The real fun starts with the peculiar raw sugars found in ethnic and natural groceries. Granulated types like turbinado, demerara, and muscovado (Barbados) are only partially refined, leaving the impurities intact within the granular matrix. These impurities contain “molasses” flavor normally removed via centrifugation. Turbinado and demerara are blonde-brown, and muscovado is dark brown. Other, more exotic sugars include jaggery (southeast Asia), date syrup or sugar (mostly Mediterranean), and piloncillo (Mexico, Central and South America). Jaggery and piloncillo are marginally refined and pressed into solid, molded shapes. They also contain the natural impurities of the other raw sugars mentioned above. Jaggery is made from palm tree saps or sugar cane, while piloncillo is exclusively made from cane sugar. Date syrup is either processed, macerated whole dates or extracted sugars made to the consistency of honey. Its flavor is similar to those dried dark fruit, vanilla and rummy notes that come from dark malts. Date sugar is a refined, crystallized version, with a lighter flavor than date syrup.
Now that the brewing gears are churning in your head, we’ll have to figure out how to use them. As a rule of thumb, don’t exceed 20 percent of the fermentables (classic Belgian ales rarely do, so I will gladly defer to them). Ten to 20 percent seems to be about the right amount to get some lightening effect and/or discernible flavor. Of course, the lightest of them will contribute little to no flavor. Savvy use of specialty malts can counter undesirable thinning if you are looking to add a lot of flavor from the sugar without compromising the mouthfeel.
As always, because brewing is a measure of one’s ability to volley the ingredients off one another, here are a few other considerations. For extra kettle influence of caramelization and melanoidin formation, add your sugar to the first runnings and boil for 10 minutes before continuing the runoff. If using expensive items, such as agave nectar or maple syrup, think about splitting a batch and fermenting 1 to 3 gallons separately to maximize their contribution without breaking the bank. Those, as well as honey, are best added in the primary or secondary to maintain delicate aromatics. A pound of any sugar will contribute between 1.036 and 1.046 gravity points per gallon of liquid, or 1.007 to 1.009 per 5 gallons. The difference of 0.002 between the two is negligible. Most sugar syrups have an OG of about 1.400 to 1.500, so 1 cup will equal approximately 12 oz.
It is difficult to make sweeping recommendations, or to classify the many sugars and potential applications, but below is an attempt based on my own experience. Some are quite versatile (honey, dextrose and turbinado), while others can easily be overdone (molasses, dark treacle). Jaggery and Piloncillo come in assorted shades depending on the extent they are processed and will have more or less “dark” flavor dependent upon this. Use your best judgment and match the sugar and the beer to start (light sugar and light beer, medium to medium, etc.). My basic thoughts are followed by a trio of recipes that have served me well lo these many years. Go with your instincts, the permutations of playing with these sugars and beer recipes are virtually infinite. Have at it.