Brewing Session Ales and a Rye Recipe

I love the idea of session ales: you can have a few without falling out of your chair.  But, they’re devilishly hard to brew without tasting like you just added carbonated water to an actual beer.

The strategy for making session ales is actually quite simple.  In general, you want to get as much flavor and mouth feel as possible without increasing the alcohol content.  This means a higher mash temperature and perhaps a less attenuative, more flavorful yeast.  A slightly higher percentage of specialty malts might also be appropriate, so long as you can avoid it becoming cloying.  The addition of more hops will also help increase not only the flavor, but the mouth feel as well- the hop oils lend a certain fullness to the beer.  Also, moving the hop additions to closer to the end of the boil will help to boost the flavor and aroma output while keeping the bitterness at a manageable level.

Of course, this is all easier said than done.  Session ales can be far less forgiving of flaws- there’s simply not as much there to cover them.  My first attempt to brew a session ale fell into the carbonated water category.  It was meant to be an English bitter, but aside from being watery, it was just somehow… off.  I hate doing it, but I ended up dumping the batch and was put off of brewing session ales for quite some time.  My second attempt, my Stormy Night session stout, met with considerably more success, though at 4.75% ABV, it just barely meets the criteria of what many people might consider a session ale.  It also had the advantage of having some dark rich grains to add flavor and decrease fermentability.

While I was emboldened by the success of this beer, I was still nervous about the prospect of brewing something besides a session stout or porter.  Enter: rye.  Rye provides a fantastic amount of body to a beer, and a slightly different taste from the standard barley malt.  Many people say “spicey,” but I usually get something more grainy and bready.  In fact, James of Basic Brewing made a moderate gravity 100% rye ale which he described as hoppy cough syrup.  So, while a 100% rye beer might not be great for moderate or high gravities, it would be perfect for a sessionable ale where mouthfeel is at a premium.

Batch Size: 2 gal/ 7.57 L

3 lb/ 0.91 kg     Rye malt

1 oz/ 28 g       Simcoe, 12.7%, 10 min, 19.7 IBU
Total IBU:       19.7 (Tinseth)

4.4 g               Safale US-05 (2 g recommended)

Target CO2:     2 vol

OG:                 1.032 (73% mash eff; target 1.028, 65%)
FG:                  1.004
ABV:                3.9% after conditioning

Mash temp:          153F/ 67.2C (target 153F)
Mash thickness:   2 qt/lb/ 4.17 L/kg
Single infusion mash, brew in a bag
Boil time:              60 min

Calculated Profile:

Calcium 45.7 Sulfate 97.4 Hardness 115
Magnesium 0.1 Chloride 72.8 Alkalinity 0
Sodium 73.8 Bicarbonate 0.3 RA -32

I was pretty happy with this water profile, save for the sodium content, which is just how my water is served up.  I tweaked the sulfate to chloride ratio for a balanced beer, though I would have liked a bit more calcium.  Being that it is such a small beer, however, I chose to go light on the minerals.  I also made sure the residual alkalinity was very low. (See my water treatment posts here.)

Fermentation Temperature: 74F/ 23.3C ambient; pitched at 66.5F/ 19.2C; lamp to keep it warm after the ferment tapered off

Tasting Notes:

session rye ale

Session rye ale. Its a *bit* cloudier than I would like.

Aroma: pine and grapefruit hops

Appearance: extremely hazy to the point of looking like water with a few drops of milk with a touch of straw color; pours with no head

Taste: potent hop bitterness, almost sharp; a bit unbalanced to hops, but grain comes through after initial bitterness fades; lingering slightly harsh bitterness; taste would probably be enhanced by pitching less yeast- I over-pitched by over double, and you miss out on much of the flavor development from the yeast when over pitching

Mouthfeel: pretty substantial- feels like it could be a 50 or 60 OG beer; low carbonation, could be higher but I don’t think it’s bad this way; a higher mash temp would help to bring it up even further and give some balance to the beer

Overall: The hops need to be brought into balance with this beer so the rye can shine through more, but the mouthfeel is great.  The appearance is a bit off-putting- this needs to be cleaned up, even though I normally don’t mind such things.  My rye beers typically end up pretty cloudy, as well as my BIAB beers; the two combined made for a very cloudy beer.  I’d call this a good next step in my session beer journey, but not the destination.  This might be a good beer (with less hops) for a nice Belgian blonde yeast.

– Dennis,
Life, Fermented


About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

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