Beyond Barley: What Alternate Grains Add to a Beer's Flavor Profile

By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor

There are four basic ingredients that make their way into 99% of the beers that people enjoy on a regular basis: water, which makes up 90-95% of a beer's mass; yeast, the living compound that turns sweet flavored water into beer; hops, the flowering plant that imparts flavor, bitterness, and acts as a preservative; and grain, which gives beer sweetness and body. In most beers, this grain is malted barley, which is particularly suited to making beer. It is generally easy and economical to grow, its husk protects the grain within and allows better drainage during mash production, it contains the enzymes necessary to convert starches into the sugars necessary to feed the yeast in the brewing process, and its low protein content yields clear, vibrantly-colored beers.

It would be a major mistake to assume that beer ends with barley, however. Brewers have been using a variety of different grains for centuries, each of which can add valuable traits to beers that contain them. Flavor, body, mouthfeel, and color can all be enhanced by using various grains in the brewing process. Several of these grains are outlined below. 

Wheat

Wheat beers are among the most common alternate-grain beers available in the marketplace today. They are also the most historically prevalent, as archeological evidence indicates that beers incorporating both barley and wheat likely date back to the ancient Sumerian tribes, which settled in modern day Iraq between 5500-4000 BC. In terms of modern brewing, wheat is most commonly seen in German Weissbiers and Belgian Witbier.

The German Weissbiers, a category that includes the well-known and loved style Hefeweizen, are ubiquitous across Germany and have gained a following outside of Germany as well. Bavarian law dictates that these beers must be brewed with at least 50% malted wheat, though most brewers will use 60-70% wheat (beers made with 100% wheat would make lautering, an essential part of the brewing process, extremely difficult, and as a result are rarely seen outside of laboratories).

Hefeweizens are known for their distinctive banana and clove flavors, as well as their cloudy color and thick, creamy white head. Though the banana-clove combo comes from the distinctive yeast strains used in brewing Hefeweizen, the cloudy color and head retention are trademarks of the wheat at work. Wheat also serves to lighten the body of beers and impart a light acidity, traits that make hefeweizens and other wheat beers ideal for summertime drinking, when refreshment is key. The light acidic zing wheat provides plays a crucial role in Berliner Weisse, a tart, refreshing German sour beer style native to Berlin that Napoleon allegedly referred to as “the Champagne of the North.” Belgian witbiers share their German cousin's cloudy, hazy appearance, along with a slight acidic twang. Wheat also plays a crucial role in traditional Belgian lambic, a funky, bracingly sour style that has become a favorite among craft beer aficionados.

Rye

Malted rye is often added to a beer's grain bill in much the same way that wheat is, with the final grain blend being a mix between the two. Rye imparts a spicy, slightly tart character to beers, creating distinct, complex favor profiles that lend themselves well to various styles of beer. The spiciness of rye malt can further enhance the complex hop bouquet found in American IPAs. It can complement and balance the rich, sweet flavors found in Imperial Stouts, and plays well with sour, wild ales as well. Seek out examples such as Founder's Red's Rye IPA, or The Bruery's Sour in the Rye. For an intense rye experience, seek out a Roggenbier, a traditional Bavarian style that uses rye the way a Hefeweizen uses wheat, with around 50% of the grain bill composed of rye.

Oats

Typically, oats do not contribute to the flavor profile of a beer the way that wheat or rye do (though a slight sweetness is sometimes ascribed to oat addition). However, when added to a beer's grain bill, oats contribute a smooth, creamy mouthfeel that can elevate the coffee and chocolate flavors in a stout from tasty to transcendent. The classic example is Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, and fantastic domestic examples are being produced with frequency. Breweries have begun to add oats to other styles as well, such as New Belgium's delicious Oatmeal IPA.

Corn and Rice

Mention corn and rice to many craft beer geeks, and the reaction will not be pleasant. These grains have been vilified, mainly due to the part they play in many American macro light lagers such as Coors and Budweiser, where they are used more for their fiscal benefits (corn and rice are cheaper than malted barley) than any character they give to the actual beer. However, there are reasons to use these grains in brewing, and in the right hands they can produce quality beers. Both of these grains provide fermentable sugars necessary for yeast activity, without imparting much flavor. They are often used to lighten the body of beers, reduce haze formation, and provide a dry finish.