Roggenbier, or rye beer, is a Bavarian beer style currently enjoying a resurgence in widespread awareness. In the Middle Ages, a nobleman decided to prohibit the use of rye in brewing, relegating it to obscurity. But a change in European law and an increasing interest in craft and exotic beers among independent craft brewers have put Roggenbier back on the craft brewers’ map.
First, though, what is Roggenbier?
What Is Roggenbier?
Typically, beer is made from barley, hops, and yeast. However, Roggenbier is made with malt rye. It’s composed of anywhere from 30-60% rye, although most Roggenbier averages 50% rye in its makeup.
Usually, a Roggenbier is an ale or lager. It is a distinctive straw color and consequently classified as a Weissbier, or a white beer.
While Weissbier has since evolved to reference only wheat beers, historically, the classification was wider-reaching and encompassed any pale-colored beer or ale. The grain involved in the brewing process, whether rye, wheat, or barley, was irrelevant.
The use of rye in Roggenbier gives it a distinctive, spiced, and grainy taste. The heat of the spicy flavors makes it an ideal light drink for a winter evening. It’s not an overly bitter drink, either. The discerning drinker may notice citrus or vanilla flavors in a traditional version of brewed Roggenbier.
Roggenbier is also naturally cloudy or turbid. This is because rye beers predate the invention of beer filtration in 1878. The result is a tart, aromatic rye beer with earthy undertones. And because of the beer’s lightness, many craft beer connoisseurs say it tastes mild compared to standard hops.
The History of Roggenbier
The history of Roggenbier is a complex and interesting one. The beer itself has existed in some way, shape, or form since the 600s. At the time, the Sumerians and Babylonians used barley to create beer.
Late Era Egyptian tombs depict a prominent use of barley or barley cakes blending with water for what presumably became beer. Roman historians Pliny and Tacitus would credit the Middle East with the brewing techniques used in their time.
They also describe the Angles, Saxons, Celts, and various Nordic tribes as ale drinkers. This is because it was a common belief that water carried disease and was, therefore, unsafe.
The industry thrived partly due to the fact that Medieval monasteries took over and developed the brewing craft. Like scribe-work, brewing kept the monks occupied and the monasteries solvent without affecting the monks’ cloistered existence.
But while most ales used barley in the brewing process, the popular grain wasn’t native to all ale-drinking climes. Accordingly, many brewers began to produce their ale using whatever grain was on hand. For many brewers, that was rye.
However, increasingly bad harvests strained grain supply, and rye fell out of favor at monastic breweries since monks rightly believed the people would want to prioritize bread-making with what grain they had.
Bavarian Purity Law
The introduction of the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 was significantly affected by the monastic decision to reserve rye for breadmaking. The law, introduced by a Bavarian nobleman, stipulated that only water, hops, and barley could be used in the production of ale.
Barley was used in brewing because it was widely accepted that it was an unsuitable grain for bread. Later, a combination of legal doctrine and social class changes meant that barley became a dependable bread-baking ingredient.
Rye, meanwhile, was the bread grain of choice for lower-class and lower-middle-class bakers. Wheat-based bread was the provision of the wealthy.
The purity law, or Reinheitsgebot, eventually took hold in Germany, where it survived various government transitions, including the Nazi election in the 1930s.
More impressively, the 1516 edict persisted even after a 1987 ruling by the European Court that the Bavarian Purity Law was not only outmoded but actively prevented other countries from accessing the German market.
While the 1987 ruling didn’t overturn the law, it did result in a gradual relaxation of its observance. And as it relaxed, Roggenbier re-emerged.
Beers Similar to Roggenbier
Roggenbier may originate from rye, but it shares similarities with four other subtypes of beer in that they, too, are not made from barley.
Weizenbier or Weissbier
Weissbier, or Weizenbier, is a wheat-derived beer, so-called for its pale color. Wheat beer must be made with at least 50% malted wheat in brewing. However, some regions, such as Bavaria, use a higher percentage of malted wheat to balance the inclusion of barley in their weissbier.
In North America, Weissbier is often called Hefeweizen because of its hazy presentation. This is because most wheat beers are unfiltered, causing the classic Weizen yeast to remain suspended and giving the beer its recognizable cloudy appearance.
Dunkelweizen is also a wheat beer. The name originates from a German compound word meaning “dark wheat.”
Dunkelweissen has a darker color than its paler cousin, Weissbier, and is augmented by combining it with roasted malts. These give the beer an added spiciness and complexity absent from weissbier. However, like Weissbier, Dunkelwiessen requires at least 50% malted wheat for proper brewing.
Weizenbock beers are hearty wheat beers brewed to bock strength. That is, they’re made in the fall to be drunk the following spring. Like Roggenbier, Weizenbock is native to Bavaria and has far-reaching historical roots.
Dating back to Medieval times, it was a popular beverage with monks during Lenten fasts because they saw it as a herald of the happier, hearty times promised by the coming Easter.
It’s a strong lager with a rich, dark color and full-bodied flavors. Whereas wheat beers typically use 50% wheat malt, as discussed, a Weizenbock usually involves closer to 60-70%.
Because it’s a bottom-fermented beer, you may find it helpful to roll or swirl the beer before serving to animate the yeast and create more flavor.
Making Your Own Roggenbier
Usually, a Roggenbier has an alcohol level of approximately 5%. And while it hasn’t always been the case, if you’re brewing one of the modern versions of rye beer, there’s typically a percentage of wheat malt involved in the brewing process.
Rye can also be notoriously tricky to brew because it naturally absorbs more water as mash and quickly becomes gummy. While some independent brewers find this hard to work with, that shouldn’t deter you from attempting to brew your own Roggenbier.
Decoction mashes are often, but not always, popular when brewing Roggenbier. If you decide against the decoction method, you can recover some of the sweetness it engenders by adding a small amount of Melanoidin malt to your Roggenbier.
The other signature of a Roggenbier is the use of continental hops in the brewing process. Popular varieties include:
Because hops levels in Roggenbier should be low, it’s unusual to use finishing or dry hops.
The most prevalent sorts of yeast in Roggenbier brewing are Bavarian Weizen or hefeweizen yeasts. They produce an immediately identifiable taste of clove and banana that colors the rye beer flavor.
The Roggenbier then ferments at a low temperature. This helps emphasize the flavoring of the cloves and stops esters or fruity flavors from manifesting. The finished rye beer can then be served chilled and carbonated for the best results.
Roggenbier is a drink with a long history that is currently enjoying a return to popular favor. It presents with a hazy appearance that is immediately recognizable to the ale connoisseur. Despite the use of rye malt, it’s a light, spicy beer that is imminently suitable for summer evening consumption.
There are challenges in making it from scratch, but none are insurmountable, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable beverage. But if you do encounter any difficulties, get in touch. We’ll do our best to get back to you as soon as possible.