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Serious Beer: Tasting American Rye Beers

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

I'm just going to be honest with you: I think it may be time to forget Oktoberfest (if you haven't already.) Märzenbier is tasty stuff, but I've decided that American rye beers are really the perfect autumn brew.

By substituting rye for some of the barley in the mash, brewmasters give these beers a hint of spicy warmth and a touch of rye-bread flavor. Though the Germans have used rye in their pumpernickel-brown roggenbier since medieval times, the ryes we tasted were distinctly American. There's no hard and fast rule as to what an American rye must be, but these tended toward reddish amber, fruity, and generously hopped. They're a little spicy, with a sour kick and a smooth caramel flavor. Some of them are brash, bold beers—but we couldn't help but love them.

If you notice an American rye on tap at your local watering hole, give it a try! Some great rye beers (such as Sixpoint's Righteous Ale) aren't available in bottles.

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Our new favorite
**** Awesome, worth remembering
*** We'd consider buying this again
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.

Ratings are subject to personal taste.

Rye Not Have Another Pint?

Reunion '08 Organic Red Rye Ale (Bison Brewing) California 6.5% ABV
This drinkable ale was brewed to raise funds for blood cell cancer research. Good cause aside, it was my personal favorite of the rye beers we tasted. Rye spiciness and hints of nutmeg reminded some tasters of freshly baked cookies. Warm apple and orange peel notes add fruitiness to balance the crisp hops. This beer is a little less extreme than the He'brew and the Hop Rod, and is very nice with pecorino and goat's cheese.
****

Founders Red's Rye P.A. Michigan, 6.6% ABV
This rosy beer has a rye bread flavor mingled with tons of hoppy grapefruit taste. The scent reminded us of mulled wine: there's cinnamon, pepper, orange peel, and sweet fruit on the nose. While this beer is seriously bitter, we found it quite drinkable, and nice with some spicy sesame noodles.
***1/2

Delicious, But Not for the Timid

He'Brew Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A New York, 10% ABV
This one will knock your socks off—it has more of everything. Massive malty sweetness, pronounced rye, high alcohol, and a generous amount of hops make for a warming rosy-red beer. It's relatively full bodied, with a musky brandy-like scent and a touch of apricot flavor. Some found it a little overly sweet, but others pronounced this the perfect beer for fall. It would be great with a cheeseburger.
****

Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye California, 8% ABV
One of our tasters said this velvety, hoppy, intense brew was really "like a beer reduction." The bitterness in this one is turned up all the way, but so is the malty sweetness. A bit of dark cherry flavor pops up, as well as a hint of caraway. For hopheads only: this is definitely a west coast IPA.
***1/2

Find These on Tap

Blue Point Rastafa Rye Ale New York, 7.5% ABV
Some of the proceeds of this beer go to help underprivileged children in the Caribbean, but we'd buy this one again just for the taste. Citrusy and a bit lighter than the others we tried, we found the flavors of this blossomed as the beer warmed up. Notes of lemon and caramel popcorn made this bright and toasty beer refreshing, though some found it too bitter to drink without food alongside it.
***

Two Brothers Cane & Ebel Red Rye Ale Illinois, 7% ABV
Last week, we marveled at the full flavor of this beer when poured from a tap. It was spicy and warming, without overpowering floral notes. Poured from a bottle, though, we were struck by the floral character of this dark red ale. Some tasters noted a hint of lavender, sage, and orange peel along with warmth from the malted rye in this brew. Hoppy bitterness lingers in the mouth.
*** poured from a bottle; ***1/2 on tap

Disclosure: The beers from Two Brothers and Founders were review samples.

About the author: Maggie Hoffman and her team of tasters are always looking for their new favorite beer. Maggie also writes about cooking on Pithy and Cleaver.

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