Once derided as worthless, rye is making a comeback in bread, bourbon and beer
written by Julie Lee
photography by Toby Nolan
Once considered a weed amongst fields and often hailed as an underdog, rye is viewed by some as the world’s most underrated grain, though countries like Russia have long adopted it as a staple, using it in breads and other recipes. The carb-laden grain is also used to make whiskey, bourbon, and beer, and can be incorporated in vodka and gin as well.
Farmer and brewer Seth Klann of Brad Klann Farms near Madras, is considered an authority in the field of rye and other grains among his peers. “Seth is one of those special generational family farmers who has upheld traditional methods and expanded to his own unique malting techniques.” said Clark McCool, general manager of production at McMenamins, Inc.
Klann’s family’s farm has specialized in grain and diversified seed production since 1905 and is home to Mecca Grade Estate Malt, where it is sold at their malthouse as well as to breweries in Oregon and California, including many Bend-birthed favorites such as Crux Fermentation Project. It starts from scratch with Klann. He grows his own base ingredients rather than sourcing elsewhere.
“Just like an estate vineyard might specialize in growing a single varietal of wine grape, we’re committed to working with single varieties of grain for malting. Virtually all commercial malt (derives from numerous) varieties originating from several different growing regions, which are blended and delivered to large factory malthouses via bulk transport,” Klann said. “We source 100 percent of our grain from our own farm. I believe this is the definition of what ‘estate’ should be. Most of our grains are heirloom varieties that are more challenging to grow and malt but pack a tremendous amount of flavor when compared to more mainstream malt.”
Klann’s personal mission is to prove that terroir in grain is real, important and flavorful. There is a catch—the only way to truly taste terroir in beer or whiskey is to eliminate as many variables as possible and any source of blending, whether that is vintage, variety, farm location or otherwise. Their estate-grown, single-source, malting grain is raised within a 2-mile radius of the malthouse, providing uniformity across fields, including near-identical yields, soil types, irrigation rates and climate. “As malt farmers, our goal is to produce the exact same high-quality crop year after year and have the technology to make each batch identical,” he said.
Growing, rather than sourcing, provides extra challenges in years where a pandemic suddenly upends the restaurant industry and fluctuating weather conditions include a drought. “When Covid hit, overnight our production dropped to 0% because most of our estate malt supplies small breweries and pubs, all of which were being shuttered,” said Klann. “This challenge was further compounded with the historic drought that’s afflicted much of the West.”
High Desert farmers are completely dependent on irrigation to produce world-class grains and water is critical to the production of rye—from planting in March until harvest in August, a healthy rye crop needs 20 inches of precipitation to produce an excellent quality grain for malt production, and in recent years, Klann’s farm received a mere one to two inches of precipitation, mostly attributed to snowfall. Even though water allotment is 40% of what is needed to grow crops on the 1000-acre farm, Klann is still able to supply all the necessary grain for the estate malthouse.
“As far as we know,” said Klann, “we are one of the only places in the world that is farming, malting, and brewing all on site. Visitors can taste the beer, get a tour of the malting process, and enjoy the awesome High Desert landscape all in one place. The thought is to scale the brewery organically to meet consumer demand.”
Whitney Burnside, head brewer at 10 Barrel Brewing, likes to use rye in her creations, and recently brewed “Rye’d Together,” a Rye West Coast IPA. Showcasing some of the best ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, the pale malt is accompanied by a bundle of white wheat and a touch of malted rye, giving the beer a clean, crisp base with a balanced yet earthy complexity.
One of the most celebrated uses of rye in Oregon is the reuben sandwich at Portland’s Goose Hollow Inn, originally put on the menu by former mayor Bud Clark. The family business has trickled down generations, and current owner and daughter, Rachel Clark, who became a vegetarian, yearned for an option to the classic reuben, melding flavors of thick Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and reuben sauce, but without being chock full of corned beef brisket. She created one, using vegetables she sourced from her family’s restaurant kitchen: mushrooms, onions, and fresh tomato slices.
“Since our invention thirty-three years ago,” said Clark, “we’ve gained quite a following for our Rachel’s Reuben, along with our classic corned beef reuben and turkey reuben, and we have heard no convincing reasons for changing what has been one of our best-selling sandwiches.”