Irusu is the Japanese word for an idea that transcends time and culture: pretending you’re not at home when visitors come a-knockin'. Our Irusu, a super dry pale lager, is made with rice. Though some only associate the use of rice with mass market industrial lagers, rice has been used in fermented beverages for thousands of years and by many different cultures. The addition of rice lightens the body and flavor of barley beers, and though we still love our complex sippers, there is a time and a place for everything.
The oldest known barley beer was discovered in the mountains of Iran and dates back to 3400 BC; however, the oldest known fermented beverage (over 9,000 years old) was discovered in China and made with rice, honey and fruit. Though we call sake rice wine, it is technically closer to a beer (fermented beverage made with a cereal grain, not fruit). Rice has also been used in American brewing for many years (a hundred plus, though, not thousands).
It was German immigrants who first involved rice in American beer. Trying to make the pale bright (clear) and bubbly lagers they were accustomed to at home was tough with the higher protein 6-row barley available at the time in America.
Barley is full of starch, proteins and other compounds that make it great for brewing. Enzymes (specialized proteins in the barley) are responsible for breaking down starch in the barley into simple sugars which makes alcohol production possible (yeast can eat sugar but starch is too big). Some of the proteins also contribute to the body and texture of the beer. However, too many proteins lead to cloudy unstable beer, and some barley varieties have more than others. The barley the Germans used for brewing at home had a good balance, but the varieties they had access to here in early America had a lot more protein. Something starchy with very little protein was needed to bring it all back into balance, and this is where rice (and corn) come into play.
Rice and corn have very little protein and specifically lack the specialized proteins (enzymes) that break down starch. When making all-rice or all-corn fermented products, enzymes must be introduced from another source*. However, when rice or corn is used with barley, especially the higher protein 6-row, the rice has access to plenty of enzymes to break down its starch into fermentable sugars.
In fact, the beers made with corn and rice were even lighter in body and flavor than the all-malt pilsner and helles style beers they were trying to replicate. Since rice is almost only starch and nothing else, once the enzymes from the barley have a go at them, the starches break down into very small sugars. After fermentation, very little besides alcohol remains. With all-barley beers, even the very nicely ratio-ed 2-row, there will be more leftovers (starches, proteins and other compounds the yeast did not eat) after fermentation that contribute to the flavor and body of the beer. These pre-prohibition lagers were the model for the mass market industrial lagers that sprang up after prohibition.
Though it all started with 6-row barley, we used our usual higher quality 2-row (now easily accessible in ‘merica) to make this beer. It still has a richer, better malt flavor than the typical American Adjunct Lager the big guys make. However, it is much lighter in body and flavor than our Tiny Bomb Pilsner or Memphis Sands Helles. It is not very highly hopped but there is a smidge of bitterness to balance.
*For sake, the rice is inoculated with a fungus the produces the enzymes needed to break the starches down into fermentable sugars. For chicha, an all corn beer, the corn is chewed first. Human spit adds the enzymes needed to break down the starch in the corn.