I love rye bread, rye whiskey, and rye beer. Rye flavor can be bold but with proper brewing techniques and recipes, this rustic grain makes very flavorful and highly drinkable beer. In this brewing guide, I’ll reveal my best rye brewing practices. You’ll find five great recipes beyond the usual roggenbiers, rye pale ales, and rye IPAs.
I have tasted plenty of good commercial rye beers but honestly, I have designed and brewed my favorite rye beers. Rye has plenty of unused potential in beer.
I have written also these Brewing Nordic guides:
- Guide to Kveik and Other Farmhouse Yeast. This is extremely useful if you ferment rye beers with kveik as I do. CheckFarmhouse Yeast Descriptions for more information about kveiks that I’m referring in the recipes.
- Brewing With Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine. The evergreen flavors pair very well with rye.
- Brewing Modern Raw Ales along with Sahti Recipe and Farmhouse Brewing Tips are useful when brewing the rye sahti recipe below.
Please check also my book Viking Age Brew on traditional Nordic and Baltic farmhouse brewing. The book describes how traditional farmhouse brewers have brewed with rye.
Classic Rye Beers
Rye has been a popular crop especially in eastern parts of Europe. This has shaped how we now see rye beers on the map of beer styles. When speaking about rye beers, German roggenbier and Finnish sahti are usually mentioned first. Sahti need not contain rye but often sahti has a distinctive taste and mouthfeel from rye.
There are also less-known northern European farmhouse ales with high rye content: Karelian-Baltic taari, Setomaa kotuõlu, and some farmhouse beers in Russia. Kvass is often mentioned as an example of a rye beer but typically it has at most 1 % ABV. Therefore, it is more precisely classified as a cereal beverage, not beer.
Rye pale ales and rye IPAs have become fairly standard in homebrewing and craft beer. Denny Conn Rye IPA for example is already a classic. In this story, I’ll skip the classics and concentrate on less obvious yet delicious rye beers. That’s where the undiscovered potential of rye is.
I love rye bread flavor but rye beers usually taste only faintly like bread. Instead, pale rye malt adds flavors of grainy cereals, toffee, and nuts. Darker rye malts impart tastes of raisins, red berries, and dark bread crust. Some people describe the rye flavor as spicy but I disagree. Slightly peppery perhaps, but not spicy.
In beer, unmalted rye tastes harder, dryer, and grainier than malted rye. For this reason, I prefer malted rye. That said, some great traditional sahtis from have a large share of unmalted rye, see for example Brewing Sahti in Pertunmaa. From the recipes below you can see that I often build the rye flavor by combining pale, caramel, and roasted rye malts.
The oily and viscous mouthfeel is a big part of rye beer character.
Rye Beer Mouthfeel and Appearance
Rye contains plenty of so-called beta-glucans and that make rye beers oily and viscous. Special mouthfeel is certainly part of rye beer character.
Small amounts of beta-glucans feel smooth and silky. Higher amounts can feel unpleasantly slimy and thick. Fortunately, the beta-glucans can be controlled with step mashing.
Well made rye beer looks special too. The higher viscosity makes tiny bubbles that rise extremely slow. My rye beers often have a thin but creamy head.
The Amounts of Rye
Rye tastes stronger and grainier than barley. For this reason, most rye beers contain 10-50 % of rye and the rest is usually barley malt. 10 % share of rye adds a delicate taste and mouthfeel as if rye was a spice.
15–25 % share of rye already makes a good honest rye beer. Brewing a 100 % rye beer is possible but the best rye beers I have tasted have had rye content in the range of 15-40 %.
Some traditional beers like sahti of Isojoki, taari of Karelia, or roggenbiers of Germany call for higher rye content but that’s a different story. In these beers high proportion of rye is part of the tradition and the decision may not be based purely on flavor.
Rye Specialty Malts
Rye specialty malts are indeed special. Caramel rye malts taste different from barley caramel: rye caramel tastes more of toffee, raisins, and red berries. I have tested Weyermann’s Cara-rye and Simpson’s Red rye crystal. Both malts are outstanding yet different from each other. Weyermann Chocolate rye adds the flavor of red berries, along with typical chocolate malt flavors.
I like to brew also with toasted rye malt that brings wonderful nutty, toasty, and biscuity flavors. By toasted I mean medium-dark non-caramel malt with a much lighter roast than chocolate malt. The color unit of toasted rye malt should be at most 200 EBC (75 Lovibond). Think of biscuit, amber, or brown malts but made from rye. Unfortunately, malthouses rarely make this kind of rye malt.
Two of my recipes below call for this kind of toasted rye malt. Your options are:
- Toast the malt yourself according to my guide Toasting Rye Malt (toast to the medium grade).
- In Finland, you can use Tuoppi Kaljamallas, a toasted rye malt sold in Finnish grocery stores for brewing traditional sahti and table beer kalja. It is an excellent malt also for modern beers.
- North American Great Western Malting makes biscuit rye malt. While this malt is much lighter than my home-toasted rye I believe it is a decent substitute. Increase the malt proportion of malt in the recipe to compensate for the lighter toast.
- In the porter and sahti recipes below, you can substitute toasted rye malt with caramel rye malt. The flavor difference will be significant but the beers will taste excellent.
What Beers Rye Is Good for?
Many rye beers on the market use rye as a complementary spice. Nothing wrong with that. Rye is a great complement to hoppy beers, for example. However, in this story, I advocate brewing beers where rye is upfront.
Obviously, malt-forward beers are great bases for rye beers. My recipes for Rongoteus, Ryenator, rye wine, and rye sahti emphasize this aspect of rye. Roasty and toasty flavors go extremely well with rye, as highlighted in my rye porter recipe.
Some brewers add rye to low alcohol beers to increase body. Indeed, rye boosts body and mouthfeel but it also adds grainy dryness. It can work, but I would be very careful when adding rye to a low-alcohol beer.
Rye can also add rustic grainy complexity to “farmhouse ales”. If you are brewing saison-like beers, I recommend reading Yvan De Baets’ article Saison’s Greatest Myth: the Yeast. De Baets advocates that grains and hops can add to rustic saison character too.
Beta-Glucan Mash Rest
Modest amounts of rye can be handled with a single infusion mash. With rye-heavy beers, the so-called beta-glucan mash rest is extremely useful.
Beta-glucan rest means that you start the mash with 20–30 minutes at 35–40°C (95–104°F). This rest will break down beta-glucans and reduce the wort viscosity. The beer will remain oily and silky but you avoid an overly thick mouthfeel. Reducing viscosity eases lautering too.
Beta-glucan rest can be done with a very dry mash. You just need to get the crushed grains thoroughly moist. With many brewing systems, this makes beta-glucan rest easier. I do beta-glucan rest using one liter of water per kilogram of grain. Then I’ll add the rest of the mash liquor while raising the mash to saccharification temperature.
When the rye content is 20 % or more, I always do the beta-glucan rest. I like less thick rye beers and easier lautering is a nice bonus. With less than 15 % of rye, I don’t bother. With 15–20 % of rye, the importance of this rest is less clear. It depends on the recipe and your brewing system. It’s a compromise between flavor impact and easiness of brew.
Avoiding Lautering Problems
Rye mashes are notorious for stuck mash or slow lautering. You can avoid these problems with mashing techniques and filtering aids.
Beta-glucan rest eases lautering significantly. Raising the mash temperature before lautering helps to a smaller extent too. In the brewing literature, this step is called mash-out. Higher temperature reduces the wort viscosity which makes the lautering flow smoother. It can also increase malt sugar extraction. 75–78°C (167–172°C) is the modern standard for mash-out but anything between 70–78°C (158–172°C) helps to make the flow more fluent. With rye beers I recommend sparging with 75–78°C (167–172°C) water to keep the wort temperature high.
If raising the final mash temperature is challenging with your brewing system, just skip this step. There are other solutions to lautering problems. You can also add rice or oat hulls to your mash, as advised in many North American brewing guides. This is an effective method to improve lautering. Nordic and Baltic farmhouse brewers have used many plants as filtering aids, such as juniper branches, straws, pea sprigs, or raspberry twigs. This kind of filtering aid can also add interesting flavors.
Wrap-up of Rye Brewing Techniques
5–15 % share of rye can add a nice delicate touch of rye without any special brewing techniques. A firm rye taste is created with at least a 15 % share of rye. With rye contents above 15–20 %, I recommend a mash with two, three, or four steps:
- beta-glucan rest – saccharification
- beta-glucan rest – saccharification – mash-out
- beta-glucan rest – saccharification – alpha-amylase rest (70–72°C, 158–162°F) – mash-out
- Sparge with 75-78°C (167–172°) water!
I don’t want to advocate one mash schedule for everyone. If you can easily do three or four mash steps I recommend doing that. If your brewing system is built for a single-step infusion consider ways to wetting the grains for beta-glucan rest before the actual saccharification rest. Beta-glucan rest is not absolutely necessary but with rye contents above 20 %, I truly believe that it makes the beer better.
Note 1: The alpha-amylase rest is at 70–72°C (158–162°F) is not essential but I often stop at this temperature for 20–30 minutes, on the way to mash-out. With my brewing system, it is hardly an extra effort.
Note 2: With rye beers the spent mash can retain 10–30 % more water than a typical barley-only mash. If you calculate your brew water volumes beforehand, you want to take this into account. With high gravity rye beers, you may also need to reduce your extraction efficiency because you cannot drain the lauter tun so dry.
Note 3: With a phenol-producing yeast the ferulic acid mash rest around 43°C (109°F) can increase phenolic flavors. If you want to avoid this rest, just do the beta-glucan rest below 40°C (104°F) and then pass the mash range 40–50°C (104–122°F) without stops.
Rye Beer Recipes
These recipes are my homebrew classics that I like to brew again and again.
For me this recipe as an ultimate showcase of rye malts: toffee, nuts, raisins, and rye bread crust from three different rye malts. Probably someone has designed a similar but I have never tasted a commercial rye beer with this kind of rye character.
The inspiration for this beer came from dark Belgian ales which I’m a big fan of. Think of a Dubbel or a dark strong Belgian. Then swap the malt profile to rye. Belgian yeast would produce excellent beer but I like to ferment this ale with a Norwegian kveik. I like especially Espe kveik that adds a delicate taste of raisins, plums, and Cognac.
I named this beer Rongoteus, according to the Karelian god of rye. Below you’ll find recipes for the regular robust and extra robust versions. The versions are in the vein of Belgian Breweries that often brew a range of similar beers with varying strength.
When brewing malt-forward beers I usually skip aroma and flavor hops. For Rongoteus I like to add a small amount of hops for complexity. In the recipe below. recommend delicate herbal-fruity-spicy varies. This means noble-like hops (American and NZ hops included) or for example classic British or Slovenian hops.
Rongoteus – Recipe for 20 Liters
Original gravity: 1.068
Final gravity: 1.017
Alcohol by volume: 6.7 %
3.6 kg Pilsner malt (55 %)
1.6 kg Vienna malt (25 %)
0.9 kg Pale rye malt (14 %)
0.3 kg Caramel rye malt (4.5 %)
0.1 kg Chocolate rye malt (1.5 %)
Bittering hops for 23 IBU
15 g flavor hops (delicate herbal-fruity-spicy varieties)
Kveik, Belgian ale yeast, British ale yeast
Mash at 35–40°C (95–104°F) for 30 minutes. Raise the mash to 65°C (148°F), and hold at this temperature for 45 minutes. If you can, raise the mash temperature above 70°C (158°F) and give it a short rest. Sparge with 75–78°C (167–172°F) water.
Boil the wort for 75 minutes and bittering hops for 60 minutes. Add the aroma hops five minutes before the end of the boil. Chill the wort to fermentation temperature and ferment warm until complete. Bottle or keg with moderate carbonation.
Rongoteus Extra – Recipe for 20 Liters
Original gravity: 1.084
Final gravity: 1.021
Alcohol by volume: 8.5 %
4.4 kg Pilsner malt (55 %)
2 kg Vienna malt (25 %)
1.2 kg Pale rye malt (15 %)
0.3 Caramel rye malt (4 %)
0.1 kg Chocolate rye malt (1 %)
Bittering hops for 23 IBU
15 g flavor hops (delicate herbal-fruity-spicy varieties)
Kveik, Belgian ale yeast, or British ale yeast
Brew as the regular Rongoteus.
Porter is one of my favorite beer styles. It can be brewed in a myriad of ways and still obviously count as a porter. This recipe aims at a soft roast with great drinkability and an incredibly velvety mouthfeel. The softness allows a full range of toasty and roasty flavors with toffee, toasted nuts, raisins, cocoa and cold-brewed coffee. I wonder why this kind of rye porters aren’t more popular.
The recipe includes toasted rye. See the section Rye Specialty Malts for options. If you want to see what fresh toasted rye malt can do for your beer, I recommend Toasting Rye Malt yourself (medium toast is the best).
I like this porter with moderately fruity yeast. Again, Espe kveik is my favorite.
Rye Porter – Recipe for 20 Liters
Original gravity: 1.065 (15.9ºP)
Final gravity: 1.020 (5.1ºP)
Alcohol by volume: 6 %
4.6 kg Pale ale malt (74 % of malt)
0.75 kg Pale rye malt (12 %)
0.5 kg Toasted rye malt (8 %)
0.25 kg Chocolate rye malt (4 %)
0.125 kg Dehusked black malt (2 %)
Bitterness hops for 30 IBU
Kveik or ale yeast (neutral or moderately fruity)
Mash at 35–40°C (167–172°F) for 30 minutes. Raise the mash to 66–68°C (151–154°F), and hold at this temperature for 45 minutes. If you can, raise the mash temperature above 70°C (158°F) for a short rest. Sparge with 75–78°C (167–172°F) water.
Boil the wort for 75 minutes and bittering hops for 60 minutes. Chill the wort to fermentation temperature and ferment warm until complete. Bottle or keg with soft carbonation.
Ryenator is an immensely malty rye doppelbock. You can brew this beer either as a true or pseudo lager (an ale emulating lager).
This beer is designed for lagering or conditioning. Time will smooth out the graininess of rye and that will boost the outstanding maltiness further. Melanoidin and black malts together with rye create a lovely impression of dark bread crust. Note that this recipe calls for true black malt, not dehusked version. A dash of charred grain is part of the bread crust flavor.
Melanoidin malt has a strong taste and 10 % is plenty. Time will integrate the beer into a great malt bomb. If you want to cut down the lagering or conditioning time, reduce the melanoidin malt to 5 % (add more pilsner malt accordingly) and choose dehusked black malt.
Tip: Ryenator imitates my favorite doppelbock, Ayinger Celebrator. The flavors are similar although Celebrator is not a rye beer. These modifications will give you a fantastic barley-only Celebrator clone recipe: swap pale rye malt to Vienna malt, change caramel rye to Caramunich, ferment with Bavarian lager yeast, and lager for several weeks.
Ryenator – Recipe for 20 Liters
Original gravity: 1.077 (18.7°P)
Final gravity: 1.020 (5.1°P)
Alcohol by volume: 7.5 %
5.2 kg Pilsner malt (70 %)
1.12 kg Pale rye malt (15 %)
0.72 kg Melanoidin malt (10 %)
0.30 kg Caramel rye malt (4 %)
0.05 kg Black malt (0.7 %)
Bittering hops for 27 IBUs
Lager yeast, clean kveik, or clean ale yeast
Mash, lauter and boil this ale as in the Rye Porter recipe.
Ferment and condition the beer as a true lager or a lager-like ale. When brewing a lager, follow a typical lager fermentation and lagering procedure, as advised for example in John Palmer’s How to Brew. For a pseudo lager, I recommend reading Dave Carpenter’s guide Fake Out the Cold. In any case, keep the fermentation flavors subdued and give the beer some lagering or conditioning time.
This is an old classic of my home brewery. I started to develop the recipe in the early 2010s and over the years I have brewed several versions. In 2016 I hit the sweet spot and the recipe has been frozen since then. The recipe was published under the name Raivain in my Finnish homebrewing guidebook Rakkaudella Pantua and it has been popular among Finnish homebrewers.
Somewhat surprisingly, the optimum rye content for this ale is only 15 %. In this kind of high gravity ale, even a modest amount of rye adds plenty of character. Experiments with a higher rye content haven’t given better beer. Because the pale rye malt content is only 11 % this ale can be brewed without the beta-glucan rest.
This rye wine is my favorite vintage beer as it matures beautifully for years. It is also fantastic for wood aging.
I used to ferment this beer with Wyeast American Ale II before I knew kveik. It is a great yeast with malty and moderately fruity profile. Nowadays I like to ferment these kinds of beers with Voss-type kveik.
Rye Wine – Recipe for 20 Liters
Original gravity: 1.104 (24.6ºP)
Final gravity: 1.025 (6.3ºP)
Alcohol by volume: 10 %
8.5 kg Pale ale malt (85 % of malt)
1.1 kg Pale rye malt (11 %)
0.3 kg Caramel rye malt (3 %)
0.1 kg Chocolate rye malt (1 %)
Bittering hops for 45 IBU
Kveik or ale yeast (neutral or moderately fruity)
Mash at 65°C (148°F) for one hour. If you can, raise the mash above 70°C (158°F) and let it rest shortly. Sparge with 75–78°C (167–172°F) water. Boil the wort for at least 75 minutes. You may need to boil longer to reduce the wort volume. Add the bittering hops after 15 minutes of boiling. Chill the wort to fermentation temperature and ferment until complete. This kind of strong beer benefits some conditioning before packaging. If the beer sits for weeks before bottle conditioning, I recommend adding a small amount yeast before bottling.
Bottle or keg with soft carbonation. For bottle-conditioning, I recommend 4 grams of table sugar per liter of ale.
My standard Sahti Recipe is probably the most popular sahti recipe on the internet. The recipe has a 6–8 % share of rye and is perfect as such. This rye sahti is equally delicious but completely different with a strong taste of dark rye malt.
As with my standard barley-centric sahti, I have settled on this recipe through various experiments. I have tried rye contents in the range of 20–45 %. I have varied the gravity and complimentary malts.
For dark rye, I have tested Finnish Kaljamallas, caramel rye, and home-toasted rye. For homebrewers, I recommend toasting according to my guide, Toasting Rye Malt (medium toast level). If you live in Finland you can use Kaljamallas too. Caramel rye is not a bad substitute but it makes a different kind of flavor.
These days I prefer to ferment sahti with kveik instead of baker’s yeast. Sigmund’s kveik (Voss) makes an excellent slightly dryer version. Occasionally I brew this also with other less attenuative kveiks.
I have included an option for juniper branches but if you can find them, don’t worry. This recipe makes outstanding ale only from malt, yeast, and water. The recipe does not include any hops, but if I’m harvesting kveik from this sahti I’ll include a hop tea for 10 IBUs, as advised in Raw Ale Brewing Techniques and Recipes.
If you want to more know about sahti and the traditional uses of rye I recommend reading my book Viking Age Brew. It has a recipe for a traditional rye sahti of Isojoki in Western Finland brewed with a 30–50 % share of rye.
Rye Sahti – Recipe for 20 Liters
Original gravity: 1.092–1.097 (22–23ºP)
Final gravity: 1.025–1.030 (6.3–7.6ºP)
Alcohol by volume: 8–9 %
5.7 kg Pilsner malt (57 %)
1.8 kg Light Munich malt (18 %)
1.8 kg Pale rye malt (18 %)
0.7 kg Toasted rye malt (7 %)
5 liters juniper branches (optional)
Kveik or baker’s yeast
If using juniper branches, prepare the juniper infusion before brewing, as advised in Brewing Techniques for Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine. Then use the infusion as your mash and sparge liquor.
Mash in at 35–40°C (95–104°F) and let rest for 30 minutes. Raise the mash to 60°C (140°F) for a 30-minute rest. Raise temperature to 70°C (158°F) for 30 minutes, and then to 75– 80°C (167–172°F) for 30 minutes. Tip: Less water in the mash leaves more water for sparging, which helps in extracting the malt sugars. I mash this sahti using 2.2–2.3 liters of water (or juniper infusion) per kilogram of grain.
Begin lautering, and recirculate until the wort runs clear. Sparge with 75-80°C (167–176°F) water or juniper infusion until you have collected 20 liters wort. Chill the wort to fermentation temperature and pitch yeast. Let ferment completely and bottle or keg promptly when most yeast has flocculated. I prefer sahti with very low carbonation as is the tradition. Therefore, I don’t add priming sugar or store sahti under pressure in the keg. Slight carbonation from residual fermentation is fine.
Usually, my sahtis tastes good right after bottling or kegging. However, rye sahtis tend to benefit more from maturation than barley-centered sahtis. My rye sahti is typically at its best after 3–4 weeks from brewing.
October 2, 2021: updated Ryenator recipe based on my recent brewing experiments. Reduced the amounts of caramel rye and black malt.