Brewing with Sugar

Sugar has a time and place in brewing to get you where you want to go.

Dave Carpenter 4 years ago

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All-malt purists may scoff, and the Reinheitsgebot may turn up its Teutonic nose, but there is, indeed, a time and a place for simple sugar in your brewing. Sugar had a bad rap for quite some time, thanks to some commercial brewers’ reliance on large amounts of the sweet stuff to yield something more like rocket fuel than beer. And many a beginning homebrewer started out with a kit-and-kilo (or can-and-kilo) recipe, so called because you combine a can of malt extract with a kilogram of table sugar.

But just as craft brewers have admitted that not every grain adjunct is evil (Oatmeal stout or Classic American Pilsner, anyone?), so have they also discovered that simple sugars have their place in today’s flavorful beer styles. Here are a few common types of sugars that should definitely find a sweet spot in your home brewery at one time or another.

Dextrose (corn sugar): Most commonly used as a bottle priming agent, dextrose in the boil can lighten body, boost alcohol, and dry out big beers. Corn sugar yields 42 gravity points per pound per gallon (ppg) and is 100 percent fermentable.

Sucrose (table sugar, beet sugar, or cane sugar): Good old-fashioned table sugar can be used in place of corn sugar as a priming agent or as a wort constituent, is available everywhere, and is inexpensive to boot. It yields 46 ppg and is 100 percent fermentable, so use 10 percent less by weight than you would corn sugar.

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Brown sugar is an unrefined or partially refined sugar that contains some residual molasses. It comes in light and dark varieties and can lend subtle caramel notes to your beer. Like table sugar, brown sugar offers 46 ppg and is nearly 100 percent fermentable.

Invert sugar is produced by the reduction of sucrose (table sugar) into glucose and fructose, often by boiling with cream of tartar or bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). Invert sugar has the consistency of honey and is frequently used in Belgian ales and some British pale ales. Expect 36 ppg and 100 percent fermentability.

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Belgian candi sugar spans a whole family of potentially confusing sugar products. Candi syrups most faithfully reproduce those intense raisin and plum flavors you find in Belgian dubbels and dark strong ales, and they’re worth seeking out for recipes that rely on sugar for flavor and color. Soft candi sugar is roughly the same as American brown sugar, while rock candy is perhaps the most widely available, though least flavorful, Belgian sugar. Expect around 30-34 ppg from syrups and about 45 ppg from rocks, all of it fermentable.

Molasses has a long history in brewing. From the all-but-dead German Kottbusser to British ales and Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Ale, both light and dark molasses should be used sparingly at first until you get a sense of the intense flavors they impart. Molasses will give you about 35 ppg and is roughly 90 percent fermentable, depending on the variety.

Honey is fantastic in a variety of beer styles and was recently made famous in the White House’s honey blonde, honey porter, and honey brown ales, each made with honey harvested from the South Lawn. Honey offers up around 30-36 ppg, of which about 90-95 percent is fermentable, depending on the bees who made it.

Lactose (milk sugar) is the constituent sugar found in dairy products and is not metabolized by brewer’s yeast. Consequently, lactose remains in the final product and lends sweetness to your beer, à la milk stout. Lactose contributes 46 ppg but is not fermentable, so all of those gravity points contribute to the beer’s final gravity.

Sugar can be added at pretty much any point of the brewing process. Its low moisture content makes it virtually immune to spoiling microorganisms, but it doesn’t hurt to throw it in the boil just to be safe. Adding sugar near the end of the boil or at flameout ensures even dissolution without affecting hops utilization. Alternatively, sugar can also be introduced part way through fermentation as an incremental feeding. This is an especially advantageous strategy for high-gravity beers where optimal pitch rates might be hard to achieve.

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