My soda pop client tells me that it is well known in the soda business that there is even a noticeable difference between refined cane and beet sucrose. Cane imparts a brighter, cleaner flavor that is much preferred over beet. What this means to us brewers, I have yet to unravel.
In contrast, the same book (Sykes and Ling) went on to say that refined cane and beet sugars are identical for brewing, but that partially refined cane sugar is preferable because of the “luscious” flavors it imparts. My experience bears this out.
I’ve discussed these before in this column, so I won’t repeat myself, except to say get out to those Latin and Asian markets and get your hands on some. They’re quite delicious in beer and have the stamp of historical authenticity to boot. Follow the former colonial connections to match sugar with recipe.
Make Your Own Caramel
To return to caramel, it is unfortunate that there is no easily accessible US source for Belgian caramel syrup for craft- or homebrewers but, since only small quantities are needed, homebrewers can easily make their own.
Because the chemical and electrical characteristics of caramel interact strongly with the products in which they’re used, caramel is not just caramel. There are four types with different stabilities, depending upon the pH, alcohol, sulfites, and other ingredients present. Class III is the one suitable for brewing.
If this all sounds hopelessly technical, I can assure you that making caramel is simplicity itself.
Place a pound of vanilla-free corn syrup, largely invert sugar, into a heavy saucepan on a medium-high flame. To this, add 7 grams of ammonium carbonate, which is sold as a leavening in Middle Eastern groceries. As a substitute, diammonium phosphate (a form of yeast nutrient) seems to work just fine. Stir gently to dissolve the chemical and allow the mixture to heat. At a certain point, it will begin to darken. Don’t turn your back on it, as the caramelizing process can be fairly rapid once it starts. You can check the flavor as you go by putting small drops of the mixture onto a sheet of aluminum foil, where it cools fairly rapidly. Judge by flavor as well as color. Sugar suppliers in Belgium sell several different colors of syrup to brewers.
When the caramel has progressed to your liking, turn off the heat and carefully (watch for steam and splattering) add a few ounces of sugar; stir this in to bring your caramel back to the consistency of thin honey. This makes it easier to use, and will prevent your having to rent a jackhammer to chisel it out of the pan. Diluted like this, the caramel will keep for an extended time.
As for use in a recipe, you might think of your caramel as about as potent as crystal malt. Use between a couple of ounces and a pound, depending upon how dark it is and what you are trying to do.
As a starting point, I would suggest making a base beer with good quality pilsner malt modestly hopped with a European variety. For a Belgian flavor, use a Belgian yeast, of course. This sort of recipe reacts well to being turned into a sour brown by the addition of a mixed lambic culture, although this transformation will take a few months.