As the great American poet Ogden Nash wrote, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” I wonder whether Ogden knew that you could offer both at the same time? Probably so, given that he wrote that famous line during Prohibition.
In any case, candy gave way to liquor in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, formally ending Prohibition, and brewers kept the fusion of the two alive. Brewers, especially those enamored of Belgian strong ales, know that candy (or “candi,” as we’ll spell it from here on out) plays a special and valuable role in brewing.
Beer isn’t liquor, of course, but all alcoholic beverages boil down (pun intended) to fermentation of a sugary liquid—the source of the sugar isn’t especially relevant, except in terms of the flavor, color, and body of the finished product.
And that brings us back to candi sugars. Candi sugars are at once an underused and an overused ingredient, a paradox that feels right at home in beer styles that are often sweetly estery and grippingly dry in their finish. On one level, candi sugars are just…well, sugar. In their palest forms, they add gravity points and not much else. In this sense, they are sometimes an extravagant waste of resources for brewers who could just as easily spend a fraction of their cash on corn sugar (dextrose) and get the same effect. Darker, caramelized candi sugars, by comparison, can be used to add color to your beers as well as distinct flavors, and it’s these that are often neglected by brewers who tend to get tunnel vision and think primarily about caramel and roasted malts for color and flavor adjustment.
Candi sugar is a flexible and nuanced product. It can either be a throwaway ingredient that has virtually no impact or the key ingredient in the production of some of the best, rarest, and most exotic beers in the world. What’s not to love in an ingredient with that kind of range? Let’s talk about sugars and syrups more generally, then delve into the specific function candi sugars can play in beer, and wrap up with a discussion of just how necessary these sugars are, anyway.
Sugar Is Sugar—Or Is It?
Sugar is just sugar. Not really, but let’s start there.
Many adjunct sugars are used as nothing more than ABV-builders. They ferment off entirely, adding little to no color and little to no flavor, and they contribute only to the alcohol content of the beer. The secondary effect of that alcohol-level increase is a thinning of the body since ethanol is thinner than water, but that’s about it. Most unheated cane and beer sugars, corn sugar, pure maple and birch syrups, and even many honeys fall into this category.
Pivoting to the most-intense flavor contributors, we have sugars such as molasses, dark treacle, and many honeys (buckwheat with its strong spice notes, meadowfoam with its unique marshmallow flavor, etc.). Why do these impart noticeable flavors? It isn’t their color per se or the proteins found in some of them; it’s that they’ve been processed.
Naturally or manually, someone or something has worked on these sugars, the most common method being by heating. Heat creates Maillard and caramelization flavors, and this (often combined with the presence of some minerals, proteins, or compounds) yields the flavors that survive the fermentation process, even when the underlying sugars are long gone in a blaze of ethanol and carbon dioxide.
So, where does this leave Belgian candi sugars? Interestingly, in both categories. The lightest Belgian candi sugars find themselves in the “little impact” boat: they will impart virtually no flavor and are essentially just an expensive form of simple sugar. Some argue that they can identify a subtle flavor contribution from them, but given the complex flavor profile they’re being dropped into, the claim is hard to take at face value. By contrast, the amber and dark candi sugars—which have been heated—will still be comprised of entirely fermentable beet sugars but will impart subtle but noticeable flavors when used in sufficient quantities (usually between 5 and 20 percent of the gravity points in the recipe).
The Taste and Feel of Candi Sugar
Candi sugars are available in several forms and colors. They can come in rock form (a crystalized sugar) or syrup, which is generally easier to work with. Be cautious, though: Tomme Arthur, COO and cofounder of The Lost Abbey shared a horror story involving “adding syrup too early and having the sugar caramelize on the bottom of the kettle. That sounds awful.” No argument here, Tomme!
Be sure to fully dissolve added sugars in the kettle and consider adding them at whirlpool to avoid this risk! Both forms are completely fermentable, but they are also scaled for color. It’s in this color differentiation that we find the real, practical distinctions to be drawn.
Candi sugars are scored in much the same way as caramel malts, with SRM ratings for color. These color ratings are generally indicative of more intense flavors as they increase along the scale. At the lower end are the palest, at 1–5 SRM, and these are essentially just simple, digestible sugars that will add hardly any flavors.
As color increases from colorless-to-gold through amber and dark brown, flavors increase. As Phil Leinhart, brewmaster at Brewery Ommegang explains, “These sugars can impart smooth, pleasant caramel, toffee, and raisin/date notes without the potential roasted quality that high dried or roasted malts can bring.”
This is, perhaps, the greatest advantage that candi sugars offer. The flavors they produce can be had through other means—Crystal 120 or 150 malts, chocolate rye or pale chocolate malt, Carafa and Carafa Special malts—but doing so runs the risk of adding more than just the rich toffee and pit-fruit flavors that dark candi sugars can provide.
Remember, though, that these are subtle flavors: They increase with color and percentage, so if you’re swapping in candi sugar for crystal malts, it’s best done in a recipe that can handle a big dose of adjunct sugar.
That sugar comes with a side-effect in terms of body, however. It will make the beer thinner. Adjusting body through the use of simple sugars is a not uncommon trick of the trade among brewers everywhere, but it’s especially useful in and indicative of the traditional Belgian strong ales.
Edward Westbrook, founder of Westbrook Brewing Co. of South Carolina discusses this dual-purpose functionality: “You can lighten the body of the beer and get lots of dark fruit/chocolate flavor at the same time,” as Westbrook does in several of its beers. If you’re going to increase the ABV anyway, might as well put that sugar to work on more than one characteristic!
It is also very much in keeping with the beer and brewing philosophy of traditional Belgian brewers. “Outside of the color/flavor impacts of amber and dark sugars/syrups, the primary reason for using dextrose or sucrose is to replace some of the malt/grain in a recipe with a highly fermentable sugar; this helps in making a drier beer that is less filling and, as the Belgians say, more ‘digestible,’ ” says Leinhart—and Ommegang certainly knows their way around a drinkable, digestible beer.
And if you’re looking for a more subtle application—or if you’re looking for one last nudge toward the coffee, cocoa, plum, fig, and toffee flavors that can come from candi sugars—you can always use candi sugars for priming. Rather than relying on your typical corn-sugar addition, consider priming with a dark candi syrup for a subtle hint of complexity. This technique can be applied in any number of styles that are found far, far from the lowlands of Belgium.
Ultimately, candi sugar’s contributions are very much a function of which candi sugar we’re talking about, how it’s used, and in what quantities. It can be as fleeting as a shadow or as clear as a bell—which one is up to you, and you should design your recipes accordingly.
An Option—Just Not the Only One
Unlike many brewing ingredients that are “married” in brewers’ minds to the style of beer they produce—Bavarian weizen yeast in Hefe, beechwood-smoked malt in Rauchbier, American “C” hops in…lots of American styles—candi sugar is well suited to, but not a required element of, the Belgian styles with which they’re associated. You don’t have to use it. Lost Abbey’s Tomme Arthur reports that they actually use relatively little candi sugar, despite being one of the most successful and well-regarded brewers of Belgian styles in the United States.
“I think the key to most Belgian-style beers is the approach to the balance that the finished beer ultimately demands. There are myriad sugars and syrups available to a brewer when they are designing recipes. For us, we are focused mostly on using dextrose as our added sugar. This is a simplistic approach to brewing, but it’s widely available and easy to use in the brewery.”
That functional, utilitarian approach is perfectly in keeping with the brewing ethos of the great Trappist and abbey breweries of Europe, and, as Arthur says, more important is “being happy with the results that we have been getting.” Leinhart agrees—they, too, use a lot of granular dextrose in the brewery.
At the same time, Arthur agrees with Leinhart on the value of adding high- caramelized and light-roasted flavors without the risk attached to using those grains (added body, roasted husks) and concedes the following: “I do feel there could be advantages to the darker syrups, including color gains not from malt and intensity of flavors that can be derived without darker roasts compromising things.”
The Candi Man Can
Leinhart and Arthur essentially agree on the utility of candi sugars…except when they’re not necessary. Underlying that contradiction is the directive to figure it out for yourself. As with many elements of brewing, much is in the eye and palate of the beholder, and there’s no way to know how much (or how little) you’ll benefit from an ingredient until you try it. By all means, experiment with candi sugar.
Take different colors out for a spin. Sub it in for some crystal malt in your next dubbel. Prime with it in your next bottled weizenbock. It will add more than just gravity points (at least in its darker renditions). You’ll be able to anticipate cocoa, fig, smooth caramel, and even light citrus flavors. You’ll generate light, digestible higher-ABV beers.
You’ll develop jewel-toned amber and copper colors. Heck, you might even prove me decidedly wrong when I say that lighter candi sugars add almost no flavors to your beer—I freely admit I’ve never tried adding it to a light lager. Or you might find that your simpler, cheaper sugar additions work just as well. Work it as an ingredient and find out whether you’re getting everything you can out of your beers. Candi truly is dandy. I’m sure Mr. Nash would agree.