As a writer, brewer and marketing guy, I love words. Words have the power to convey thoughts, inspire the imagination and reveal hidden secrets, so I don’t take it likely when I say this: We just have to kill one.
Because the chemical and electrical characteristics of caramel interact strongly with the products in which they’re used, caramel is not just caramel.
I feel a little bad, because it’s not even an English word. It’s French. In the context of brewing, candi describes a sugar used primarily in Belgian brewing. But which sugar? It’s a problem. When a word comes out of someone’s mouth and enters someone else’s ear with a completely different meaning, it’s time to check the lexicon. Popular usage, as we all know, trumps the dusty pages of some old book, so lexicide is the only answer. “Candi” has to go.
Here are the details and why they matter. There are two types of sugar that may be called candi: large rocks of crystallized beet sugar, and caramelized sugar syrup. In general—and this is undoubtedly true historically—sucre candi (or kandij zuiker in Flemish) refers to the caramelized sugar syrup. But American home- and craftbrewers who use the term are invariably referring to the rocks.
This miscommunication leads to grave errors despite the noblest efforts to brew authentically. The two ingredients bear little resemblance to each other save the sucrose molecules at their core.
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.
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.