The vast majority of beer is made with one grain. You'll find barley in nearly 98 percent of all beer made. Wheat is second, but even in most wheat beers, the grain bill -- the mix of different malts in a beer recipe -- is half wheat and half barley.
Wheat accounts for just 1 to 2 percent overall, according to Paul Schwarz, director of the Institute of Barley and Malt Sciences in Fargo, N.D., and rye even less -- perhaps as little as a tenth of 1 percent. But lately, rye has cropped up in a growing number of craft beers, especially in pale ales and IPAs.
Like barley, rye is a cereal grass, grown as a grain and used as a forage crop. Rye originally grew wild in the area that we know now as Turkey. Domestication began during the Neolithic era, about 10,200 B.C.
You only need a small amount of rye malt to greatly affect the taste of the beer. Its flavor is the most assertive of all brewing grains. It also imparts a distinctive spiciness and gives the beer a tartness that's similar to hopping, but tart and dry. Personally, I love the certain something -- that added oomph -- that rye brings to the beer.
Rye was not an uncommon ingredient in Bavaria before the 15th century. Its use was restricted -- and the restriction was made part of the law under the Reinheitsgebot, a beer purity law, in 1516 -- so they would have enough grain to keep making rye bread.
Roggenbiers now are being made both in Germany and here, although there are not many. Gordon Biersch makes one occasionally for its brewpubs. Bear Republic makes a draft-only version, and New Bavaria is a roggenbier made year-round by Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. Rogue bottles its version as Roguenbier Rye Ale, and a few German imports can be found at well-stocked beer stores.
The first rye beer I can recall from the modern microbrewery era was brewed in San Mateo at the long-gone Hops and Barley brewpub. Brewer R.J. Trent, a good friend of mine, says he didn't know of any other rye beer when he made what was essentially a rye pale ale.
It was 1994, and he was picking up specialty malt from his San Leandro supplier when he noticed some pallets of rye malt, earmarked for Anchor Brewery, undoubtedly destined for whiskey. At the time, no one yet knew about Anchor's plans to make its Old Potrero rye
Bear Republic's Hop Rod Rye, for example, was inspired by Trent's efforts; while others fell by the wayside, Bear Republic has continue to bottle it, and Hop Rod Rye deservedly has become one of its most popular beers.
Modern rye beers
We're now seeing a resurgence of rye in beers. Hundreds are being made, and the list of local brewers includes Speakeasy, Marin Brewing, Iron Springs, Lagunitas, Triple Rock, Sonoma Springs, Palo Alto Brewing, FiftyFifty, Magnolia and 21st Amendment.
Three really good ones to watch for include Heretic Gramarye, Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye and the new Mavericks Rye Pale Ale.
Gramarye is a rye session pale ale. It's fairly low in alcohol -- 4.4 percent alcohol by volume, or abv -- but it's loaded with flavor. The rye adds a touch of magic, which makes perfect sense, since the name gives a nod to grimoire, a book of magic. With grapefruit and other citrus aromas, the rye malt gives a breadlike taste and character to the flavor profile, which is well-conditioned and hits all the right notes.
Sierra Nevada's Ruthless Rye IPA also makes good use of the spiciness in the rye to spruce up an IPA with some great aromas and flavors that run the gamut from herbal to fruity, black pepper and other tart notes.
The newest rye beer may well be Mavericks Rye Pale Ale. Mavericks is a new beer label of session beers -- meaning low alcohol, but full-flavored -- from Half Moon Bay Brewing. Working with Pete Slosberg, the founder of Pete's Wicked Ales, they're launching a line of session beers in cans. Draft versions of the beer are being released this week, and the cans will hit stores in April.
One of these is Back in the Saddle Rye Pale Ale, a beer that's only 3.75 percent abv, but it doesn't sacrifice flavor, thanks to the addition of rye. Its strong presence creates bigger flavors in the session beer.
Bottom line: If you want a beer that's a little to the left of ordinary, try a beer brewed with rye -- perhaps with your next Reuben sandwich.