Rice enjoys craft beer renaissance

Vicky BoydUsing rice as a beer ingredient is nothing new. Brewers before Prohibition used the grain because it imparted a light, crisp taste and effervescence, and Anheuser Busch has been doing so for decades.

But they all used rice as an adjunct ingredient and a starch source in addition to barley. Jim Eckert, owner of Eckert Malting and Brewing in Chico, California, has elevated rice in brewing to an entirely new level by making beers that rely entirely on the grain. Part of that effort involves developing techniques to malt rice. You can read more about Eckert’s use of locally grown Sacramento Valley rice by clicking here.

In beer, brewers traditionally have used malted barley to provide the nutty, sometimes bread-like flavor. Malting involves sprouting a grain, prompting naturally occurring enzymes to begin converting starch to sugar. At just the right time, malting is halted with heat. Later on, the malt is added to a starch source as a kind of starter to initiate conversion to sugar. Yeast use the sugar as food, converting it to carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Eckert has seen worldwide demand for his malted rice grow as craft brewers want to make gluten-free beers. Barley and rye contain the naturally occurring protein, whereas rice is inherently free of gluten.

Craft brewer’s demand for rice also is a 180-degree turn from where the industry was just a few years ago. In an effort to differentiate themselves from the big boys, many small-scale craft brewers had shunned rice. They either stuck with the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, a centuries-old German beer purity law, or they turned to far different grains. The Germans believed beer should be made of only four ingredients: water, barley, hops and yeast.

In addition to the growing gluten-free market, a small number of brewers have turned to rice because of the distinct crisp or tropical flavors it can provide.

Great Raft Brewing in Shrevesport, Louisiana, for example, uses Louisiana-grown rice in its Southern Drawl dry-hopped pilsner. Brewers there also use pilsen malt made from six-row barley and four different hops varieties to give the beer a complex, citrusy aroma and make it “wildly drinkable,” according to brewery information.

Stone’s Throw Brewing in Little Rock, Arkansas, is partnering with the Arkansas Rice Council on a yet-to-be-named experimental beer scheduled for unveiling in late April. The new release will use locally grown Arkansas rice.

Now this is a rice trend I can drink to. Cheers!