Homebrewing With Rye: What and What Not To Do


As many of you may or may not know, I’ve had a long and not so sorted love affair with rye.  It started with Rye IPA’s and grew into anything-with-rye beers, and well into Rye Whiskey from there.  I love the sweet, vaguely spicy and slightly vegetal flavor, and I REALLY love the way it tastes and interacts with oak aging.

So, naturally, as beermakers and general fermentation enthusiasts, making a beer out of 100% rye absolutely HAD to happen.  This is something that we’ve been kicking around for years, but we always thought that it would be hard to balance and even harder to actually do (this second part is so very, very true!). 

With all of the newer types of specialty rye available, the balance issue is quite a bit easier.  We decided that an amber-ish rye beer would be fun and easy enough to make, and we could make it hop-light and really push the full on rye characteristics out.  Add a Kveik Voss yeast strain given to us by a customer to try, and I’m pretty sure, with some process improvements, that this recipe will go down in history for us! 

Robobrew sitting happily at Beta-Glucanase Rest

Science the $&#@ Out of It!

Historically, the highest percentage rye beers have been made by the German brewers in the form of roggenbier, and even more rye, up to 100%, has been used regularly by distillers to make the incredible American Rye Whiskeys that we all know and love.  But if you’ve ever tried homebrewing a roggenbier, it’s freaking hard! It seems like the rye turns to jelly as soon as it hits the mash, but there’s good science for this, and good science for fixing this and the effects of beta glucans!

Rye is naturally high in betaglucans, a polysaccharide that amylase can’t break down.  This group of polysaccharides actually has their own enzyme that breaks them down called betaglucanase, and to make a rye beer, you need to activate this first.  Most base malt barley varieties have this enzyme potential locked inside them as well, which is partly why roggenbiers, at an average of 60% rye, even work.

The only problem is that rye doesn’t have a huge amount of this enzyme on it’s own, so even at a betaglucanase rest in the step mash (ideal temp is 113° F), it comes up lacking.  After this last experiment (bear with me, the pain is coming!), we found that a little American 2 Row (in the neighborhood of 10-15%) or other medium to high diastatic base malt will make all the difference.  If you’re dedicated to doing a S.M.A.S.H., as we were, then you’ll need to supplement the enzyme with other means, such as White Labs Clarity Ferm.  Either of these methods will give you plenty of enzyme and make the 20 minute betaglucanase rest actually work.

To add insult to injury, rye is also a grain that doesn’t have a husk.  This makes it super appealing if you’re using chocolate rye, as it’s just like midnight wheat or carafa special and gives a significant boost to flavor and color without the tannic and astringent characteristics.  What it doesn’t help is the sparging process, specifically the part where it makes a wicked stuck sparge, despite the betaglucanase enzyme helping with the jelly part.  This is where rice hulls come in, just as in high percentage wheat recipes.  With this kind of beer, though, the rice hulls need to go in at almost 1 pound per 1 pound of rye.  We did 2 pounds in 14 pounds of rye, and it was almost as if they weren’t there! Word to the wise: lots and lots and lots of rice hulls in the mash tun!

Doughing in with WAY too much rye

The Painful Process Part

So for this brew, we doughed in at around 116° F to start our step mash at 113° F.  By the book, this rest should be 20 minutes long. We wanted to test how much enzyme we could actually pull from rye alone.  That being said, this turned into a three and a half hour mash and sparge where we created an immediately stuck mash! So step 1:  Don’t do that! If you’re going to attempt to make this kind of magic, double up on the enzyme with some Clarity Ferm or other betaglucanase enzyme and save yourself the trouble!

Attempting to Sparge Soup

Using the Robobrew, you can program up to six mash steps, so naturally we decided to program 20 minutes at 113° F, 40 minutes at 151° F, then 10 minutes at 168° F just to makes the sparge easier.  What it really turned into was over an hour at 113° F, then another at 151°, then another solid hour literally squeezing the sparge water through the awesome mash jelly that we just spent two hours creating!  We seriously considered using the wine press. While this was a wonderful learning experience, we’ll go at it with some more enzymatic power and about seven times as many rice hulls on the next one!

Whirlpool Hops 2 oz Czech Saaz

Proper Hopping

As I said before, we wanted something clean, not an IPA, but a malt forward, easy drinking beer that tasted like a rye bomb.  We decided to continue with our recent theme of using CO2 Hop Extract to bitter to around 30 IBU’s, clean and crisp and balanced.  To top it off, we thought we’d play off of the naturally and slightly spicy characteristics of rye itself by whirlpool hopping and dry hopping with Czech Saaz.  This was just a hunch, but it seemed to pan out, as very few hops are as delicious as Saaz in the dry hop, as evidenced by our Whole Truth Pale Ale.  The Saaz, so far, seems to be a perfect balance.

Kveik Voss at 80 degrees and loving it

Kveik ‘Voss’

These recently famous Kveik yeast strains seem to be pretty incredible, and don’t worry, we’ll do a full write up on them soon!  We’ve been begging Imperial Yeast to bring on their seasonal ‘Voss’ strain, Loki, as a year round strain, so hopefully we’ll see an easy to acquire, lab grade version in the near future.  For this batch, one of our regular customers who has been playing around with the ‘Voss’ strain brought us a freshly cropped mason full of it, so we decided not to let it go to waste.  With this yeast strain, you can ferment at 80° and get a clean, lager-like character with hints of citrus, and this is exactly what happened, although it didn’t quite dry out as much as we thought, only going down to 1.020.  We were expecting a bit more, but at least now we’ll have a better idea on how to plan and balance the next beer with this strain!

Drying out to 1.020

The End Product

Despite all of the pain, we did end up with a delicious and drinkable beer.  Yes, it’s quite viscous, because of higer than desired amounts of beta glucans, but as soon as it’s fully carbed and cleared, it’s going to be a great, easy drinking rye bomb.  The citrus quality of the ‘Voss’ adds a great counter-point to the malty, slightly spicy and toffee characters of the different rye malts.

For the next round, we’ll probably add in 10% - 20% American pale ale malt, munich malt, or even some vienna malt or maris otter, something to bump up the enzyme load and help with both betaglucan and regular sugar conversion.  Very soon you will see the updated version in a kit, but for the brave, this recipe is listed below!

Rye-Licious (aka Brave Heart Rye)

Estimated OG - 1.068

Estimated FG - 1.013

Actual OG after our $%&@-show of a mash process:  1.060

Actual FG - 1.020

Do yourself a favor if you’re going to brew this recipe and grab a vial of Clarity Ferm to toss in during your 113° Beta Glucan rest!  It will definitely change your world!

Thank you all for reading!  Try brewing this madness yourself, and let us know how it went for you, and your process!  Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and make sure you subscribe to our awesome YouTube Channel, BrewChatter TV!  Brew on!!
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