The Strange Tale Of Roggenbier, The Rye-Based Medieval Beer Style Time Almost Forgot

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On April 23, 1516, 500 years ago this year, William IV, the duke of Bavaria, issued a decree about brewing. Thenceforth, brewers in the 22-year-old princeling's realm, which covered much of present-day southern Germany, would only be allowed to use water, hops and barley to make their beers (William and the brewers did not know about yeast's role).

What came to be called the Reinheitsgebot — roughly "purity law" in German — had three functions: to stabilize beer prices, which were liable to bounce up and down, upsetting William's subjects; to ban the use of wheat in brewing so it could be used instead to produce bread (not as popular among the Bavarians as beer, but probably more necessary); and, as the decree's name suggests, to nix unscrupulous brewers' use of weird, even dangerous ingredients such as roots and soot (yes, soot).

Other German governments eventually embraced William's dictate, and, in 1906, the Reinheitsgebot became the law of the land in what was by then the German Empire. It survived the nation's messy transition to a republic in 1918, never mind the Nazis and decades of disunion.

It was an impressive feat. The world of beer had undergone tectonic shifts from the early 1500s to the late 1900s: the discovery of yeast's role in the late 17th century, pasteurization in the late 19th, the development of styles such as pilsner and porter, lager's global besting of ale, the birth of great brewing dynasties such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller, the rise of American craft beer beginning in the 1960s, aluminum cans, Bud Bowl.

And yet, there was the Reinheitsgebot, keeping German brewers in Duke William's box.

It wasn't all atrophic. German brewers, like zymurgical MacGyvers, used that hops, barley, water (and yeast) to create all sorts of grand styles such as helles and kolsch, never mind their own versions of Czech-born pilsner.

And yet, the Reinheitsgebot had stymied certain German styles, preserving them in medieval aspic in 1516, never, it seemed, to break free and live again.

Even after the European Court ruled in 1987 that the Reinheitsgebot violated the foundational rules of the European Union — it prevented brewers from other countries from getting access to German markets, the court decided — the law hung on for the most part.

The '87 ruling did lead to a considerable loosening of the rules, not least the allowance of formally verboten ingredients such as malt and hop extracts, even coloring agents. Officials even granted "exceptions" for "special beers and beers intended for export or scientific experiments." (Big caveat on all this: Bavaria still largely clung to the old rules.)

Roggenbier was one those styles that re-emerged largely because of the EU-spurred change (it doesn't look like breweries outside of central Europe were tinkering with it, including in the U.S.). With the exception of certain wheat-based styles, roggenbier was perhaps the most prominent one that the purity law undercut.

Other styles now, though, had a nearly 500-year head start. Might roggenbier catch up?

Why roggenbier was never the next IPA

Roggenbier, quite simply, is ale made with a huge helping of rye rather than barley or wheat. In many cases, rye represents the majority of the beer's grain bill; sometimes it accounts for as little as one quarter to one third.

Even that amount, though, will typically provide a roggenbier ("rye beer") with a spicy taste and aftertaste, not unlike, well, rye bread or even the spicier pumpernickel. Roggenbier also usually uses the same sorts of yeast used to make wheat beers, providing a mild sweetness and a light mouthfeel. This is not heavy, rich beer, whatever the spiciness. And there's not much of a hop presence, either—roggenbier will taste mild to many American craft beer consumers used to bitter hop bombs.

The alcohol content is generally around 5 percent by volume, too, and roggenbier can be delivered filtered or unfiltered. If the latter, expect some haziness.

How do we know all this about a beer style that largely disappeared five centuries back? Because brewers and roggenbier's partisans preserved its details, including the basic ingredients, all of which are as available today as they were then. The same challenges also remain today as when roggenbier was one of the most popular beer styles in medieval Bavaria.

Rye has no husk covering it, so it absorbs water during brewing. The resulting pre-fermentation mash is gummy and thick, and difficult for brewers to separate from the liquid that will become beer. Plus, the unfamiliarity of it in the first place makes it not the most desirable style to produce. Craft brewers in particular have a difficult enough time turning consumers on to pilsner, the world's most popular style (via Budweiser et al). Why try rye?

Some brewers do, although only a relative few go all in and up the share of rye to more than 50 percent of the grain bill.

Roggenbier remains a difficult beer style to find commercially, then, and until about the past 15 years, it was largely ignored critically (at least in English). Michael Jackson, the late, great beer critic, did not spare roggenbier a single reference in his revised World Guide to Beer in 1988. The Great American Beer Festival, the world's biggest judged beer tasting, did not add its "Rye Beer" category until 2001.

That category now includes two subcategories: "rye beer" for the beers made with a noticeable, though not necessarily majoritarian, helping of rye; and "German-style rye ale," a nod to the original roggenbier. The category had 81 entries at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in early October.

The winner was a rye beer from Portland, Oregon's Breakside brewery and brewpub. Its name could not be more appropriate, given roggenbier's status after all these centuries: Breakside Rye Curious? — question mark included.

Curious yourself? Check out these offerings.

Rye Pale Ale

The Bronx Brewery, 6.3% ABV

The packaging on this offering says it all: "Maybe not the easiest pale ale to brew." But the Bronx Brewery and several other American craft breweries do it anyway. The rye taste here is up front and on the finish — all over, really — but it's not overwhelming, more just a good backbone for a solid pale ale.

Jack's Abby Sibling Rye-valry

Jack's Abby Craft Lagers, 6% ABV

This Framingham, Massachusetts, brewery about an hour west of Boston specializes in lagers, and so its rye offering is technically not a roggenbier. It sure is spicy, though, for an American lager.

Hayride Autumn Ale

Baxter Brewing Co., 6.6% ABV

The seasonal from the Lewiston, Maine, outfit is also spicy, though not too much so. You might also pick up some orange and ginger notes—Baxter adds both as well as black pepper. Take that, original Reinheitsgebot!


Boulevard Brewing Co., 12% ABV

If you can snag a bottle of this limited-release ale from Kansas City, Mo., legend Boulevard, have at it. The rye-spurred piquancy comes right at you and doesn't let go. Also, as you might have noticed by now and as is so often the case, American brewers have no problem with coloring outside the lines of a beer style. Boulevard's Rye-on-Rye is more than twice the strength typical for more traditional roggenbier.

Apostelbräu Roggen

Apostelbräu Hauzenberg, 5.3% ABV

Leave it to a Bavarian brewery to craft a singularly solid introduction to the roggenbier style as it might have been during its medieval heyday: warmly spicy and yet mild, eminently drinkable and not too strong.

Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution. His latest, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, was a finalist for the 2016 James Beard Award for best beverage book.