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No Longer Just For Macro Lagers, Craft Beer Is Finally Embracing Rice

When planning some of the first recipes at Dallas’s Vector Brewing, head of brewing Tomás Gutierrez looked to beer’s origins.

The earliest beers made thousands of years ago were a kind of porridge or beer soup made from cereal grains. So, in collaboration with nearby Intrinsic Brewing, Gutierrez started designing soup-inspired beers. There was a tom kha hazy IPA, based on the Thai coconut soup. There was a Mexican pozole-inspired smoked beer, with a full hog’s head in the boil.

But the one that has stuck around and become a crowd favorite started with one of Gutierrez’s favorite comfort foods: pho.

“All the spices and aromatics in that really play well,” Gutierrez says. “The first one we did was just lemongrass, basil, and Thai chili.”

But the key ingredient that keeps his spiced Pho Sho lager clean and crisp is also an ancient one: rice.

And like Gutierrez, craft brewers across the country are tapping the grain for their latest creations, finding inspiration in global and local flavors, and drinkers are unsurprisingly on board.

Can rice go craft?

Rice beer has roots in civilization’s earliest fermented beverages, and is a key part of some of the world’s top-selling beer brands. (Bud Light proudly touts rice as one of its four ingredients.) But despite — and in part because of — its mass-market appeal, rice has largely been overlooked by the craft beer industry.

“There definitely is a stigma around using those adjuncts like rice or using corn,” says Shawn Oberle, the head brewer at Broadway Brewery in Columbia, Mo. “For a long time, they weren’t cool to make. Everyone was making the big IPAs or sours and things like that.”

“It just feels right as being part of this community, part of this area, to utilize something that’s important to so many people.”

But in the last several years, more craft brewers have begun embracing light lagers, from “crispy boi” pilsners to other adjunct-based brews that appeal to both craft and non-craft drinkers.

“People love lagers and light beer, but they’ve always been pushed as non-craft,” says Aaron Weshnak, the head brewer at Dokkaebier, a Korean-owned brewery in Oakland that focuses on Asian-inspired flavors and ingredients. His Rice Kolsch is one of the brewery’s flagship beers. “Why don’t we just make a good craft beer with rice, and instead of it being this garbage adjunct, it’s a valued ingredient?”

When brewed with other malts, rice can boost alcohol without boosting the body of a beer. Japanese rice lagers like Sapporo utilize rice to keep the beer ultra-light and dry. It’s also a key ingredient in light American lagers, giving them a pale straw color and a clean, neutral flavor profile.

For Ryan O’Donnell, the head brewer at Crying Eagle Brewing Company in Lake Charles, La., brewing a light lager with rice is a chance to salute the region’s cash crop. There are rice festivals in his part of southwest Louisiana, and the rice industry employs a lot of the people who drink his beer locally.

Every year, he goes to a local rice mill, where he picks up a truckful of milled rice grown, harvested, and processed right in his backyard. It’s part of what makes his Louisiana Lager a best-seller, he says.

“It just feels right as being part of this community, part of this area, to utilize something that’s important to so many people,” O’Donnell says. “It’s very important to me if I say something’s in a beer, that you taste it in the beer, and you taste it properly in the beer.”

Experimenting With Flavor

Other brewers, like Oberle and Gutierrez, are using that light lager base as an opportunity to experiment with other Asian-inspired flavors.

During the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, Oberle wanted to make a beer version of dashi, the broth that’s used for dishes like miso soup and ramen. A traditional dashi uses a dried kelp called kombu and katsuobushi, fermented fish flakes.

“We are seeing people go back to those lighter lagers or something that’s a little bit more approachable.”

Oberle swapped the fish flakes for lemongrass in his Dashi rice lager, but kept the kelp for added salinity and umami. He first brewed it as a one-off small batch, but it quickly became a crowd favorite, and is now on the brewery’s seasonal rotation.

“There’s enough of that characteristic to it that people can kind of grab on to while also providing some uniqueness with the lemongrass and brightness,” Oberle says. “We’ve had it on tap at different sushi restaurants, and it’s gone over really well. It pairs well with what they’ve got going on.”

Oberle makes another adjunct lager with corn, and says he is finding that all kinds of consumers are looking for lighter beers, not just the palate-crushing IPAs and barrel-aged stouts that have defined much of the American craft beer movement.

“We are seeing people go back to those lighter lagers or something that’s a little bit more approachable,” Oberle says. “They’re not drinking Coors Light at home primarily, but still are willing to kind of go out and drink [a light lager] at the restaurant or pick it up off the shelves.”

In the few years since first brewing his pho lager, Gutierrez has continued working on the recipe. He tried several broths from some of his favorite pho restaurants, and went on a shopping spree at a Vietnamese grocery store near the brewery. He ended up spicing this year’s Pho Sho lager with more than 15 spices and herbs, including Thai basil and Thai chilies, cardamom, galangal, shiitake mushrooms, and black peppercorn — all with a flaked brown rice backbone.

He’s also brewed a lager with sake-grade Yamada Nishiki rice grown in Arkansas and inoculated with koji spores to add additional citrus and umami flavors.

“It lends a little bit of a lighter body in conjunction with lending lighter flavor profiles,” Gutierrez says. “Having like a cool little spice note or something subtle enough in something so crushable is kind of cool.”

Weshnak says those flavors leave ample room for experimentation, especially as more craft brewers look toward Asian ingredients for inspiration. Along with the Rice Kolsch, he also makes a Kimchi Sour, a Lemongrass Witbier, and Yuza Blonde Ale.

“You have these like untapped resources of all these Asian ingredients that are just not in the traditional beer world,” Weshnak says. “It’s just fun. I mean, these beers are just interesting.”

The article No Longer Just For Macro Lagers, Craft Beer Is Finally Embracing Rice appeared first on VinePair.

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