Brewing With Sugar

                              Ignoring the Sneer

                                                                                                                     by Mike Retzlaff

There has been a stigma handed down over the years which casts a pall over the use of sugars in beer brewing.  Using sugar is seen as the folly of a novice or the deceitful act of a cheat.  I can remember 30 years ago when beer kits instructed us to combine 3.3 lbs. of canned malt syrup with 2.2 lbs. of table sugar.  The resulting beer was generally less than stellar despite alluring kit names such as Ironmaster, John Bull, Laaglander, Munton & Fison, and EDME.  Critics described many of these beers as “cidery.”  This was a result of using a disproportional amount of simple sugar, the poor quality yeast which came with the kit, and uncontrolled ferment temps.  To better explain this – brewing yeasts contain an enzyme which breaks the bond of glucose and fructose which form the sucrose molecule.  This takes some energy and could deplete the reserves of already weak yeast as supplied under the plastic cap of a liquid malt can.  That, coupled with fermentation carried out in the garage where the temps might vary by 20o every day, pretty well explains a lot of the problems.  The failure to understand how everything comes together in the brewhouse led many to disconnect entirely from using sugars in their beer brewing.  The sugar took the blame for the ignorance of the brewer.  I can’t point any fingers as I was as guilty as anyone.  There was bliss in ignorance and I was a happy guy.    

In 1901, T.W. Lovibond, Managing Director of Newcastle Breweries, stated that he considered sugars a practical necessity for modern brewing.  Newcastle used inverted cane sugar and maize grits.  The use of adjuncts enabled them to brew a better beer more quickly than an inferior all-malt beer.  Many Belgian and British beers require sugars of one sort or another as part of the recipe.  Sugar isn’t just a cheap substitute as many brewing sugars rival or exceed the cost of malt.  Sugar is added to provide flavor & color, to boost OG, and often in big beers, to reduce the residual gravity.    

Too high a residual gravity can make the finished beer as cloying as cough syrup.  Many Belgian beers finish under 1.010 even with an OG in the 1.075 – 1.095 range which is not possible even with Belgian yeast strains unless the ferment-ability of the wort is adjusted.  (Bacterial inoculation is another story)

Back in Dec of 2012, plus Feb, Mar, Apr, & May of 2013, Greg Hackenberg wrote a 5 part series for the HOPLINE which he called “Brewing Like A Brit” and a recipe was included.  In May, Jul, and Aug of 2014 he offered a 3 part series entitled “Brewing Sugars”.  You’ll find a wealth of insight on British beer & culture and the use of sugars in these two series of articles. (check the HOPLINE archives – CCH website)

Many books available to the home brewer contain certain repeated errors.  One of these errors is the calculation of various sugars as a component of the recipe.  Most descriptive texts I’ve found for the stronger styles of Belgian Ales call for 15 – 20% of the formulation to be sugar.  This is a percentage of the total fermentables; not a percentage of weight of the ingredient list – there is a difference!

As an example, let’s say we want an OG of 1.048 and utilize 6% sugar, we’ll calculate:

  • 48 X 0.06 = 2.88 X 5.1 gal. = 14.688 / 46 =  0.32 X 16 = 5.1 oz cane sugar.  (46 ppg yield)
  • 48 X 0.06 = 2.88 X 5.1 gal. = 14.688 / 41 =  0.36 X 16 = 5.7 oz corn sugar.  (41 ppg yield)

If we want an OG of 1.056 and utilize 12% sugar, we’ll calculate:

  • 56 X .12 = 6.72 X 5.1 gal. =  34.27 / 36 =  0.95 X 16 = 15.2 oz molasses.  (36 ppg yield)
  • 56 X .12 = 6.72 X 5.1 gal. =  34.27 / 42 =  0.82 X 16 = 13.1 oz Lyles Golden Syrup.  (42 ppg yield)

The rest of the extract requirement of these recipes would come from the mash tun.  Because a Belgian Tripel is a normally a very simple recipe, let’s use it as an example to figure the proportions. 

1.076 OG using cane sugar @ 17% with a 5.1 gal. yield to the fermenter:

  • 76 X .17 = 12.92 X 5.1 gal. = 65.89 / 46 = 1.43# or 1# 6.9 oz. cane sugar
  • 76 – 12.92 = 63.08 X 5.1 gal. = 321.7 / 28.6 = 11.25# of Belgian Pils malt @ 75% brewhouse efficiency. (Belgian Pils yields 28.6 ppg @ 75% eff.)

Note – The first formula calculates the amount of sugar required; the second subtracts that extract amount from the total and calculates the mash tun’s contribution to the recipe.

Therefore the recipe would include:

11.25# Belgian Pilsner Malt

1# 6.9oz. cane sugar

Remember, mash efficiency only affects the mashed components; not the sugars.  The sugars go directly into the kettle and are not affected by the efficiency of the mash.

Various brewing sugars differ in their sweetness and ferment-ability.

Belgian crystal candi sugars deliver    36 ppg       Belgian sugar syrups deliver    32 ppg Cane sugar (sucrose) delivers              46 ppg       Corn sugar (dextrose) delivers   41 ppg Brown Sugar delivers                           45 ppg       Molasses delivers                       36 ppg  Steen’s Cane syrup delivers                 35 ppg       Lyle’s Golden Syrup delivers 42 ppg

Even in something as “normal” as a partial mash recipe, these same formulae can be used.

LME delivers 37 ppg               DME delivers 45 ppg

This routine can be applied to most any beer which includes a sugar component in the recipe.  Belgian Dubbels, Tripels, and Quads are obvious examples.  Many British beers can’t be properly made without sugars.  Various British recipes call for treacle, molasses, demerara, muscovado, turbinado, and/or an assortment of invert sugars.  These beers might require as little as 2 – 3%.  Maltose is the main sugar produced in the mash tun but many other sugars definitely have their place in brewing; commercially and at home.  They can be blended in a proportion which satisfies the style the brewer seeks to produce.  In this article I’ve mentioned several percentages of sugar that could be in a recipe.  I’ve seen the percentage of sugars used in a very few recipes as much as 25%.  At some point, an increasing percentage may induce that hot / solventy mouthfeel and aroma that nobody finds pleasant.  Remember, the old malt syrup beer kits called for about 45% table sugar.  It didn’t work well then; it probably wouldn’t work well now.  If you’re feeling nostalgic, such kits are still available. 

Replace guesswork with a few simple calculations.  We aren’t plotting a spacecraft’s trajectory to a planet in a nearby galaxy.  None of this involves calculus or some other scary mathematics.  We learned all of these functions by the end of the 4th grade.  All of us want to improve as brewers – here’s an easy way to move in that direction.  It also makes tweaking a recipe easier.

Don’t be afraid to pursue a recipe containing sugars of nearly any sort.  As a brewer, you need to think through your recipe concept and add only those ingredients and amounts which will bring this beer to fruition.  The old bug-a-boo myth against brewing with sugar needs to dry up and blow away.  Realize that those who scoff and sneer at the use of sugars are caught up in the ignorance of a bygone era.  Even though most kits produced mediocre beer at best, they did entice people to start brewing at home.  I tip my hat to them for providing that starting point for many of us.

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