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Friday, August 06, 2010

Summer's Perfect Beer: Rye Pale Ales

Rye is a weed. Or was, anyway, 3,500 years ago, when it infested the wheat and barley fields of Southern Asia. As a consequence, it co-evolved with these other grains long before it was accepted in its own right. Its heyday as a bread, according to Stan Hieronymus' Brewing With Wheat, was the middle ages before dying off in the time of Victoria. It remained only in certain precincts where people were made stupid and dull by its hearty density, so said snotty wheat-eaters. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder--the possibly apocryphal discoverer of hops--sneered at rye, saying it was "a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation."

In beer, rye has mainly been yoked to darker beers, to spice them and make them hearty. But counter-intuitively, certain breweries also put them in pale ales, and the result is a spicy, dry, quenching beer perfect for a summer day. In the Northwest, the first credit for the style probably goes to Redhook, which brewed a light rye ale more than 15 years ago. It didn't sell well and died out. (Revived for one season a few years ago and then killed off again.) This summer, I note that at least three versions were available: Oakshire Line Dry Rye, Laurelwood Wry, and Three Creeks Stonefly (a regular in their line-up). It could be that these are also flash in the pans, or that we're seeing the shoots of a new fixture in Beervana. I hope it's the latter, because the style is absolutely perfect on a hot day.

Three Creeks Stonefly Rye
The difficulty with rye is that it's a husky, ornery grain, and has been the ruin of many a young beer. Fleming Threee Creeks wisely pairs it with wheat here--they actually seasons a wheat beer with rye--and the result is a light, refreshing beer with a lively, spicy note. I found bright and tart notes (lemongrass?) but the beer wasn't aggressive or grinding--as it can be if you extract too many tannins from the rye. Of the Three Creeks beers I've tried, this is the most accomplished and also my fave. (4.6%, 28 IBUs) [Note: I just pasted this description in from my earlier review, failing to catch the bit about Dave Fleming, the founding brewer at Three Creeks who has since left. A sharp-eyed reader emailed to point this out.]

Oakshire Line Dry Rye
Oakshire substitutes honey for Three Creek's wheat. Poured very cold, the spice of the rye and the resin of the hops create a slightly aggressive flavor that seems at turns soapy or piney. But with a bit of warmth, the honey sweetness emerges, and the honey seems to provide a voluptuous creaminess that offsets the sharper notes nicely. I am re-painting my house, and after a few hours of scraping and sanding, I poured this out last night and was so happy to have a refreshing, light beer to slake my thirst. (5.5% 35 IBUs)

Laurelwood Wry Ale
My favorite rye ale comes from Laurelwood, though there may not be any left. This year's batch was on tap only briefly at the brewery, but they did bottle some, too--but you can bookmark it for next year. A drier beer than the first two, the spiciest, and most astringent. Rather than balancing it with wheat or honey, Laurelwood goes with Cascade and Amarillo hops; their citrus marries perfectly with the spice. As you can see from the picture, there's an indelible image on the label. I always forget what the actual name is; to me, it's always Hayseed Rye. (5.6% 40 IBUs)

A bit of summer yet remains. Go forth and have a rye.


  1. I agree with your characterization of the two I have had: Line Dry and Laurelwood's Wry.

    But for my palate, Oakshires excessive creaminess is a turnoff - especially on a hot day when I like crisp dry beers. It is a finely crafted beer, it just doesn't hit my sweetspot.

    I love the Laurelwood rye for precisely this reason. But I imagine many people feeling precisely the opposite- which is why it is great to have so much variety here in Beervana.

    The two are really studies in contrasts and neat examples of the brewer's art.

    My two cents.

  2. Vertigo made a really nice rye beer as well. Clean, crisp, and dry.

  3. A pleasant find in the SE USofA is Rye Pale Ale [35 IBUs/5.5% ABV] from Terrapin Beer Co., Athen, Ga.

    Terrapin's website reports it won the American Pale Ale Gold Medal at 2002 GABF; further, reports it is made with five varieties of hops and a generous amount of specialty malts.

    I am not capable of comparing / contrasting it character to those in your blog; but, I will send you a couple in the winter.