All of this recent talk about the German Reinheitsgebot beer purity law got me wanting to go back and study it some more. It turns out that there were two very interesting reasons contributing to its creation and they both had to do with rye.
Rye was a wild grain, similar to both barley and wheat, which originated in what is now present-day Turkey. Its earliest evidence of human cultivation comes from around the middle Bronze Ages. Current domesticated crops run all throughout north-central Europe with Russia, Poland and Germany being the top producers.
As for its role in altering beer history, it started out in a very innocent and pragmatic fashion but took a much more serious turn due to a fungus.
Bavarian merchants had, for a long time, been encouraging the use of the much more plentiful barley as beer’s primary ingredient. Wheat and rye were both smaller crops and if brewers kept using those grains, it would eventually lead to a price war with the bakers who needed both for their bread. With plenty of barley to go around, the price of both bread and beer – liquid bread – would stay low.
But then something else happened. A large number of harvests began to succumb to ergot infection. Ergot is a fungus that causes hallucinations, convulsion, loss of extremities, even death in extreme cases. The Bavarian’s popular brew Roggenbier suffered for lack of useable grain and the Reinheitsgebot emphasized exclusion of rye as a method of protecting Germany’s citizens from ergotism.
It’s probably worth mentioning that synthesized lysergic acid is derived from ergot. No wonder many ancient people mistook ergotism for demonic possession or witchcraft. The seizures and visions of those unfortunate to have been poisoned must have been terrifying to their neighbors.
Rye has made a deserved comeback to the ranks of beer and Terrapin Brewing from Athens, Georgia has been using it for their ale for quite some time now in multiple offerings. Their Rye Pale Ale is a straightforward, well-rounded utility beer; not too explosive but not boring, either. Totally a session beer, this American pale ale is slightly cloudy orange-gold in color with minimal head but a nice foam cap and streaky lacing. Fresh citrus and floral hops greet the nose with slight earthiness hiding underneath. The rye adds a spicy bite to the grapefruit and pineapple followed by balanced caramel-honey malt sweetness.
I feel like referring to all good American rye ale as Mr. Kotter. Welcome back, indeed.