“Necessity is the mother of invention,” we’re told. True, true. Sometimes, though, kitsch makes a pretty good case for invention-spawning as well. It was a crisp fall day, not unlike this one, and I was sitting down to plan out beers to brew for the upcoming Christmas parties that my wife and I host at our house.
Attendees include both beer novices and beer nerds, so I try to come up with interesting beers that aren’t too aggressive (I put those in bottles rather than on the taps). On this particular blustery day, I thought, “well, how about a ‘red’ beer, you know, for the holidays?” Kitschy, yes, but it seemed appropriate. After that, alliteration and beer ingredients took over, and I was working up a recipe for Rudolph’s Reindeer Red Rye (RRRR, or Four-R). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also working up a recipe for a solid Alternative Grain Beer.
Alternative Grain Beers are a new addition to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and while I’m ambivalent about the necessity of quite so many separate “specialty” categories I think this one is a good call. Changing out base grains for something other than barley can and does create genuinely new takes on existing styles, and the subtlety of those changes make putting them in a different category appropriate because otherwise the adjustments might be overlooked. The guidelines specify a beer that’s “enhanced by or featuring” the alternative grain.
They also explicitly state that the alternative grain should be especially noticeable in the aroma. Making an American Pale Ale with a ton of maltiness in the aroma feels inappropriate, but it’s absolutely in-line with American Amber. So, RRRR really works with that as a base style (note: if entering in competition, you do need to indicate a base style, as well as identify the alternative grain used!).
American Ambers are characterized by a significant amount of malt flavor in the presence of significant hops flavor but not significant hops aroma. Sounds right up our alley! Some tweaks to my standard American Amber recipe, and we’ll be in good shape.
This is based on my NHC-Final-Round-bound Iron Dice Amber, but some modification will help us bring out the rye character.
Obviously, we’re adjusting the base grist to incorporate a significant chunk of rye malt – six pounds (2.7kg) of it, in fact. To that we add four pounds (1.8kg) of Maris Otter and two pounds (0.9kg) of Munich, both of which impart some richness and bread that will complement and bulk up the lightly-spicy and bready rye malt flavors. Finally, round out the grist with a half-pound (0.23kg) each of Caramunich, British Crystal 45L, and Briess Extra Special Roast. The Cara and the Crystal are mainly for their toast and caramel flavor contributions, but the Extra Special Roast is the secret ingredient here: just as it does in Iron Dice, it adds a dry-leaves, light-spice, camping-in-the-woods flavor that is absolutely perfect as an augmenting characteristic to our rye malt. Our final color should be a nice, rich amber, approaching red.
Hopping changes up a bit, too, in that we’re moving away from aroma hops and focusing on flavor hops. That flavor matters, too, because we want something spicy and woodsy. If ever there was a time for Northern Brewer, this is it! Add 25 IBUs of anything, then dose with one ounce (28g) of Northern Brewer at 20 minutes and another ounce at 10 minutes. The spice is nice, but most of it will be in the flavor rather than the aroma, and even if some bleeds through it’s “rye-evocative.” Northern Brewer can also feature some pine and citrus “American” hops character, so you’re stylistically consistent.
Finally, on yeast, there’s no reason to move away from the Wyeast 1007 German Ale.
Mash as usual, and if you’re not a brew-in-a-bag type you should seriously think about adding a pound of rice hulls to the mash – this is no time for a stuck mash, and rye can create problems in that area. Boil, chill, pitch, and then ferment at 65F (18C) for about a week. At that point, go ahead and let it free-rise to anything around 68F (20C) or a couple of degrees higher for another week. At that point, you should be fully attenuated and can cold-crash and package to about 2.5 volumes of CO2 (a little carbonic acid bite is good for this recipe).
Those doing the math at home might also notice that the OG on this beer is a little higher than my usual for American Ales (it should yield about 6.4 percent ABV). This is deliberate. A bit of alcohol warmth and spice/perfume is one more flavor “echo” of the rye we want people to notice. Alternative grain beers don’t need to be excessively complicated or weird to be successful – this recipe (and others in the category) show how base grains can make a significant difference in flavor and improve upon the standard barley-based approaches. Enjoy, especially if you’re making this for the holidays!