Saturday, April 3, 2010

Rye-a-Rama: Rye Hopper, Cane and Ebel, Bitter Woman in the Rye, Hop Rod Rye, and Red's Rye PA

Last year, you may recall, I tried Bell's Rye stout - the first and only rye beer I'd ever had. I wasn't amazed by that brew (I gave it a B), but it was intriguingly smooth and bready. Enough to make me curious as to what everyone else was doing with this stuff, barley's meaner cousin. Surely there had to be some interesting beers out there using it. And, as a result, I've spent the last couple of months gathering a few together for a comparison.

Without further ado, the beers are:

-the Rye Hopper from the French Broad Brewing Co. in Asheville,
-the Cane and Ebel from Two Brothers in Warrenville (about an hour west of Chicago),
-the Bitter Woman in the Rye from Tyranena in a mysterious location between Madison and Milwaukee,
-the Hop Rod Rye from Bear Republic in Cloverdale CA, and finally
-Red's Rye PA (that's not a typo) from Founders in Grand Rapids.

Most of these are basically IPAs with rye in them, although a few (particularly the Two Brothers entry) look like genuine oddballs. They range from obscure 5.9% lightweights (the Rye Hopper) to nationally distributed 8% monsters (the Bear Republic entry). I'm genuinely curious as to what these taste like, and which is best.

So, let's start with the underdog first: the Rye Hopper. French Broad is a tiny little brewery (I've been there!) nestled in on the south side of Asheville. I tried a couple of their beers while I was down there (their Wee Heavier, by the way, is quite good) and grabbed a bomber of this particular treat to go. The bottle design is, let's say, uninspired. This, to my mind, is no bad thing - it may just mean they've put the money they would've otherwise spent on a guy with a macbook into their beer. And, well, since this is my first rye beer after the Bell's I don't really know what to expect from it. But I've come to trust that these folks know what they're doing.

Well, it pours a lovely and rich amber color, with about a finger and a half's worth of off-white head. The aroma is initially more hoppy than anything else - good all-American citrus, IPA stuff. Actually, you'd be totally justified in taking this stuff as an IPA prima facie. But don't be fooled, because a little deeper in there's definitely something different: the malts are really bready, almost earthy, like a field on a dry day. That, presumably, would be the rye, then. There's a little bit of the usual caramel note from the malts in there too, but the stars here are definitely the good ol' California hops and that funky rye malt.

The taste, too, initially fooled me into thinking "India Pale." Initially there's that penetrating Christmas tree bitterness characteristic of American IPAs, but then it takes a hard left turn. Where I expect it to develop into caramel and more citrus, it suddenly becomes spicy and bready - mouth-coveringly so, although not in the cloying way that the Bell's sometimes flirted with. It's a pure, uncomplicated moment of rye, and I like it. The ending is more traditional - your usual IPA slap of sharp citrusy hops - but after the hops die away the aftertaste, again, is really dominated by the spicy bread notes. The stuff clings on like crazy, which really only makes me want to drink more.

This is a fine brew. The more I drink it the more I notice a lonely bit of caramel sweetness way way in the back trying to moderate things, but it doesn't really have a chance: this stuff is very dry and shamelessly bitter. It's like drinking a caraway and cascade smoothie (maybe a little less thick). The mouthfeel may be right smack dab in the middle, but it's still surprisingly full-bodied for a mere 5.9 percenter. I like this stuff a lot, and I'm liking it more and more as I near the bottom of the bottle. It's a sipper, to be sure - there's just way too much flavor here to drink it with any speed - but it's never overwhelming, and it never gets old. I'd even be tempted to call this a perfect dinner beer, if I could think of something to pair it with (lamb, maybe?).

But that's enough of the Rye Hopper for now, because we've got more beers to do. For our second rye offering, we move from the mountains of Asheville to the flatlands of Illinois. And if French Broad was going for an IPA with rye (a RyePA, as Founders would have it), a hoppy sipper of an ale with spicy bready notes, then the the Two Brothers folks seem to be up to something entirely different. Just look at how they describe this stuff on their website. Simcoe and summit hops? "Thai palm sugar"? Who do these guys think they are, Dogfish Head? Originality definitely seems to be number one here, so here too I don't know entirely what to expect.

The Cane and Ebel pours a very dark ruby-amber shade, much darker than the French Broad entry. This time there's only a one-finger head or so, and it quickly retreats - this is a seven-percenter to the previous 5.9, remember. And the aroma. Wow, that's different. It starts off hoppy - a oddly fruity kind of bite mixed with some of the usual citrus notes. There's some toffee in there too, from the malts. It's all very civil and normal, right up until the point where you give it a few swirls - and suddenly the nose goes insane. Mango? Vanilla? Cherries? Peaches? Cloves? It's an astonishing cloud of flavors, one of the most complex and elusive noses I've ever come across. The only thing missing, really, is the rye notes I was expecting. Maybe they've just been outdone here. In any case, it's a fabulous aroma and I'm nearly ready to recommend this stuff by smell alone. Unless it tastes like a sewer pipe, it's not getting lower than a B.

It doesn't taste like a sewer pipe. As a matter of fact, it's really, really nice. The taste certainly isn't as varied as the smell, but how could it be? And surprisingly - considering the crazy ingredients and the extra alcohol - it's actually easier to drink than the previous entry. Smoother than a newly-buffed bowling ball, this stuff. The front end's a caress of sweet and sour malt, plus a peck of bitter hops (not up there with a serious imperial IPA, but you definitely know they're there). Towards the middle it gets even sweeter, way sweeter than the Rye Hopper, and at the same time the familiar spicy-grainy rye flavors start to creep in. This is where the beer wins me over: the combination of bready rye and sweet malt and sugar is phenomenal. Then there's the hoppy bite followed by the bready aftertaste - but again, much sweeter this time out. Some might find the sugar slightly too much here, but I totally dig it. And this is an aftertaste that'll last awhile, too, if you let it - but you won't, because you're already taking another sip.

This is a fantastic beer; I've absolutely fallen in love. And I shouldn't have: normally I adore stouts and dopplebocks, heavy dark malty stuff, and not ridiculous hoppy sugary bready things. But just look at me, I'm sucking this bottle down like a fish. And when I'm done, I'll probably want another (which I don't have). In a strange way this actually reminds me of the Celebrator: there's that same sense of, "there's no way something this complex should be so drinkable." It's hard to find any flaws at all. Again, someone without my sweet tooth may find it too sugary, but that's literally the worst thing one can say. Other than that, this beer is pretty much perfect.

It's the mark of first drinking an A-level beer that the world is a little bit different afterwards. And here that's true in the usual sense - it's set a new standard, almost a new genre- but also in another one as well. Before, if you wanted to head to the store and buy a truly great beer made roundabouts the Chicago area, you had to choose between the Yankees-esque and rather boring Goose Island and the brilliant but cultish Three Floyds... and that was mostly it (maybe Half-Acre too, but you have to look around a bit for them). Now, however, there's a third way. Two Brothers are a little crazy, but affordable and available; they aren't totally ubiquitous nor the cheapest option, but neither are they going to only sell their most famous beer on one day a year. They've become, as it were, the Bill Clinton of Chicago brewing. If they can keep making beers like this, everyone else should be very worried.

But we must be moving on. I honestly didn't think the Two Brothers would be quite so good; I was expecting to wander through these first few rather unremarkably, letting the favorites clean up at the end. But now I may have hit the summit early. Whatever the case, I feel a bit of sympathy for the beer up next in line. And, oh lord, it happens to be Tyrenena's Bitter Woman in the Rye. There's an uphill battle in store for the folks from Wisconsin.

Now, I tried Tyrenena's normal Bitter Woman IPA sometime last year and I rather liked it. It's not particularly strong (like some American IPAs) in terms of alcoholic muscle, but it more than makes up for it by firing a great big grapeshot load of bitter fruity hoppiness directly into your mouth and sinuses. What they've done here, I suppose, is make pretty much the same beer and throw some rye into the recipe. No indication at all of how strong this is, but the original was in the high five range (5.75%) and I expect about the same here.

Well, it pours almost exactly like the Rye Hopper - beautifully amber-colored, with a quickly-receding one-finger head. I suppose I should expect that, given that both beers are more or less modified IPAs: this beer looks like one and smells like one. But it's quite a lot sweeter-smelling than I recall from the original Bitter Woman - the caramel malts are right up front, and the classic west coast hops come following behind. The hops actually come across as pretty subdued compared (once again) to the Rye Hopper. And, of course, there's the same bready notes from the rye. It's a nice aroma, and I think I actually prefer it over the French Broad offering - at the price of a little power there's a touch more depth, although nowhere near the variety of Cane and Ebel. (Compared to that masterpiece, this nose - as good as it is - loses out hard.)

When you sip it, BWitR comes across quite a lot less sweet than you'd think it would (although it's still moreso than the Rye Hopper). Sweet honey is first up, along with a nibble of hops. There's more sugar and bitterness throughout the middle, but it's only at the end that the grainy, spicy, bready rye taste peeks in. Unlike the last two beers, though, it never really takes over. Actually, this has by far the least rye flavor of anything here. The aftertaste is more caramel malt, hops, and more of what remains from the (rather half-hearted) rye infusion.

In essence, BWitR is what it says on the label: more than the Rye Hopper, this isn't so much a "rye beer" as an IPA with rye added. The results are pretty good, albeit outclassed in this company. What's most interesting about this experiment, though, is that they somehow ended up with something less exciting than what they started out with. In the end, this is a beer that can't quite decide what it wants to be: the addition of rye rounds out the aggressive hop edge, lessening its power as an IPA, but there's not enough extra character to carry it somewhere else. On the other hand, this rather muddled status makes it very appealing for a different role. To my taste, Bitter Woman with rye in it becomes something of a party beer - were it not so tough to find, I'd definitely think about substituting it in for a more typical (mild) IPA the next time I'm playing host. It's not something that'll give anyone a revelation, but you could very easily entertain a group for a few hours with a six-pack or three.

But once again, it's time to move on. At last, here it is: the daddy. The Hop Rod Rye.

This beer intimidates by what's on the bottle alone. The ugly flaming 1930s hot rod coupe (were they watching The California Kid for inspiration?) may initially seem goofy, but in geeky microbrewer vocabulary it screams "Don't fuck with me, I'm serious." The only way to do this better is to transpose a hop blossom onto a skull and crossbones. And then there's the text - the scary bits aren't so much the ones that say "made with 18% rye," but the ones that say "8% alcohol by volume" and "Sediment at bottom of bottle may be a result of the truckload of hops." And this is even before you notice that BeerAdvocate ranks this as the 71st best beer in the world, the only rye beer to make the top 100. So I'm fully expecting this to kick my ass.

Let's give her a pour, then.

Holy lord that's hoppy. The California explodes out of the bottle the moment I pop the cap, and it only gets more dense as I pour the stuff. The color is actually quite similar to the Two Brothers - a kind of very dark amber, perhaps a few shades bleaker than the previous entry. And as promised, there are indeed floaties, and lots of them. The head is cream flaked with orange, two fingers' worth, a foamy monster that sticks around despite the alcohol dragging it south. Holy mother is this going to be strong. The aroma dies down a bit after a moment, but a swirl or two brings it right back. Yup, all hops. There's not even a nod towards balancing here - no real malts in the aroma at all, not even the rye, just grapefruit and pine needles as far as the nose can smell. It doesn't have anywhere near the nuance of the Cane and Ebel, but then that's not the point. This is all about brute force, shock and awe, sheer scale. When Heidegger evoked the category of the "enormous," he was thinking about this beer.

The first moment you sip it, however, you suspect something's gone wrong. There's a tiny citrus bite on the tongue up front, but in the middle it's actually extremely well-behaved. Hell, there's even a nice baked toffee flavor in there and way more maltiness than one would have expected from the smell. It's nice, it's soothing. You might even begin to relax. And then you swallow, and all hell breaks loose.

There's nothing subtle about how this brew behaves at the back of your mouth; it's as if the skies simply open up and drop a sharp piney firestorm onto your pretty malt paradise. This moment right here, the split-second in which you swallow a mouthful of HRR, is the essence of California brewing. It's the Summa Hopologiae if you will. If you love such beer then you owe it to yourself to stop reading this right now and go pick up a bottle immediately. And strangely enough, it's the rye that first provides some relief to all this. It slowly, slowly cuts its way through the forest of christmas trees and grapefruits to supply its characteristic earthy-grainy taste. The rye totally dominates the aftertaste (which is, of course, very dry), sitting alongside a load of residual hops. And neither is going away for awhile - not until you take another sip (which you will).

Alcohol? Well, I can tell it's stronger than the other three, but not by a lot (I would have guessed in the low sevens). The mouthfeel is creamy but (inexplicably) pretty light for such a monster - like the others, I suspect this is down to the rye contents. Like the Rye Hopper and BWitR, this is a California IPA at heart with rye added for a bit of character. Unlike the Tyranena entry, the two are complimentary: there's no way I could enjoy a beer this hoppy without something special to provide relief, and the rye does that brilliantly.

This is the best of the rye IPAs so far. All three are all uncomplicated, wonderful slices of hoppy Americana. But while the Hopper is an Olds 442 - quirky and obscure, but still a brute - and the Woman in the Rye is a 'Stang - strangely civil in spite of itself - the Hop Rod Rye is a Hemi Barracuda. It's not pretty, neither is it subtle. It's got more power and probably more insanity than a third world dictator. It's one of the most distinctive beers I've ever had, But - dare I say? - in the end I believe I still prefer Two Brothers with their Ferrari Daytona.

There's one more beer to review here, but it's one I bought significantly later than the others (like, by a couple of weeks). It's the entry from Founders, Red's (so-called) Rye PA. Although the competition isn't exactly fresh in my mind, I couldn't post this comparo in good faith without trying this stuff, since - with the possible exception of the Bear Republic entry - it's by far the most common beer of this sort. So: how does it stack up?

Well, like the French Broad and Tyrenena beers, it pours a nice amber orange. It's a shade or two darker than the others, although not quite into Bear Republic territory. The head, too, gives itself about a finger before sinking back into the depths. And, unsurprisingly, this is quite hoppy - close to imperial IPA territory, in fact. Nothing like the sheer force of the previous entry, but in return there's a bit more nuance: along with the typical grapefruit smells there's a nice, freshly-mowed grass sort of aroma. It's not rye, not that I can tell anyways, but it's rather nice. And, with a bit of agitation, the malts come right out: I detect lots of caramel and toffee smells, but still no rye. Hmm.

The flavor profile is, well - it's rather like the Rye Hopper, really, only not as good. There's a bit of sharp piney bitterness up front, just like an IPA, and then the rye hits - only instead of being a kind of spicy sandwich, as the French Broad is, this one slaps you with a mouthful of wet construction paper. It's definitely rye, but it's all gone wrong somehow: it should make me want to drink more, not scrape my mouth out with a chisel. Fair enough, there are some sweeter malts in here fighting back, but it's pretty pointless: in its middle sections this beer is basically like drinking newspaper. The finish is a little bit better, if only because it goes back to an old-fashioned imperial IPA citrus bomb. But even that's not enough to save it, as the aftertaste is really not pleasant - again, the rye taste sticks around like my mouth's been coated with paper mache.

I don't like this beer at all. And it's actually pretty watery compared to the others. And I can taste the extra alcohol (6.6%), although it's not quite as strong as the HRR. Is there anything at all that's good about this beer? Well... I suppose it gets slightly easier to drink after awhile... but that's like saying you get used to being smothered with paper towels after it happens a few times. And it's still no excuse not to go for a regular imperial IPA. I suppose it's pretty smooth too, although the paper flavors rather ruin that too. So, yes, this is not at all to my taste. But some might like it, I suspect: if you like hoppy beers with long, raspy finishes, this could be your brew. I'll leave it to you; you can have it.

I dunno. This is the second Founders in a row which I've hated; maybe I'm just not getting it? Maybe I have an irrational dislike of the company? Maybe. But, to my judgment, this is easily the least-successful of the IPA-with-rye brews. Bear Republic rounded out a beer that would otherwise be too brutal; French Broad added an interesting middle section to a good ol' fashioned IPA; Tyranena rather unwittingly made a rather solid session beer. What, exactly, have Founders done? I can't really say they failed, because I have no idea what they were going for in the first place.

Red's Rye seems to me, at best, like a novelty. "Rye beer! Wow!" It's around, perhaps, so that folks can try it once and impress their friends. But if you must drink such a thing - and you should - take it from me: there are better examples out there. At least five, in fact, counting these and the Bell's.

French Broad Rye Hopper
Grade: B+
Summary: A delicious spicy grapefruit sandwich on rye. Okay, that doesn't sound remotely appealing, but trust me: it works.

Two Brothers Cane and Ebel
Grade: A
Summary: It tastes like hoppy grain candy, and it smells like a bunch of fruit having an orgy in a p√Ętisserie.

Tyrenena Bitter Woman in the Rye
Grade: B
Summary: It'd be perfect for your average grad school departmental party. Shame it's so hard to find.

Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye
Grade: A
Summary: A bottle of flaming hop juice, otherwise nigh-undrinkable, is mediated and made into a tour de force by a big dollop of rye. I'd still take the C&E most days, though.

Founder's Red's Rye PA
Grade: C-
Summary: Dip the New York Times in a good IPA and then chew on it for awhile, and I think you'll get roughly the same effect.

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