What is a Roggenbier?
Roggenbier, directly translated from German to mean ‘rye beer’ is an ale made with large portions of malted rye rather than barley or wheat. In modern versions, rye often represents the majority of the beer’s grain bill, but it may make up as little as one quarter to one third of the total grain. Rye is known for being the most assertive of all the cereal grains and infuses beer with a spicy, peppery flavor, reminiscent of rye or pumpernickel bread. During the brewing process, rye absorbs more water than other grains and higher proportions of rye results in a more viscous beer. As a result, Roggenbier tends to be medium or medium-full bodied.
Weizen yeast is the yeast used almost exclusively in Roggenbier to impart characteristics of banana, clove and sometimes citrus. Hops play a subtle role in this beer by adding a light, clean character and allowing for an initial malt sweetness before giving way to peppery rye and weizen yeast flavours. A traditional Roggenbier has an ABV between 4.5 and 6.0% and is often brewed as a seasonal beer released in summer and fall.
A Brief History of Roggenbier
Roggenbier is a medieval style that originated in Bavaria, Germany. Until the 15th century, it was common practice to breweries to produce beer from whatever grain grew best in their particular region. At the time, rye was the popular grain for brewing beer in cooler climates such as Bavaria and in other parts of northern Europe. Although it was commonly used for brewing beer, rye was also considered the best grain for making bread.
After a number of bad harvests, the Duke of Bavaria, William IV famously enacted the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, in part to ensure the availability of rye and wheat for bakers to produce affordable bread, and decreed that beer was only allowed to be made with water, hops and barley. As a direct result of the 1516 purity laws and later the Reinheitsgebot, Roggenbier disappeared from German beermaking for nearly 500 years.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the European Court intervened resulting in a significant loosening of German purity laws that allowed once again for a wider variety of malted grains, hop extracts, sugars and colouring agents to be used in brewing. Around this time, the roggen style was brought back to life by a brewery in eastern Bavaria where it had been born centuries earlier.
In recent years, the roggenbier has gained some popularity outside of central Europe, as more craft breweries experiment with rye. This unique beer is well worth checking out – the peppery spiciness from the rye is balanced by the mild sweetness of the weizen yeast and the mild hopping gives it a light, crisp finish. It really is the perfect mild weather brew.
(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)