The Place for Sugar
For American brewers who still recall the horrors of pre-enlightenment recipes containing a staggering amount of corn sugar, the very notion of sugar in beer seems heretical. But sugar does have its place in the brewing of good beer. Quality sugar, in appropriate quantities, can make certain beer styles really shine. Belgian strong pale ales (in the Duvel mold), and abbey dubbels and triples all require sugar to lighten the palate, giving these large beers a crisp drinkability.
Other beers use caramel to augment or substitute for colored malt. This technique dates back to the 19th century, when Flemish oud bruins were colored this way, and the popular everyday lambic form called faro was sweetened and colored with caramel. Today, it remains a tool in the Belgian brewers’ kit. The Chouffe brewery uses no colored malts at all, getting their delicious carameliness from, well, caramel.
Having had the opportunity to acquire, taste and brew with a number of different types of sugar, I have to say the rock sugar is among my least favorite. The palest type really is nothing more than refined sucrose, no matter how exotic it may appear. Wild Brews author Jeff Sparrow tells me that Belgian brewers laughed out loud when he told them American brewers were paying $5 a pound for the stuff. Rock sugar does get used in Belgian brewing, but not because there’s any magic about it; it’s just much cheaper over there. If you want plain old beet sugar, it’s at your grocery store waiting for you in 5-pound bags, at a very attractive price.
There are colored varieties of rock sugar, of course, but you have to strain your taste buds to find much character even in the darkest one, and there’s not enough color to make much of a contribution, either. As any chemist can tell you, crystallizing is a great method for purifying things, as the solidifying crystal matrix has no room for impurities, leaving them behind in the solution from which the pure crystals emerge. With cane sugar, the residue is molasses. The impurities in beet sugar have what one 1896 brewing book described as “nauseous” character, which is why there’s no partially refined beet sugar on the market.