Those first few months of craft beer epiphany are heady indeed, filled with moment after moment of wide-eyed revelation. These palate-popping new brews had little in common with the mainstream stuff that you seemingly couldn’t live without. Craft beer had flavor, dark beer was actually delicious, hops in excess were heavenly, and most importantly, it was proudly all-malt. Then you discovered that some of the most respected breweries in the world used sugar and adjuncts to actually enhance their beer. Those ingredients were horrible no more (I’ve never had such reservations). The number brewed with unmalted grains and sugars is huge. Sugars of one sort or another have been used for centuries to stretch or replace malt, boost the gravity for storage or effect, or simply to modify the flavor and drinkability. It is the last point that is of most interest to us. Those that can be used in homebrewing are quite diverse, from pure, light dextrose to rugged, cloying molasses, there are plenty to choose from, and many great homebrews that yearn for them.
The many shades and flavors of sugars are dependent upon their botanical origin, method of production, and degree of refinement. Sugarcane and beets are the source for most granulated and syrup sugars, but honey, agave and sorghum also provide delicious raw materials, as do maple, date and palm trees. There are dozens of different varietal honeys. Maple syrup and agave nectar are unique enough to give lighter brews a special touch. Plain dextrose (corn sugar) is invaluable in some recipe applications. Belgian candi sugar, be it blonde, amber, dark, rock, granulated, or syrup, is a homebrew shop staple. Molasses, a malt substitute, coloring and flavoring agent in American Colonial times, offers some potent flavors and comes in at least three shades. Golden syrup (light treacle) and dark treacle are quite similar to light and dark molasses. Rice syrup (brown or white) and rice syrup solids and can be purchased in homebrew shops or elsewhere. Lactose, used mostly in milk stout for residual sweetness, is yet another specialized homebrewing product. The humble brown sugar (white sugar mixed with a bit of molasses) is also a useful brewing ingredient.
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.
Dextrose, table sugar, Belgian light candi sugar and blonde syrup, corn syrup, rice syrup: Lighten body and boost alcohol with minimal flavor, can be used in virtually any beer. Golden strong ale, Belgian blonde, tripel, cream ale, light adjunct lager are best.
Honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, golden syrup, brown rice syrup: Some subtle character, may be overwhelmed in very dark beer. Varietal honeys can be soft- (sourwood, clover), medium- or strong-flavored (buckwheat, avocado). Best in light- to brown-colored beers of modest strength, but can flavor any beer. Wheat beers, lighter Belgian ales, pale, amber and brown ale.
Turbinado, demarara, light brown sugar, Belgian amber candi syrup: Light “molasses,” buttery or caramelized notes, though fairly subtle. Quite versatile. Belgian dubbel and quadruple, pale and amber American ales, barleywine, IPA or Imperial IPA.
Palm sugar, jaggery, piloncillo, date sugar, date syrup: Unusual character, flavorful and “raw.” More robust, but similar, to those immediately above (turbinado, et al). Toffee, candy flavor, hints of dark fruit, vanilla and rum. Old ale, dubbel or quadruple, brown ale, Belgian black ale, doppelbock, Baltic porter.
Muscovado, dark brown sugar, Belgian dark candi sugar and syrup: Fairly aggressive flavor. Muscovado and dark brown sugar bring dark fruit, molasses and rummy flavors and aromas. Hints of anise and licorice. The Belgian sugars have clean, toffee highlights and dark fruit. Dark Belgian ales, old ale, Imperial brown ale, porter, stout, doppelbock, barleywine and Baltic porter.
Molasses, treacle, sorghum syrup: Big effect even in small amounts. Cloying flavor if overdone. A perfect measure offers complex flavors that few other ingredients can. Sorghum syrup is the least bitter. Married with dark caramel malts, molasses, sorghum syrup and treacle seem to enhance the rummy and dark fruit character of those grains, as well as lend a black licorice and spicy anise hint. Start with about 1 ¼ cups (15 oz) in a 5-gallon batch in robust porter or strong/Imperial stout and a little less in Baltic porter or old ale.