Rye has a long history as a brewer’s grain, but its prevalence in whiskey production has, until recently, overshadowed its use in beer. The explosion of craft brewing has seen rye become a more popular grain that gets used in both traditional styles and new hybrids. Brewers prize the unique dry and spicy character it lends to a beer’s flavor and aroma, and the proteins in rye can also provide a fuller mouthfeel and aid in head formation and retention. Recently two large craft breweries both introduced a rye-heavy take on the India Pale Ale: at the end of 2011 Widmer Bros released the O’Ryely IPA as part of their Rotator IPA series, and Sierra Nevada replaced their previous spring seasonal with Ruthless Rye IPA. Which copper-hued pale ale is a better example of rye’s unique qualities? We taste tested the two head-to-head to help you decide which is worth your craft beer dollar.
Widmer Rotator O’Ryely IPA
While this beer was released in the last months of 2011, it is still pretty easy to find at supermarkets, bottle shops, and on tap at local establishments. Widmer specifies the use of two different rye malts and three varieties of hops in the beer which they call
A big, punchy IPA with notable hoppiness and just a touch of caramel malty sweetness. The beer features subtle rye spiciness and fruity, berry-like aromoa and flavor.
We sampled a 12oz bottle purchased locally. The beer poured a deep copper color with a chunky off-white head. It smelled faintly of summer fruit with some spice-notes, and toasted malts dominated the flavor of the beer with only moderate hop flavor coming through. The beer is rated at 50 IBUs, which is right in the middle of the IPA definitions, but the bitterness of the O’Ryely is both lingering and harsh.
Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye IPA
A new Spring seasonal release for 2012, Ruthless made an impact with its gorgeous label art that is a dark comicbook-syle take on the classic Sierra Nevada logo. The beer matches the O’Ryely closely both in bitterness (Ruthless is rated a little more bitter at 55IBU) and ABV (6.6% versus the Widmer’s 6.4%). The Sierra Nevada Rye-PA omits the caramel roasted rye that the Widmer incorporates, but chocolate malt is added for additional color and complexity.
A locally purchased 12oz bottle was used to sample the beer which poured a darker copper capped with a stiff head that left thick rings of lacing down the glass. Citrus and pine resin were very prominent in the nose of the Ruthless, and the bold hop flavor dominated the flavor of the beer as well. The beer tasted like a classic Sierra Nevada brew, and it uses an “experimental hop variety” according to the Sierra Nevada website. The finish is notably dry with a more subtle lingering bitterness than the Widmer exhibited.
This was not even a close call, the Ruthless destroyed the competing IPA in every way for us. The resinous and sticky hop flavor paired with the crisp and dry finish keeps you going back to the glass until there is nothing left. However, we are not entirely sure that this head-to-head comparison was as fair as it could be, and there is some suspicion that the O’Ryely was an older bottle possibly past its prime. Hoppy beers can degrade even over a short period of time in the bottle, losing the punch of hops in their aroma, and we suspect this may have occurred with the Widmer bottle. It just didn’t have enough hop flavor and aroma to go with the bitterness and heavy malt flavors. The result was a beer that tasted unbalanced — a grievous sin for any IPA. But maybe we just didn’t like what the Widmer brewers were trying to do with their IPA.
Regardless, the Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye IPA is a new favorite at the Beer of Tomorrow HQ. It is an excellent example of the complexities that rye can bring to an IPA and a delicious, refreshing, and complex Spring seasonal.
More to Try
Some other widely available and well-regarded rye beers are:
- Bear Republic: Hop Rod Rye. This very highly regarded Rye-based IPA nearly reaches imperial gravity at 8%ABV and 80IBU. It’s a big and tasty beer that pairs floral hops with the spicy rye body, and it was the go-to rye beer at Beer of Tomorrow until Ruthless came along.
- Founders Brewing: Red’s Rye IPA. Another well reviewed IPA that is very close to our two contenders in ABV, but considerably more bitter than either. The Founders Brewing bottles can be tough to find in Southern California; if you see some locally grab them and let us know what you think!
- Shmaltz Brewing: Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA. This Rye IPA, a tribute to comedian Lenny Bruce, comes highly recommended to us though we have yet to have a chance to sample it. Another Double IPA-style rye that contains an extreme amount of bold hops Bittersweet Lenny is another favorite of the Beer Advocate reviewers. You can be sure that we’ll be hunting down a few bottles of this!
- Golden Road Brewing: Rye on the Pallet. This limited release from LA’s new craft brewers is more about the rye and dark malts than the hops, and it showcases the rye’s effect on body, mouthfeel, and head formation. Certainly worth trying if you find it on tap around town.