Considering Roggenbiers - And Alameda's Rye Not

If I owned a brewery, I'd have a series called "Historical Revivals" that featured obscure, mostly obsolete beers that have almost no commercial presence. (Readers of this blog who do have commercial breweries, feel free to run with the idea.) The gose explosion has been satisfying, but inadequate. What about roggenbier--which I urged Karl Ockert to brew--what about gratzer? Well, thank god this is Beervana. First up, we have Alameda to the rescue with a traditional roggenbier, and next month, Breakside steps into the breach with a gratzer. All we need is someone to do some deep research on the lost adambier style and we can consider ourselves sated.

But first to the roggenbier, the rye beers of central Europe ("roggen" is German for "rye"). Back in the day, they were all the rage in what is now Germany. How far back? Far enough that it was already an old standard when the black death was raging through Europe. Roggenbier might still have a proud place in German brewing, but 500 years ago became one of the casualties of Reinheitsgebot. It took until just 20 years ago for revivals to begin. Breweries started crafting neu-roggen (I claim the name!) in 1988, and now Paulaner makes the most famous version.

What did authentic roggenbier of 1142 taste like? As far as I know, no one has a clue. Thanks to the work of certain beer historians, we know that a lot of what we thought about fairly recent styles like IPAs and milds was pure crap. So what dark age ale tasted like? You'd have to have a whole lot more data than I to try to hazard any guess.

But we do have the few German revivals. Currently, roggenbier is a relatively low alcohol beer ( +/- 5%) made with substantial quantities of rye--around fifty percent seems typical. The remainder may be all barley or include some wheat. These current versions are brewed like hefeweizens and have the characteristic clove and banana. The rye, of course, alters things a bit, adding spicy, earthy character, and sometimes, because of the high proportion, even a slightly sour note. This is how the German Beer Institute describes roggenbier, in part:
Rye ales are mildly hopped, which allows the grain flavors to be dominant. Filtration appears to be optional in a rye ale and many, such as the Paulaner are "naturtrüb," meaning naturally turbid. A yeast-turbid Roggenbier is more authentic, considering that the style had been around long before beer filtration was invented in 1878.
I suspect that once roggenbier was a very large category and included a broad range of strengths and styles. There's no reason to think that some versions would have been a lot stronger. Probably the preference for producing the clove (phenol) and banana (isoamyl acetate, an ester) is modern--who knows if these characteristics were even well-developed hundreds of years ago. Given that so many ales of the day were visited by ambient yeasts, they were probably a lot sourer, too.

Alameda Rye Not
Styles change, though, and for the moment, anyway, we have a working definition of roggenbier. Last week, I rode my bike up the Alameda hill on the last sunny day of the year (as I write this, rain hammers the street like Multnomah Falls) and inspected their version. Brewer Eric Rolerkite used 45% rye and the house hefeweizen yeast for a beer weighing in at 4.9%. (Tettnangers, at a strength of 15 BUs, are trying to stay out of the way.) If hefeweizens, with their sprightly light bodies are the perfect summer beer, Alameda suspected that a slightly thicker, heartier, and spicier roggenbier would be the perfect autumnal session.

It is much like a hefeweizen, with mild smoky clove in both aroma and flavor, lots of yeast, and a light, refreshing body. Where it differs is the rye, which starts with a bit of spruce sweetness and fades to a tart slightly sour quality. I expected it to be a dry beer, akin to the way rye bread is sharp and dry, but it's not. Perhaps a brewer could dry it out more if he wanted to serve his roggen in July, but this was a nice, bready beer for the fall. I have almost no basis for reference, so it's hard to rate such a beer--but for authenticity and general tastiness, I'd put it at a B+.