In order to make alcohol, the yeast needs sugar to convert. In wine, cider and some other spirits this sugar is easily available from the natural fruits, but beer brewing presents an additional obstacle by making brewers responsible for extracting the sugars needed for fermentation from grains, by converting starches that are naturally present in the grain. However, sugar extracted in the mash is not the only sugar that is available to us as brewers, there are actually many different forms and all with various uses.
Some homebrewers seem a little wary of utilising sugar in their beers, something which is probably a throwback to the days of poorly made kit beers which required a kilogram of sugar (hence the phrase ‘kit and kilo’). A long time ago the malt extracts would have been less well preserved than they are throughout the manufacturing process nowadays and the shelf dates may have been less strictly adhered to with kits either sat in warehouses or on store shelves long past their best. Style specific yeast strains were uncommon with some kits even using generic baker’s yeast (in the very early days of kits) and customers would often complain of their yeast being out of date which would have a massive negative impact on fermentation. Dry hop sachets are also a fairly recent addition in the history of kit beers so all in all these kits had a pretty bad reputation and would very often result in bad beer for people. And somehow, with all the other issues these early kits had, it appears to be sugar that has shouldered the blame. You will often see people warning new brewers about adding sucrose to their beers as it can lead to cider type flavours.
Sugar is not something to be afraid of using in your brewing though. Many commercial beer styles make ample use of sugar – especially a lot of Belgian and British ales but as with any ingredient, you should be aware of how to use it and what it will add to your beer. Below is a list of some of the sugars available to brewers and what they will contribute to your beer.
Corn sugar (aka dextrose or brewing sugar)
- Dextrose is a simple, highly refined sugar that is fully fermentable so adds nothing in terms of flavour to your beer. It is popular with brewers because it gives predictable results.
Candi sugar (rocks)
- Essentially refined table sugar, candi sugar in this form will add nothing in terms of flavour and performs in much the same way as dextrose or sucrose. You can get darker versions which may start to add some flavour to beer but would require a significant amount to really make any contribution.
Table Sugar (sucrose)
- Sucrose comes from sugar cane or beets and will not add flavour or aroma to your beer but will add alcohol or thin your beers body depending on how you use it. Similar to the other sugars, add the sugar as an extra (on top of your grain bill) in order to boost volume or replace a percentage of the base malt with the sugar in order to reduce the body or create a drier beer.
- An almost essential addition if you are looking to make Belgian style beers. As the name suggests, this is a syrup which comes in various colours from light to dark. For the best results, add as late in the boil as you can to ensure the syrup is fully dissolved and to carry over as much flavour and aroma as possible. The darker syrups will add more flavours which include rum and dark fruits.
- There is a lot of variety in honey and many flavours and aromas that you can get from them, however most honey aromatics are extremely difficult. If you are looking to add honey characteristics to your beer, it is almost pointless to add it at any stage in the boil as most volatile compounds will be boiled off, leaving you with nothing of the honey character. It is best then to add honey late into fermentation though some of the darker, stronger honeys may impart something if added right at the end of the boil.
- Maple syrup is a delicious, sweet syrup which can add some subtle wood characters to your beer. If you decide to use maple syrup try and find authentic maple syrup rather than the highly processed version that is available in most supermarkets. Darker maple syrups will impart more flavour/aroma.
Treacle (or Molasses)
- Treacle is a dark, almost tar-like syrup with an intense flavour which cam come through strong in your beer. It is actually produced as a by-product of refining cane sugar or beet sugar. Moderation is the key when using treacle as it is very distinctive.
- A dark brown sugar which can add rum characteristics to your beer.
- An unfermentable milk sugar that will add body and a little sweetness to your beers
- Adds body but not sweetness to your beer so is useful for adding body to a thin beer – especially as it can be added right up until packaging. Maltodextrin can also help with head retention.
There are many other types of sugar that brewers can utilise throughout their process but these are some of the most common and give a good example of how sugars can be used – either simple sugars used in conjunction with, or to replace, (a percentage of) the grain bill to raise ABV or thin the body a little. Or more aromatic, flavourful sugars which can be used in fermentation or towards the end of the boil in order to add flavour and aromatics to the beer and then the unfermentable sugars which can add body to your beers. Sugar is an extremely useful tool for brewers and there are many ways it can be utilised to create various results.