In all likelihood, your first few beer kits came with a little bag simply labeled “priming sugar.” If you’re like I was at the time, then you probably didn’t pay much attention to it, other than reading that it needed to be boiled in some water and added to the bottling bucket before you filled and sealed your bottles of homebrew.
As you get further into brewing, you learn that the anonymous little bag of sugar contains 5 ounces (142 grams) of corn sugar, or dextrose, which is a good all-purpose amount for a 5-gallon (19-liter) batch of beer. But you’re not limited to priming your bottles with corn sugar by any means. Sure, it’s favored for its high fermentability, low moisture content, and neutral flavor, but bottle priming is just as ripe for experimentation as all other aspects of brewing. Consider these alternatives.
Plain old table sugar, also called cane sugar or beet sugar, works as well as corn sugar, is less expensive, and is probably already in your cupboard. Corn sugar contains some water, but table sugar is 100 percent sweet stuff. Practically speaking, this means you need to use about 10 percent less table sugar by weight than you would corn sugar when priming your beer. So, that 5-ounce (142-gram) bag of corn sugar would translate to about 4.5 ounces (128 grams) of table sugar. I think table sugar got a bad rap in the early days of homebrewing, which is why corn sugar remains the standard to this day. But in terms of cost and convenience, it’s hard to beat the white crystals from your supermarket.
Brown sugar is available in light and dark varieties and can offer some caramel notes to your finished beer. Be careful: Some cheap brown sugars are just table sugar that has had molasses and caramel coloring added. Look for natural brown sugar, which features naturally occurring molasses instead of post-production additives. You can use brown sugar ounce for ounce, or gram for gram, the way you would corn sugar for bottle priming.
Honey can offer some subtle floral notes to your beer, and although it’s a relatively expensive way to prime bottles, it’s a great option for certain specialty beers. Holiday ales, in particular, seem to work well with honey’s delicate flavor contributions. Because of the high moisture content, you’ll need to use about 15 to 20 percent more honey than you would corn sugar.
Dry malt extract (DME) can be used in a pinch, but like honey, it’ll cost you. Brewers who are sticklers for the Reinheitsgebot can use 30 to 40 percent more dry malt extract by weight than corn sugar to achieve carbonation using malt alone. DME might cause a little Kräusen ring to form in the necks of your bottles, but this is a harmless artifact that won’t affect the beer in any noticeable way.
From ingredients to equipment, process, and recipes—extract, partial-mash, and all-grain—The Illustrated Guide to Homebrewing is a vital resource for those who want to brew better beer. Order your copy today.