Strike up a conversation with your friends about a beer you are drinking and you most likely won’t focus on sugars, or at least not for very long. Malts (various grains), hops, and yeast strains usually get all the glory, but if it were not for sugar in the wort (or baby beer prior to fermentation that contains trillions of yeast cells) the beverage of discussion itself would not be beer!
A Review of Some Sugar Basics
Think back to high school chemistry. You have monosaccharides and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are sugars that cannot be broken down into any simpler sugar molecules. An example is glucose. Polysaccharides are carbohydrates that consist of a number of simple sugar molecules bonded together.
An example of a polysaccharide is starch. Brew Your Own (The How-to Homebrew Beer Magazine) outlines the chemistry behind brewing sugars in more detail.
Which do you need for brewing? Monosaccharides! Monosaccharides are desired because they consist of 100% sugar (no water). On the other hand, the sugar percentage of polysaccharides varies, though usually the breakdown is around 92% sugar and 8% water.
Monosaccharides will only provide sugar for the yeast to eat and turn into alcohol and therefore only create a simple, sweet flavor. If your palate desires a more complex sweetness you can use processed sugars which provide sugar for the yeast to eat but also add distinct flavors. This is explained more (i.e. honey, molasses, etc).
How Sugars Impact Beer
As with any product, brewing great beer is all about selecting the correct ingredients. The key is to use the correct sugars for the yeast you will be using during the fermentation process.
Specific yeast strains are used when working to create specific aroma and flavor profiles. For instance, to create an ale you’d need an ale yeast, but for a wheat beer you’d need a Hefeweizen yeast. Yeast is most active during the primary fermentation and will process each sugar that is present differently.
Thus, the sugars used in combination with yeast during primary fermentation will also impact the flavor and aroma profiles of the beer.
How do sugars impact beer? Sugars raise the alcohol level, they decrease the body, and add unique flavors to beer (i.e. honey, molasses, etc). In contrast, if sugars are added during the second fermentation (i.e. fruits) the flavor and aroma of the sugar (i.e fruit) will maintain its integrity rather than be impacted by the yeast.
Types Of Sugars And How To Use Them
The most popular sugars used during the brewing process include corn sugar, table sugar, molasses, lactose, honey, maple syrup, maltodextrin powder, brew enhancer, and Belgian candi sugars.
When would you use each of these sugars? Why would you use one over another? To answer these questions, you must know what beer and specific flavor and aroma characteristics you are aiming to create!
- Corn sugar (dextrose, glucose) is typically used to increase the alcohol content while lightening the body of the beer. Do not let the word corn impact your selection as corn flavor will not be present in your beer. Corn sugar can also be used for priming when bottling.
- Table Sugar (sucrose) is typically used to increase the alcohol content while lightening the body of the beer, as with corn sugar. Based on your initial hydrometer reading, you can use this readily available source of sugar to increase your alcohol content. It can also be used for priming when bottling.
- Molasses is used to create rum-like flavors.
- Lactose is used in milk stouts to create a smooth, sweet flavor.
- Honey is used to create honey like flavors that vary due to the nectar source.
- Maple Syrup is used to provide maple flavor.
- Maltodextrin powder adds mouthfeel and minimal body to your beer.
- Brew Enhancer is a mixture of dextrose and maltodextrin and is used to increase the body of your beer.
- Belgian candi syrup is a liquid sugar used to provide various flavors based on product selection (Golden (raison and mild caramel), Simplicity (to be used with Saisons, Bier de Garde, and Belgian Pales), D-45 (toffee and caramel), D-90 (rich and dark, or D-180 (very dark typically for Dubbels)).
Alcohol Content, Mouthfeel, Body, and Flavor
- If you want to increase the alcohol content of your beer, after taking a hydrometer reading, you can add any sugar (fruits included) to increase the alcohol by volume. Depending on which sugar you use, the flavor will be impacted as well (i.e. fruits, molasses, honey, etc).
- If your desire is to create a smooth mouthfeel, add lactose during secondary fermentation.
- If an increased mouthfeel is desired, add maltodextrin powder or brew enhancer.
Adding sugars for flavors allows for nearly endless options! During the secondary fermentation, you can add fruits (typically one pound per gallon of beer), molasses, honey, or Belgian candi syrup.
Now you have a frame of reference of when to use each of the sugars that will lead to a beer that you have crafted to obtain specific aroma and flavor profiles. Remember, when discussing a beer you are drinking, be sure to now review the sugars used as well as the malts, hops and yeast!