly into a racy but pleasant hop bitterness. The aftertaste lingers forever and keeps you guessing whether it’s hop bitterness or rye that lingers on your tongue. This beer is the real deal and an excellent showcase for what rye can do in a beer. If you can find any in the area, go get some. I want another right now, unfortunately I don’t have any. A corned beef on rye will have to do…