You know what you almost never see on tap? German rye beer, also known as Roggenbier. It’s a real shame because beers made with rye have some of the most interesting and enjoyable spicy flavors out there, and they make for great, light-ish winter drinking options for those who just can’t wait for the Hefeweizen to come back around again in warmer weather. If you’re lucky, you can find something like Hoss from Great Divide (Denver, Colorado)—and if you’re not (okay, maybe even if you are), you should simply make your own.
Roggenbier is, in many ways, a simple beer: it’s principally a variation on the Weizen theme but instead of wheat uses rye, which adds more spice and less bread to the flavor profile. There’s some overlap in terms of the grist and the yield on esters and phenols (at least if you use a Weizen yeast—but as you’ll see below, it isn’t a requirement), but this beer deserves an identity of its own. The conventional style wisdom is that it should be a relatively simple and low-key beer—a Dunkelweizen with rye instead of wheat with a bit more heft, relying mostly on the yeast to provide interest, and using the rye simply as an accent flavor.
This is one of the times, though, when I’m going to go ahead and differ with the style mavens and recommend that you go rogue with it. This is a historic beer style that’s open to a great deal of interpretation, and my goal with it is to create the best showcase possible for the rye rather than play it safe. The recipe below can be split and tweaked on the cold side to create an interesting lager-yeasted “drinking” batch and a strait-laced Dunkelweizen-esque “competition” batch—you can modify it to suit how you’d like to use it. But for the record: it was the interesting version that yielded me my second-highest-ever score in competition (45/50) rather than the traditional version. So...
Obviously, we’ll need some rye to start with. Fifty percent should do it, or about 7 lb (3.2 kg). For the balance of your base malts, I like a 50/50 blend of Munich and Maris Otter to accentuate the biscuit flavors in the background—use about 3 lb (1.4 kg) of each. Now for the character malts. The goal is to add some dark stone fruit and caramel flavors: I like 6 oz (170 g) each of Caramunich, Carafa I, and Crystal 120 (or, if it’s available at your local shop, Simpsons DRC). Throw a 1 lb (454 g) bag of rice hulls into the cart, too—you’re going to want them later. You should end up with an OG of about 1.060.
Hopping should aim to maximize on spice with a touch of herbal/earthy flavor, and for my money, not many do that better than Styrian Goldings. One ounce (28 g) at the top of the boil should yield you about 20 IBUs (adjust for your specific gravity and AA%), and I’d add another ounce (28 g) with about 10 minutes to go (which will add a few negligible IBUs, but a significant shot of spice character).
Now…yeast. If you’re playing it safe, then go with the White Labs Hefeweizen yeast (WLP300). If you’re committing to the malt-lovers’ side of things and going for broke, you’ll want Wyeast 2206 (Bavarian Lager). As I said, though, there’s nothing stopping you from splitting the batch and using both. I suspect that you’ll only ever do so once—people seem to naturally prefer one or the other.
Remember those rice hulls? You’ll want them in the mash (about 1 lb/454 g). Rye has a reputation for creating a gummy mash, and the rice hulls will help prevent stuck sparges and let you get your wort out with a minimum of trouble. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve forgotten the rice hulls and still had no issues lautering or sparging, but better to be safe than sorry, and they do no harm! Otherwise, this is a standard mash, 152°F (76°C) (or whatever your normal mash temperature is). Drain your tun, boil as usual, chill as usual, and pitch your yeast(s) as usual.
If you’re using the Hefe yeast, don’t go wild with the temperature: you want about half the ester/phenol intensity you’re looking for in a Weizen and more clove than banana/bubblegum. Ferment on the cool side, about 63°F (17°C), and hold there for the first 4−5 days of fermentation before allowing it to free rise and complete fermentation.
If you’re using the lager yeast, ferment at about 51°F (11°C) and give it some time: say, about 2 weeks to complete primary fermentation, with temperatures staying steady for the first week and then rising slowly after that (about a degree/day). You may get a touch of sulfur, but the one time that happened to me, it didn’t seem like much of a detriment to the overall flavor!
In both cases, though, carbonate relatively high—2.5 volumes of CO2 should do it, but you could go as high as 3. You can drink it as soon as it carbonates, even the lager, and while it ages well, there’s no need to do so. My 45-pointer was about nine months old at the time.
My version of this beer goes by the name JDS Rye, in honor of Mr. Jerome D. Salinger, author of…Catcher in the Rye! I know it’s a pun, but I came by it honestly: we attended the same boarding school. I hope Sonny (his childhood nickname) would be a fan of this one—the rye adds a great rustic, earthy quality to the beer while the crystal malts impart some great plum and toast notes, all of which set up well against the spice from the hops. It makes for a wonderful flavor profile, especially for the late winter months, and if you brew it around Thanksgiving or so you’ll be ready to drink it just after the new year.