Most beginning homebrewers are told the same thing, in one way or another. It may be by the experienced friend who gets them started or by the salesperson in the shop where they purchase their first kit, but the message is the same: Don’t use sugar.
They hear horror stories about “Grandad’s day,” when beer was brewed from 10 pounds of sugar, some raisins, and a cake of yeast kept in a crock behind the kitchen stove, or something like that. Modern brewers, they’re told, know better now and brew with malt. All malt. The more malt the better. Homebrewers tend to look down on the big commercial brewers for using adjuncts, unmalted cereal grain, and non-malt fermentable ingredients that produce fermentable sugars.
Well, it’s all a big lie. Or at least in part. For every rule, there’s always an exception or two. You’ve heard of the Reinheitsgebot, right? The Bavarian Purity law of 1516 states that only hops, malt, and water may go into the making of beer. (Note that not even yeast is mentioned.) But to be realistic, a relatively small percentage of the world’s beer production is brewed according to that law. Now, this is not putting down the German brewers. On the contrary. There are very few better-made beers in the world than the real Bavarian lagers, bohemian pilsners, weizenbiers, and so on. If Germans can brew all that with just hops, malt, and water, then that should be good enough for the rest of us too, right?
Well, that would mean no more Belgian beers of any kind, pretty much. No more English bitters, most of which have some kind of adjunct added to them. No more specialty beers, fruit beers, beers with unusual grains or spices. In short the world of beer would be a less diverse, less interesting, and truly poorer place.
Sweetening the Pot
First a question: What is sugar? Without getting into a review of your college molecular biology class, sugars are nature’s energy source.
They are what seeds (such as barley and wheat grains, for instance) contain in order to feed the new, growing plant until it can get outside its shell into the soil and find more. Every kind of plant life contains something similar. The sugars we’ve been able to tap into have become a processed product for our table: cane sugar, beet sugar, maple sugar, corn syrup, and fruit juice can be found in one form or another in virtually every home.
All of these and more have their place in the homebrewer’s arsenal. Add to these the closely related (non-fermentable) carbohydrates such as malto-dextrin and lactose, and you put into the homebrewer’s hands a gazillion (or so) different ways to add uniqueness to his or her brew.
Here are several sugars and some of their traditional and/or possible brewing uses:
Corn sugar (dextrose): Derived from corn. Used primarily for bottle priming but also for increasing gravity of beer without changing color or flavor.
Rice syrup or solids: Same uses as corn. Also used as an adjunct in many American-style lagers.
Table sugar (cane sugar): Highly processed, refined (as are corn sugar and rice syrup). Not used all that often in brewing, except as an emergency substitute for corn sugar. Occasionally used for priming. The stuff of “Grandad’s” legends.
Brown sugar (cane sugar): Processed white table sugar with a little molasses added back in. Some use in British (bitters, particularly in the Yorkshire area) and Scottish brewing. Useful for priming where a richer butterscotch flavor is desired.
Molasses (cane sugar): Strong, dark byproduct of the refining process. Often found in porters, occasionally in old ales, brown ales, and so forth. Easy to overdo.
Treacle (cane sugar): Special dark molasses, even richer and darker. Best used in strong black ales, such as old ales and stouts.
Malt sugars (malted grains such as barley, wheat): The malting process (partial sprouting and then drying of the grain, which is part of the process for corn and rice sugars as well, incidentally) creates enzymes that later convert starches to sugars. Several types of sugar compounds are created, depending on temperature and moisture conditions and other factors. These are the goodies. The vast majority of beers (and other stronger alcoholic beverages) from around the world are dependent on these sugars.
Candi sugar: Made almost exclusively in Belgium. It is merely crystallized beet sugar, ranging from light to dark in color (depending on the degree of caramelization). It is one of the secrets of the Belgian brewing industry.
Maple syrup and sugar: Production is concentrated in the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec). Derived from the sap of the sugar maple tree, boiled to concentrate. It takes 35 to 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. A recent rediscovery in brewing circles (old-timers in Vermont and elsewhere have always made sap beer, but they won’t usually admit it or give you the recipe) now being found in porters, wheat beers, blond ales, and so forth.
Honey: Bees do the work of converting starches in flower pollen to a type of sugar, then store it as a food source for their offspring. Honey ferments slowly compared with malt and other sugars but can be used in almost any type of beer. Or use it exclusively and make mead.
Golden syrup (invert sugar, cane sugar): a syrup made by processing cane sugar so as to break the bond between sugar molecules, allowing a cleaner fermentation. It is useful for strong ales because it adds fermentables without influencing color or flavor (much).
There are other sugars available, such as coconut sugar, fruit sugars, and date sugar, but their use is not yet widespread in brewing, at least in the English-speaking part of the world. If you should find something that intrigues you, try it!
The most important rule of thumb is to use a light hand. Don’t brew with too much of the wrong sugar. It’s true that excessive amounts of highly and quickly fermentable sugars (such as rice or corn) can lead to off-flavors. It’s also true that strong-flavored sugars such as molasses and treacle can overwhelm any other flavors in your brew. Honey and maple may take so long to ferment that you get cloyingly sweet beer or way overcarbonated bottles. So be cautious but not rigid.
Here are six recipes in which it is perfectly acceptable, even de rigueur, to use some non-malt form of sugar. Some are classic, old-world beers, some new-fangled American styles, but each has its place in brewing lore and tradition, past or future.
Molasses Licorice Porter
(5 gallons, grain, extract, and adjuncts)
There is reason to believe that a recipe like this was brewed frequently in colonial and revolutionary times by such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Good enough? Well, we won, didn’t we?
• 3 lbs. pale malt
• 0.5 lb. dark crystal malt, 90° to 120° Lovibond
• 0.25 lb. chocolate malt
• 0.25 lb. black patent malt
• 5 lbs. dark malt extract syrup
• 2 cups unsulphured molasses
• 8-12 AAUs of your favorite bittering hop (1-1.5 oz. Brewer’s Gold, 8% alpha acid, for example), for 45 min.
• 1 stick brewer’s licorice (broken small) or 2 oz. shredded dry licorice root
• 10-14 g. dry ale yeast
• 3/4 cup corn sugar and 4 Tbsp. molasses for priming
Step by Step:
Heat 1 gal. of water to 165° F and mix in the crushed grains. Hold for 75 min. around 153° F, then run off and sparge with 2 gal. of water at 168° F. You should have about 2.5 gal. of sweet wort. Add malt extract and molasses, bring to a boil. Boil 15 min. and add hops. Boil 45 min., add licorice, and turn off heat. Steep for 30 min., then pour into fermenter along with enough pre-boiled cold water to make 5.25 gal. When cooled to 70° F, add yeast.
Ferment at 65° F for 10 days. Rack to secondary and age at 55° F for two weeks. Prime with corn sugar and molasses. Bottle age for six weeks.
(5 gallons, grain and adjunct)
How do the Belgian brewers get such high alcohol contents without cloyingly sweet flavors? The answer is candi sugar. This is a very big beer. Use a good, tolerant yeast.
• 10 lbs. pale malt (preferably Belgian)
• 1 lb. malted wheat
• 0.5 lb. Belgian cara-Vienne malt
• 0.5 lb. light Munich malt
• 1 lb. brewer’s corn sugar
• 1 lb. light candi sugar
• 1.5 oz. Hallertauer hops (4% alpha acid), for about 45 min.
• 0.5 oz. Brewer’s Gold hops (6% alpha acid), for 5 min.
• Belgian strong ale yeast slurry (such as recultured Chimay, Rochefort, or other Trappist yeast, or Wyeast 1388)
• 2/3 cup corn sugar for priming
Step by Step:
In 4 gal. of water heated to 163° F, mash in crushed grains. Mash should settle to about 151° F. Hold for 90 min. Run off to kettle, sparge with 3 gal. water at 169° F.
Add corn and candi sugar, stir in well. Bring kettle to a boil for about 20 to 30 min. Add Hallertauer hops. Boil about 40 min. Total boil will reduce wort to 5.25 gal. (approx. 60 to 90 min.). Add Brewer’s Gold hops 5 min. before the end of boil. Remove from heat, chill quickly, and pitch yeast when wort is 70° F or so.
Ferment at 70° to 75° F for two weeks. Rack to secondary and condition at 50° F for one week, then raise temperature to 70° F for two weeks. (This temperature variation method is used by Orval, among others.) Prime with corn sugar and bottle. Age well (10 to 15 weeks) and sip slowly.
Smoked Maple Amber Ale
(5 gallons, extract with specialty grains and adjuncts)
A Vermont specialty, especially if you can get real sap! If not, don’t worry. Instead of boiling with sap, use 3 gal. of water and double the amount of maple syrup. “Reverse-hopped” (lighter hop used for bittering, higher alpha hop for aroma) for a little extra zing.
• 8 gal. maple sap boiled down to 3 gal.
• 1 lb. medium crystal malt, 50° to 60° Lovibond
• 0.25 lb. German rauch malt (or home-smoked cara-pils malt)
• 6 lbs. unhopped amber dry malt extract
• 1 pint real Vermont maple syrup
• 1 oz. Cascade hops (4% alpha acid), for 60 min.
• 1 oz. Northern Brewer hops (8% alpha acid), for steeping
• 10-14 g. dry ale yeast
• 1/3 cup corn sugar and 2/3 cup maple syrup for priming
Step by Step:
Boil maple sap down and cool to 155° F. (If you can’t get maple sap, just heat water to 155° F). Steep malts with the heat off for 30 min., then remove. Turn on heat and add DME and syrup. Bring to boil. Add Cascade hops, boil 60 min. Add Northern Brewer hops, remove from heat, and steep 30 min. Cool, add to fermenter along with enough pre-boiled cold water to make 5.25 gal. At 70° F, add yeast.
Ferment warm, 68° to 70° F, for two weeks. Rack to secondary. Check gravity. If it has not come down to 1.020 or lower yet, repitch a little dry yeast. Condition three to four weeks at 65° F, then prime with corn sugar and maple syrup. Bottle and be patient. Try one in four weeks.
(5 gallons, grain, extract, and adjunct)
Many classic breweries in the Yorkshire area brew with brown sugar to achieve a different snap to what would otherwise be just another bitter.
• 2 lbs. pale malt
• 1 lb. light crystal malt, 20° Lovibond
• 0.5 lb. wheat malt
• 0.5 lb. toasted malt (toast 0.5 lb. cara-pils malt on a cookie sheet at 350° F for 15 min.)
• 3 lbs. light unhopped dry malt extract
• 1 lb. light brown sugar
• 1 oz. Bullion hops (7% alpha acid), for 75 min.
• 1 oz. whole Fuggles hops, at end boil
• British ale yeast slurry (such as Wyeast 1318 or 1098)
• 7/8 cup corn sugar
Step by Step:
Heat 1.5 gal. water to 164° F, mix in crushed grains, and hold at 152° F for 90 min. Sparge with 2.5 gal. and collect run-off in kettle.
Add dry malt extract and brown sugar. Heat to a boil. Add bullion hops, boil 75 min. Add Fuggles as you remove from the heat, proceed to chill immediately. At 70° F, pitch yeast.
Ferment at 62° to 64° F for about two weeks. Rack to secondary and condition at 65° F for three to four weeks. Prime with corn sugar and bottle age two to three weeks. This is a great brew to experiment with mini-keg systems and nitrogen taps.
(5 gallons, grain and adjunct)
There have been several commercial tries at this style over the last couple of years. This version uses fresh, local organic honey. Get the best malted wheat you can. German wheat, if available, seems to give a nuttier character, which complements the honey and the yeast. Honey malt is a proprietary malt made by Gambrinus Malting Co. and can be replaced (sort of) by cara-pils or cara-Vienne, if honey malt is unavailable.
• 3 lbs. pilsner malt
• 3 lbs. malted wheat
• 0.5 lb. light German crystal malt, 20° Lovibond
• 1 lb. honey malt
• 1 lb. Vienna malt
• 2 lbs. light honey (alfalfa or dandelion is great!)
• 8 AAUs Spalt hops (2 oz., 4% alpha acid, for example), 1/2 hops for about 90 min., 1/2 hops for about 30 min.
• 1/4 tsp. gypsum
• German weizenbier yeast slurry (some prefer the more neutral, tart Wyeast 3333, but 3056 and 3068 give more traditional phenolics to the aroma of this brew…your call!)
• 7/8 cup corn sugar (or save 0.5 gal. of the unfermented wort, or “speise,” with which to prime)
Step by Step:
Heat 3 gal. of water, treated with gypsum, to 162° F. Mix in cracked grains (careful not to crush the wheat too finely, or your runoff will definitely get stuck), aiming for a mash temperature of 151° F. Hold this for 90 min., begin runoff, and sparge with 4.5 gal. water at 170° F.
Bring collected wort to a boil, add honey and half the hops at the onset of boiling. Boil 60 min., add the rest of the hops, and continue until reduced to 5.25 gal. (approximately 30 min. more). Cool to 70° F and pitch yeast (if you are going to prime with speise, don’t forget to save some here; see Eric Warner’s book in the AHA Style Series, German Wheat Beers, Brewers Publications, for more on this technique).
Ferment at 65° to 68° F for two weeks, then rack to secondary. Condition at 60° F or so for three weeks, prime, and bottle. Age two weeks.
Old Pellicula Ale
(4 gallons, grain, extract, and adjunct)
This recipe is a dark strong ale. The use of real treacle (as opposed to mere molasses) lends such a rich, toffeeish flavor to the beer that I’m not even going to suggest that you can brew it with anything else.
• 2 lbs. pale malt
• 1 lb. dark crystal malt, 120° Lovibond
• 1 lb. roasted barley
• 1 lb. biscuit malt (or amber malt)
• 5 lbs. dark, unhopped dry malt extract
• 1 tin (10 oz.) Lyle’s English treacle
• 1 oz. Northern Brewer hops (8% alpha acid), for 75 min.
• 2 oz. Styrian Goldings hops (4% alpha acid), 1 oz. for 30 min., 1 oz. for steeping
• English ale yeast slurry (Wyeast 1275 or 1335)
• 1/3 cup corn sugar and 1/3 cup brown sugar for priming
Step by Step:
Heat 1.5 gal. water to 168° F, mix in cracked grains. Hold at 157° F for 60 min., run off, and sparge with 2.5 gal. at 168° F.
Mix in dry malt and treacle. Bring to a boil. After 15 min. add Northern Brewer hops. Boil 45 min. more, add 1 oz. Styrian Goldings, boil 30 min. Remove from heat and add remaining 1 oz. Styrian Goldings hops. Steep at least 15 min., then chill. Top off in fermenter with pre-boiled cold water to make 4.25 gal. At 68° F, pitch yeast.
Ferment at about 68° F for three weeks. Rack to secondary, condition four weeks at 55° F. Prime with combination of corn sugar and brown sugar, bottle, and arm yourself with the patience to let it bottle condition for eight to 10 weeks. This beer has, on occasion, been saved for two years at my house.