Drink This Now: Super-Dry Dark Rye Ales
When the mercury dips below the double-digit mark, as it’s done way too frequently lately, one of the best things you can sip is a spicy rye ale. Made from a small percentage of malted rye (usually 10 percent or less of the overall malt bill), these beers are rich, peppery, and pleasantly astringent with unparalleled dryness and clean, lager-like finishes.
One of my favorites this winter is Echo Maker, a dark, unfiltered rye ale I discovered at the Owl Farm, a spare brick tavern in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Immediately intrigued by its toasty aroma and evocative name, I tracked down the man responsible: Travis Kauffman, the proprietor of Folksbier, a new brewery nearby in the borough.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I’m sitting at an impromptu bar inside Kauffman’s dimly lit brewery, a converted electrician’s warehouse on Luquer Street. Kauffman has invited a smattering of friends over to taste his latest brews. (Many of them work a block over at Prime Meats, a Bavarian-accented bistro where Kauffman used to be a managing partner.)
Kauffman, 39, is a genial, low-key kind of guy with thick-framed glasses and a scruffy beard, who started home-brewing over a decade ago and got a commercial brewing license for Folksbier just last summer. Since then, he’s focused on crafting three different ales—Echo Maker, the Morning Dew (a heady “Alpine” ale), and Helles Simple (a light, chuggable lager-like ale)—and plans to produce about 1,000 barrels this year, about a quarter-million pints of the good stuff.
Above the din of a vintage home stereo system (both the Zombies and Neil Young are in heavy rotation), I ask Kauffman about the rye ale that caught my attention.
“I modeled it on an obscure German style called roggenbier,” Kauffman explains as his two French bulldogs trot by. “It’s made with three different types of rye, including caramel and chocolate varieties,” he adds, referring to the precise degree of roasting on the grains.
Roggenbiers, Kauffman says, were popular centuries ago, before the stringent Reinheitsgebot (Germany’s so-called beer purity law) forbade any grain other than malted barley in beer—“roggen” is German for rye. Before the 1516 law, the Bavarians were industrious brewers, making beer with whatever grain grew in their fields, often hearty rye varieties that could withstand the continent’s bleak climes and anemic soils. Beermakers in neighboring regions, such as the Baltic states and Russia, used rye, too, and one of the earliest versions, sahti, came from southern Scandinavia.
Now brewers like Kauffman are rediscovering the way rye creates a unique bouquet of flavors—sharp, dry, and earthy—that isn't achievable with any other grain. As a result, rye beers are making something of a comeback, albeit slowly. The first modern roggenbier was brewed in Germany in the 1980s, and more recently India Pale Ales made with small percentages of malted rye have become popular among such American brewers as Sierra Nevada and Sixpoint, which currently produce Ruthless Rye and Righteous Ale, respectively.
It’s the rye that makes Echo Maker so alluring. It's a drink to luxuriate over. At Folksbier, I notice the beer in my glass is hazy and opaque with a fluffy, off-white head and a deep mahogany hue. I take a sniff and inhale—aromas of coffee and chocolate flutter by with maybe a hint of lemon or grapefruit. It looks and smells as if it might knock you off your feet. But sip it, and a faint, refreshing sourness comes through along with some prickly spice and an unexpected hint of tropical fruit.
It’s getting late, and after a few pints, I ask Kauffman about the meaning of the name. “An echo is all about space,” he says, fidgeting behind a walnut bar, “the dark in-betweens that propagate sound.” He says it’s also a nod to sandhill cranes—known to Native Americans as “the echo makers” due to their reverberative calls—which migrate through the Kauffman family’s northern Michigan farm each fall. Kauffman began growing hops there last spring, which he’ll be using for future batches.
“Want another splash?” Kauffman asks, eyeing my empty glass and sensing my impending departure. “One more,” I reply, saddling back up at the bar, because how can I say no? Kauffman is interested in balance and drinkability, and with the Echo Maker he has produced a rye ale that’s crisp but warming, all at the same time. It’s the perfect thing for hunkering down on a cold night and drinking, one after another.
And until we see the first signs of spring, that’s exactly what I want from a beer.
Rye Ales to Try
Ninkasi the Devil Went Down to Oregon
A collaboration between Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing and Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone, this imperial dark rye is a harmonious lovechild of a West Coast-style hop bomb and a German-style roggenbier. ($6 per 22oz bottle at select Whole Foods)