Tips for Brewing with Rye

by Ryan Murphy | Last Updated: April 4, 2011

Typically seen in commercial brewing as Rye Pale Ales (Founder’s Red Rye Ale or Terrapin Rye Pale Ale), rye is a versatile ingredient that can add an additional level of complexity to almost any style.

Rye may be my second favorite ingredient to brew with (Brown Malt takes the top spot). Here’s our own How To Brew a Rye IPA recipe.

Brewing with rye can be tricky proposition though, especially when the proportion of rye in the mash increases above about 15% of the total malt bill. To date, I have brewed quite a few rye beers, including a RoggenBock (55% rye), a 100% Rye Mash Ale, and a Rye ESB (10% Rye).

Here  are some of the takeaways that I have learned that should help you tame this ingredient. The top few tips deal mostly with beers that will have between 5-15% of the malt bill be rye, I will include a couple high proportion (greater than 50%!) tips at the end of the post.

  • Recipe Design – Rye will give a spicy flavor to the beer and give the beer a drier mouthfeel than your final gravity may indicate. Keep this in mind when converting recipes to include rye. Also keep in mind that the lighter flavored the beer, the more potent the effects the rye will have on the beer.
  • Rice Hulls – Use them, even if you are only using a small proportion of rye in the beer. Rye does not have a husk and at mash temperatures becomes very sticky. This can lead you to very slow lauter times and even stuck mashes! Rice hulls will help replace the husks missing from the barley that would have been used in the mash instead of rye. In small proportions this is not typically necessary, but an ounce of prevention is much better than the headache that is a stuck mash.
  • Milling Rye – Even though rye malt does not have a husk it does need to be milled before mashing. Rye malt is smaller than barley malt and you will need to tighten the gap on your mill. Generally what I do is mill all of my barley first and then tighten the mill down about an 1/8th of a turn (BarleyCrusher mill) and mill any rye malt second.

When brewing in small proportions that is all you really need to keep in mind when brewing with rye. For the most part, any malt bill with less than 15% rye can be brewed with minimal deviation from your normal brewing procedures. If you are brewing a beer with more than 15% rye, extra steps should be taken to ensure a smooth brewday. The importance of these tips increase as the amount of rye you are using increases.

  • Multi-Step Mash – The outer “shell” of the rye malt is extremely high in beta-glucans. Long story short, at saccharification temperatures (140-160°F) those beta-glucans become very sticky. This combined with the huskless nature of rye leads to many of the stuck mashes when brewing rye beers. In order to combat the sticky nature of beta-glucans when brewing with rye, a step mash (multiple infusion or decoction) can be employed. A Beta-Glucanase rest at 110F for about 30 minutes will help improve your lauter and prevent a stuck mash.
  • Sparge Slow – The higher the proportion of rye, the thicker the resulting wort will be. The wort from my 100% Rye Ale was the thickness of a thin syrup. This will greatly increase sparge times, so be prepared. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done about this except open another beer.

Those are some of the things that I have learned while brewing my various rye beers. Rye is a wonderful ingredient that can take an ordinary beer to a different level and I encourage everyone to give it try sometime. Does anyone else have any good experiences/suggestions for brewing with rye?

Ryan has been homebrewing for just shy of 2 years and is in the planning process of starting a nanobrewery. A native of the northern IL farm country, Ryan is currently enjoying the beer and brewing scene of Chicago, IL.