Just under two years ago I was sitting at the computer and putting together my “beer and brewing to-do list” for the New Year. It’s a habit I recommend brewers get into, and it has led me down some interesting paths, whether it’s spending a year not having more than one of any specific beer, deciding to get better at beer cloning, committing to brewing five styles I’d never brewed before, and more.
This time, though, I decided that I was going to spend more time using alternative brewing sugars as flavor additions in my recipes. The resulting beers had dimensions and accents that often surprised me, and since then I’ve been happy to evangelize on the addition of honey, molasses, black treacle, golden syrup, and more to standard recipes.
The process and recipe adjustments are minimal, and with just a bit of conscientious planning you’ll find that these beers are relatively easy to nail on the first or second attempt, so long as you’re working with a stable (and good) recipe to begin with.
Alternative Sugar Beer, as a style, debuted with the 2015 BJCP Guidelines. It is a place for beers that represent a “harmonious marriage of sugar and beer,” in which the base style is recognizable but to which we add a noticeable flavor addition from an adjunct sugar product. That sugar can vary – honey, molasses, and syrups being the most common, but not in any way the only sugars on the table – and they should also be part of the fermented product.
If your beer has a raw or unfermented sugar character, it’s not going to do well; we don’t want a back-sweetened beer. Also, much like the Alternative Grain style, this is about perceptions, not additions. Adding a sugar is not sufficient to qualify it for this style, you need to be adding a noticeable flavor contribution. If you try a sugar addition (coughMAPLESYRUPcough) and nothing of it comes through in the final flavor, then you should be entering that in whichever category the base style recommends.
What this means, practically, is that you should be selecting your added alternative sugar on the basis of what it will contribute – not its “alternative-ness.”
Almost any recipe can benefit from an alternative sugar addition/substitution, even up to the most-intense styles we have to offer. However, for today, I’m going to go with a mid-intense style that most brewers have some experience with (or should, in my humble opinion): the ESB. Or rather, in this case, the Honey ESB.
Let’s start with the alternative sugar – after all, there are approximately eight thousand varieties of honey to choose from, I think. We want something flavorful, but not something domineering, so your choice should be conditioned by your choice of base style. Since we’re working with a relatively flavorful base beer, we should be focusing on stronger-flavored honeys, since otherwise the flavor might get lost in the mix. After some tasting at a local honey vendor, I settled on buckwheat honey. It’s has a great beer-friendly flavor profile – spice and earth, with a great complementary mineral character that works well with an English dark-pale ale.
I find that subbing in somewhere around 20-25 percent of the base grains’ gravity contribution is a good starting place in the recipe design. One other unique consideration in using honey is that you shouldn’t be adding so much honey (50 percent, say) as to be making a braggot.
So, turning to the recipe, I cut my Maris Otter addition from eight pounds to six (2.7kg), and sub in 1.5 lbs. (0.7kg) of honey (be sure you’re adding by weight, not by volume). Aside from that, the rest of the grist is essentially identical: half a pound (0.23kg) each of British 45L and 65L, and you’re done.
I adjust the hops only slightly, to account for a touch of bite (increasing the perceived bitterness) from the spice in the buckwheat honey. Reduce the 60-minute addition of EKG from one ounce to three-quarters of an ounce (21g), the same again at 30 and 10 minutes, and then increase the flame-out addition to the same three-quarter ounce you’ve added previously. This last is a little backstop against the possibility that your batch of honey is a little too aromatic and covers up that nice English hops character we want.
Finally, for yeast, Wyeast 1968 is still perfect for this style, not only for its ester profile but because it’s not one of the world’s great attenuators. Adding something that is 95 percent-plus fermentable runs the risk of thinning out the beer too much, so we don’t want to be too zealous about pushing attenuation here. You do, though, want to be careful of diacetyl; more on that in a moment.
Mash as usual (if you have soft-ish water, consider a quarter-teaspoon gypsum addition in the mash to flint-up the flavor), then run off into the kettle. I add my sugars at this stage, letting the natural action of the lauter/sparge dissolve them into the wort. If you don’t (or won’t, or haven’t), be sure to adjust your calculations for bitterness, because hops utilization increases in a lower-gravity environment. You might end up with too-bitter a bitter.
Boil, then ferment cool initially (65F/18C or so) and after a day or two increase to 68F (20C) until activity begins to slow, then increase to 70F (21C) to encourage diacetyl clean-up.
Cold crash, package, and carbonate to two volumes.
The resulting beer should be easily recognizable as an English Pale Ale, but the honey contribution should add some pleasant background flavors that contrast and enhance your malt and hops choices. Like most specialty styles this may take a bit of tinkering, but as I noted at the outset these tend to be very easy recipes to create. Take care to consider attenuation effects in selection of your yeast and flavor effects in the selection of your grist and hops, but otherwise, this is as simple as the days when you’d make extract with specialty grains recipes.
One final note: substitution isn’t necessary. Try adding single pounds of interesting sugars to your existing recipes with no adjustment, just adding the flavors and a bit more alcohol! Keep it simple.