Craft brewing's revolution against adjuncts (rice, corn, and so on) put a kibosh on sugar in beer, admirably eliminating corn sugar's use to boost alcohol at the expense of flavor. However, this gave rise to snobbish attitudes toward any use of sugar. Like a swinging pendulum, attitudes are changing.
Sugar's simplicity and fermentability imparts dryness to beer over the more complex, less fermentable barley sugars. Resist the temptation to raid the five-pound bag and instead explore the interesting results offered by less refined sugars.
Older brewers mention that brewing with too much sugar makes your beer taste “cidery.” If nothing else, Belgian brews disprove this notion. The current thinking attributes the “extract twang/cidery” flavors to stale extract.
Important Sugar Molecules
Not all sugars are the same, but they are all formed by carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Brewers focus on the fermentability and sweetness of sugar types.
Monosaccharides, a single sugar molecule, are the basic building blocks of all carbohydrates from table sugar to pasta. With twenty-four atoms, many natural molecular formations occur. From a brewer's perspective, the best-known monosaccharides — glucose (dextrose), fructose (levulose), and galactose — provide easy chow for yeast. Your finished beer will be almost devoid of them.
Next up the sugar chain are disaccharides, two monosaccharides combined. The most famous sugar is sucrose (table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar). Virtually every grocery-store-aisle sugar is sucrose. Maltose (malt sugar) unsurprisingly appears in large quantities. Lactose (milk sugar), unfermentable by beer yeast, is used as an adjunct. Cream/milk stouts have a large boil kettle addition of lactose. Tasters perceive a richer mouthfeel, but little sweetness.
As the molecular count rises, fermentability drops. Among trisaccharides, maltotriose, an extension of the maltose molecule, is fermentable. The other common trisaccharide, raffinose, can be attacked by some strains of lager yeast. Beyond these two outliers, yeasts stop fermenting, but wild yeasts and bacteria can destroy longer-chain sugars. Preventing starch in the wort helps prevent infection by denying other microorganisms a noncompetitive food source.
The Beet Versus Cane Debate
Grab a bag of table sugar from your pantry. The white sucrose crystals you hold are the product of endless refinement and bleaching. They started life as either tall, reedy sugar cane or lumpy, super-sweet sugar beets.
For years debate had raged over preference between beet and cane sugar. In most of the United States, particularly the South, cane sugar reigns supreme, while in the Midwest, particularly Michigan (and in Europe), the sugar beet is king. The European beet connection has had brewers insisting on using beet sugar for their Belgian ales. But sucrose is sucrose and the difference between cane and beet is negligible at best.
Avoid scorched sugar and tired arms by letting the boil dissolve your sugar. Add the sugar to a nylon hop bag and tie it to a spoon or stick. Suspend the bag in the middle of the boil and in about 10 minutes, the sugar dissolves.
Types of Sugar
Here are some common sugars for your brewery. To get a feeling for the effect of a sugar on your beer, try brewing the Baby Devil Sugar Bomb Belgian Ale. Unless otherwise noted, sugar contributes roughly 46 gravity points to a beer. To preserve aroma and flavor, add intense sugars late in the boil, around 15 minutes remaining.
Common Brewing Sugars
Beet/Cane table sugar — The most basic and most refined sugar you'll buy. Adds no flavor or aroma characters to the brew, but dries out and is cheap. Use when you want a gravity boost without sweetness and body.
Brown sugar — Most brown sugar is refined white sugar with varying amounts of molasses added back. To really punch up the flavor and aroma of British beers, look for real brown sugar, richly smelling of raisins and plums. Try muscavado, a very dark unrefined sugar cane brown sugar.
Candi sugar — Bags of Belgian Candi Sugar in your local homebrew store run a pretty penny. To save money, substitute table sugar or Chinese yellow lump sugar, a less refined product tasting of light caramel.
Lactose — Lactose is unfermentable milk sugar. Adds a very light sweetness to the final beer and boosts the beer's final gravity (43 points per pound). For lactose in action see MP's Coffee and Cream Stout
Piloncillo/Jaggery — Products of Central America and India respectively, both are unrefined sugars with flavorful impurities. Distinctively packaged in rough, hard cone shapes, they require a grater or a hammer to ready the sugar. Keep an eye out for special jaggery made from date or palm syrup for a different taste.
Turbinado sugar — A less refined cane sugar, the large pale brown crystalline sweetener is known as “Sugar in the Raw” in the United States. Demerara is a paler British version. Tastes like light brown sugar, but with a fruitier aroma.
Additionally here are some brewing syrups you should consider for your home brewery.
Common Brewing Syrups
Golden syrup (Invert sugar syrup) — A British product, this syrup doesn't crystallize. Created from byproducts of the sugar-making process, it is thick and golden with a light caramel and fruity flavor. Invert sugar is, in theory, easier for yeast.
Molasses/Treacle — Molasses is boiled sugar cane juice. There are several grades. For brewing purposes, avoid the sulfured molasses. In darker varieties flavors intensify with less fermentable sugar. Blackstrap, the darkest molasses, is traditional in British old ales and adds unique plum, smoke, and licorice flavors (36 points per pound).
Belgian Candi Syrup — A recent addition to the homebrewer's arsenal is Belgian Candi Syrup, a leftover from rock-candy making. Dark and rich with plum, vanilla, and raisins, a single 1.5-pound bottle can transform a beer from pale to dark. Perfect for dubbels and quads (32 points per pound).