Since the U.S. Craft Beer Revolution started in the 1980s and early 1990s, the quintessential American beer style has been the American India Pale Ale (IPA). In response to the bleak landscape of watery, tasteless mass marketed beers, American homebrewers began dumping more and more American hops into their brews to boldly stand out from the pale lagers dominating the market. The beer style that allows the brewer to stretch the bitterness tolerance of the drinker is the India Pale Ale. Invented in the 1700s in England, brewers needed a way to keep their beer fresh as it made the three month journey from Great Britain to their colony in India. Pale ale, or “bitter” as it’s known in the UK, was, and still is, the favorite drink in Britain. Thus, the men who colonized India in the 1700s yearned for their favorite quaff to find its way to them half the world away. Brewers experimented and found that the antiseptic and flavoring abilities of hops would keep the ale fresh for longer on the lengthy and hot trip around the tip of Africa and up to India, especially when used at a very exaggerated rate. As the beer travelled, it would slowly degrade as a result of heat and time, so that by the time it reached India, it tasted very similar to the bitters from back home. As an unintended consequence, the highly hopped and extra strong beer caught on in Great Britain as well. So much so that British brewers started selling the strong IPAs at home as well as abroad. The most bitter of the beer styles was born!
Flash forward to the early 1990s in the United States. American brewers discovered the unique citrusy and floral taste and aroma of American grown hops and decided to create beers that showcased them. Thus, the natural vehicle with which to do this was obviously the IPA. Over the next two decades, the American IPA, using American rather than English or German hops, has become the consummate American craft brew and led to the creation of the term “hophead.” However, excessively bitter beers are not everyone’s favorite, especially, as it turned out, in the South.
In the late 1990s, now well known and loved Terrapin Beer in Athens, Georgia was only in its planning stages. Their idea? Bring the bold and hoppy craft beers that were becoming so popular out West and up North down South. However, as Terrapin founders Brian “Spike” Buckowski and John Cochrane soon discovered, Southerners were not quite sold on the idea of extra bitter and hoppy beers. As Buckowski put it in an interview with beer journalist Joshua Bernstein, “Back then, anything hoppier than a Budweiser was too bitter.” To combat Southerner’s bitter skepticism, Buckowski needed a way to dry out the drinker’s palate to prevent an overly bitter finish and keep him or her coming back for more. His solution? Adding rye to the barley malt. Buckowski’s eureka moment came as he reminisced on his college days sipping rye whiskey. Thus, the Terrapin Rye Pale Ale was born, which incorporated a small percentage of rye in the malt bill, and subsequently launched a new style of Pale Ale, IPA, and Double (Imperial) IPA in the American Craft Beer landscape.
Adding rye to barley malt does several things for the final beer: it adds subtle spiciness and dryness to the taste while increasing overall complexity and sharpness. It also can help tone down perceived hop bitterness by adding unique malt character to the beer. Finally, it opens a new world of beer and food pairing that regular IPAs just can’t quite match. Rye Pale Ales, IPAs, and Double (Imperial) IPAs have become very popular year round, because the citrusy hops quench your thirst in spring and summer, and the spicy and sometimes toasty malt character can warm you up in fall and winter. In addition, the added complexity of the malt often appeals to drinkers who balk at the excessive bitterness of regular IPAs. The Rye IPA, or RyePA/R.I.P.A., has only recently become popular among craft brewers, but is seeing fantastic reception from the beer drinking public. If you are interested in trying out one of the newest and fast-growing styles in the U.S. today, try any of the rye based beers below!
Bear Republic Brewing Company Hop Rod Rye
Spicy, grainy, and citrusy with a comparatively less bitter finish than most American IPAs. Darker and maltier than most American IPAs but the rye also adds a certain spicy quality that using crystal or Munich malt does not. Refreshing but filling, the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye is best had as an accompaniment to a strong Indian or Thai curry or on a cool, fall night.
Schmaltz Brewing Company He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A.
A fantastic Double IPA that incorporates rye to add more complexity, body, and flavor dimensions, all which take the overall beer to another level. Certainly a slow sipper, it’s incredibly long finish can sustain the palate for 5-10 minutes after a sip. Overall quite delicious and unique, the Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A is definitely worth adding to any DIPA pick six for a little variety and added malt character. This is a very strong, intense, and flavorful beer that is best enjoyed by itself as it will tend to overpower most food dishes.
New Holland Rye Hatter
This is the most balanced of the RyePAs I have had thus far. With easily noticeable but not overwhelming spicy rye character, great American citrus/floral/piney hop regimen, and very clean, smooth, and dry finish, New Holland really knocked it out of the park with this one. This, like the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye, makes for a perfect food companion because it does not overwhelm the palate quite as much as the Schmaltz He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A.
Terrapin Rye Pale Ale
An easy drinking and balanced beer with the best drinkability of the four suggested here that gets most of its flavor from caramel malt character and a slight spiciness from rye malt additions. With a moderately bitter finish but little discernible hop flavor or aroma, this Rye Pale Ale is a good one for those who aren’t hopheads but want to try a rye ale.
Beer and Food Pairing
Because rye ales have so much complexity of flavor, mixing bitter, toasty, citrusy, piney, floral, and spicy notes, these beers are quite versatile with food. However the best matches for them are strongly spiced foods like Indian, Pakistani, and Thai cuisine. One rule to bear in mind here is that chili or peppery heat, as is common in some of these dishes, is subdued by maltiness but accentuated by hoppiness. Thus, if you love scorching your tongue and breaking in a little sweat while you eat (like me!), then a particularly hoppy RyePA like the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye would be perfect. However, if you are eating a dish that relies more on flavor spices that hot spices and you don’t prefer breathing fire across the table, then you are better off pairing a maltier RyePA like the Terrapin or New Holland. In addition to spicy foods, strong RyePAs pair perfectly with blue or stinky cheeses like Gorgonzola or Limburger, while weaker examples pair well with nutty and earthy cheeses like Asiago and Parmesan. Finally, RyePAs can take blackened seafood or herb crusted poultry to another level by complementing the spices and herb rubs used on the meat. RyePAs overall tend to pair much more effectively with foods than standard American IPAs because of the added malt complexity and subdued bitterness. So when you are having your next dinner party or are wondering what to order at a restaurant, consider the RyePA your ticket to culinary nirvana!