Understanding Brewing Sugars

If there is a “Rodney Dangerfield” of amateur beermaking it would have to be non-barley-based sugar. According to the orthodoxy, there is no place in “real” beermaking for using sugars based on cane, corn, rice, honey or maple trees. The prevailing attitude came about as a result of abuse, rather than appropriate use of other sugars in the brewing process along with some very entrenched beer snobbery.

Conventional Wisdom is not without some small merit. Any recipe which calls for adding two pounds (1 kg) of white granulated table sugar with 3-4 lbs. (1.5-1.8 kg) of malt extract is sacrificing quality for ease, speed and price considerations. That being said, sugar also does not deserve to be the pariah of brewing either. When used in addition to quality malts and malt concentrates (as opposed to “instead of”) different sugars can impart complex flavors to beer. It also allows a brewer to increase the strength of a beer without substantially increasing the body or changing the flavor profile. Inverted cane sugar is useful when trying to brew a barleywine, dopplebock or trippel from an extract base. Lesser refined sugars such as molasses, treacle or turbanado cane sugar have been used by British breweries in strong ales, porters, and stouts for years with successful results. Belgian Candi sugar is considered indispensable for brewing a Trippel. The key to successful brewing with refined sugars is to understand when, where and how much is appropriate.

The most common refined sugar used in homebrewing is corn sugar, also referred to as Brewing Sugar. Corn sugar tends to be more fermentable and leave less aftertaste than cane or beet sugar. A good rule of thumb is that the amount of corn sugar you can use without effecting the flavor of the beer is 10-15% of the total gravity of the beer. Corn sugar will contribute approximately 1.0085 degrees of gravity per pound per 5 gallons of beer being made. As an example, if you are making a porter with an original gravity (gravity pre-fermentation) of 1.060, and wish to “beef it up” some, then you could add up to 1 lb. (1/2 kg) of corn sugar. 1.060 x 15% = 1.009 which is about one pound.

Most homebrewing kits, including Coopers Beer Kits, provide you with the option of adding either 1 kg of brewing sugar, or 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs.) of unhopped malt concentrate. When made with sugar, beer kits will make a beer that is characterized as being light in body and mouthfeel, much like a Light American Lager style beer. They tend to ferment very quickly, and will reach a state of maturity with a couple of weeks. If 1.5 kg of unhopped malt concentrate is used, the beer will have more body, more mouthfeel and more “beer” flavor. It will also take a bit longer to ferment and mature. This type of production is mostly favored by microbrew and imported beer fans.

Is it possible to make a Light American Lager style beer without the use of rice and/or corn? No. It is also not possible to make many Belgian-style ales without the use of corn or beet-based sugars. And who can deny the pleasure of some of the fine summer-oriented fruit beers that make liberal use of honey? Experimentation is an intricate part of amateur beermaking. So, go ahead, try some Real Vermont maple syrup in that stout beer recipe next time! If you have any questions about making beer with other types of sugars, please contact me at mark@cascadiabrew.com.

Damn it Jim, we’re trying to make beer...


"For a tasty Summer treat, which uses liberal amounts of clover honey, see our 'Very Berry Honey Wheat Ale' recipe in our recipe database."
-Tom Heffernan
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