Homebrewers are mostly using sugar to add desired flavors and to carbonate their beers. But you may be wondering what types of sugars are best and what do they add to your homebrews.
The best sugars for homebrewing are ‘simple’ sugars because they are the easiest to break down and manipulate in the brewing process. The best sugars to use for homebrewing include corn sugar (dextrose), table or cane sugar (sucrose) and raw sugar.
Because multiple types of sugars can be used for homebrewing, I will detail the differences between them and when some choices may be better than others.
Sugar is an essential component related to flavor profiles and carbonation, where your results may benefit from its addition in some beer types.
What Sugar Should You Use to Homebrew And What For?
Sugar is a natural component found in the grains used for making beer that is broken down and fermented to produce alcohol.
It does not require additional sugar to make beer, but added sugar is often used to further manipulate the beer-making process for more desirable and customized results.
The choice of sugar used in homebrewing is often regional, producing varying results that have distinctly different characteristics for beer.
Simple sugars are the best for homebrewing because they often produce the most effective results without the complications that you find with more complex sugar types.
You can consider using more complex sugars (including syrups, honey, and molasses), but instructions should be followed closely because it is easy to get inconsistent results. These sugars are often chosen specifically for their unique, but subtle flavor profiles.
The best sugars for homebrewing include:
- Corn sugar (dextrose)
- Table or cane sugar (sucrose)
- Raw sugar
These sugars break down easily and are much more predictable when added to your homebrews.
When adding sugars, make sure you carefully follow recipes to add the flavors and priming without losing overall body and consistency to the beer.
Before we dive into these sugars in more detail, it is important to address why you should be adding sugar to your beer in the first place and how these different sugars influence the chemical changes being made.
These are the primary reasons that sugar is used in your homebrews:
- Priming for fermentation: The recommended sugars in this article do not contribute to flavoring, which is why they are used in many cases. They have a particularly significant impact on the carbonation of a beer. Yeast consumes the sugar and gives off carbon dioxide, which is trapped in a sealed bottle. This results in a naturally carbonated beverage.
- Increasing alcohol content: Adding sugar will convert it into alcohol, allowing you to produce a more robust beer without making it heavy. Water weighs more than alcohol, so by adding sugar, more of the content is being transformed into the lighter substance.
- Flavoring and coloring: If you choose to use an alternative sugar, such as molasses or honey, these can have an impact on the flavoring of the beer. Sugar can be used to enhance flavor profiles beyond the chemical changes occurring during fermentation. This is added at the end to keep the flavors intense. A little addition goes a long way for a meaningful flavor that does not compromise overall taste.
Understanding these elements is crucial to why some sugars are used over others in achieving your desired homebrew results.
Corn Sugar (Dextrose) for Homebrewing
Corn sugar is the most commonly used sugar for homebrewing and is referred to as brewing sugar.
It is a highly refined substance made from corn.
The primary reason for its use is to prime the beer, which allows for a maturation process that will result in added natural carbonation. There may also be subtle sweetness added, but this sugar does not add more flavoring.
This sugar is added to the beer toward the end of the homebrewing process when bottling to allow the residual yeast to consume the sugar and create the desired carbonation.
Corn sugar is preferred because the yeast can easily break it down compared to other sugar alternatives.
To use corn sugar for homebrewing, you will want to make sure you:
- Use the correct “before” bottling process: For the best results, the yeast needs to break down the sugars right before bottling. The carbonation (the goal of priming with sugar) results from this process in a closed container. Sugars are also used earlier to allow for initial fermentation.
- Use very little sugar: The recipe you use will dictate how much sugar to add, but you will typically only use around an ounce of sugar per gallon of beer mixture. This not only controls alcohol content but allows yeast to break it all down.
- Sanitize the sugars: Consider boiling the sugar in water before adding the mixture to keep the mixture pure and free of contaminants. This will keep the beer from spoiling and increase the shelf life significantly.
- Only use sugar if the recipe calls for it: Sugar is not necessary for many homebrewing methods, so make sure the recipe you are using calls for it before use. Because sugar is derived from the grains being used to make the beer, sugar is not always required. Many “purists” will avoid sugars as they do not adhere to Reinheitsgebot rules.
Corn sugars are the ideal sugar choice for homebrewing because they are very fermentable and will not only create natural carbonation but also help with achieving ideal gravity conditions as well as altering alcohol content if needed.
Once the sugar is added, the bottle needs to be tightly sealed for the carbonation and maturation to take place.
Table or Cane Sugar (Sucrose) for Homebrewing
Table and cane sugars (sucrose) are used to achieve similar results to corn sugar.
It is also a beneficial sugar alternative because it is 100% fermentable.
You can use these common sugars to add to your beer mixture for the same benefits that brewing sugars provide.
One of the primary benefits of using table sugar is that it is very easily accessible and inexpensive.
Most uses for table and cane sugar in homebrewing are not related to flavor at all. Its primary use is for successful fermentation, often referred to as “gravity” to describe the proportion of fermentable and non-fermentable contents of a beer. Sugar levels are kept low to have these positive impacts without impacting the flavors of the beer.
High sugar content in homebrewing is reserved for ciders.
When using traditional cane sugar, you are not trying to influence the flavor. Because the amount of sugar being used is low, the flavor profiles of any sugar will not be significant.
There are types of sucrose sugars you can use (with desirable results) to enhance flavors as well.
Other sucrose sugars that are commonly used in brewing processes, especially for flavoring (but may be a bit more challenging to incorporate) include:
- Molasses: Often used because it provides more vibrant flavors than standard brewing sugars (used in darker beers). It is typically added during the boiling stage in the brewing process.
- Brown sugar: This sugar also contains smaller amounts of molasses for flavoring beyond the fermentation process. It has also been highly processed, so it works similarly to cane and table sugars.
- Belgian Candi sugar: With an added caramelization, this sugar will provide unique flavoring but still operates as table sugar would. It is commonly used in Belgian-style beers.
- Invert sugars: These are often found as syrups to be sweeter and mimic honey without the flavors. It is achieved by altering sugar molecules and makes fermentation easier. It is similar to corn syrup or granular sugar in its impacts.
All of these sucrose varieties will be sufficient for use in your homebrews when recipes call for sucrose.
Use refined sugars when you are also trying to alter the alcohol content.
This addition occurs much earlier in the brewing process and can then be repeated for desired carbonation. If using sugars for flavor, add them after a few days of primary fermentation.
Raw Sugar for Homebrewing
Raw sugars have not been refined like cane and table sugars.
The primary difference is that the molasses remains, leading to its brown or amber coloring.
You can most definitely use raw sugar for homebrewing, and it will add a slight flavor as molasses would when used.
Because the sugar is not refined, it is often used for carbonation rather than altering the alcohol content.
Yeast is still able to consume these raw sugars, so they have their intended impact on the fermentation process.
The choice to use raw sugar is dependent on the results you want to achieve with your homebrew.
If a richer flavor is desired in addition to the chemical changes, using raw sugar can be beneficial compared to cane sugars or brewing sugar.
Raw sugar should be used in small amounts as all sugar additions must to preserve the body and flavoring of beer. Most traditional beers do not make use of sugar at all, showing that they are not requirements for great tasting homebrews. If you don’t have access to other types of sugar, you will not be doing your beer a disservice with the raw sugar use.
Brewing Sugar vs. Granular Sugar: What’s the Difference?
I have highlighted the different types of sugars that are commonly used for homebrewing, which include both brewing sugar (corn sugar) and granular sugar (table sugar).
The difference between the two can be analyzed both from a chemistry perspective and from their impact on your homebrew.
This is the chemical breakdown between the two types of sugar:
- Dextrose: A simple sugar that contains one molecule, known as a monosaccharide, and can be easily broken down. Corn sugar is a dextrose product that is heavily refined but derived from corn. Monosaccharides do not have distinguishable flavoring, making their use for the chemical changes to beer. Glucose is similar to dextrose and can be a suitable alternative.
- Sucrose: A disaccharide, meaning that it contains two sugar molecules and takes up more volume for similar energy outputs. Table and cane sugars are sucrose and are also heavily refined substances. Molasses is a by-product of sucrose and will add the additional flavoring that many brewers desire.
They are both 100% fermentable, but corn sugars and other dextrose sugars will break down slightly more quickly.
The chemistry between the two is often the most significant difference as they both achieve similar results in brewing. They both work to alter the heaviness of a beer, alter alcohol content, and add carbonation.
Because of their chemical differences, you cannot interchange one for the other in similar measurements.
Their physical properties influence the amount of sugar you should be adding to the brew. While similar, granular sugar yields higher gravity points per pound per gallon (ppg). This gravity tells you an ideal ratio for the amount of sugar to be dissolved into water.
The gravity level will determine the strength of the beer. This calculation is made by comparing the pound amount of sugar substance dissolved into gallons of water.
Higher levels of sugar will increase the gravity. Corn syrup has a slightly lower ppg level than granulated sugar, so it is recommended to use around 10% less if using table sugar for your homebrews.
Difficult Sugars to Use For Homebrewing
While I have mentioned the best sugars to use, there are still many sugar variations that will produce great tasting beers.
The reason I don’t include them on my ‘best sugars’ list is that they can be more unpredictable and harder to work with than corn, table, and raw sugars.
If you do choose to use these, make sure you carefully follow instructions.
Many of these sugars are not 100% fermentable, which makes the process a little slower or not as effective as the sugars that are.
The primary purpose of using other sugar sources is to enhance flavor profiles and create unique sweetness.
These are popular sugar alternatives that can make great homebrews but are not always easy to work with:
- Maple Syrup: Use richer maple syrups to maintain flavoring after the initial fermentation process. It is highly fermentable, so you don’t have to worry about it not being consumed by yeast. It contains a high percentage of sucrose but is not nearly as concentrated as your table syrups.
- Honey: Honey beer is very popular for its sweet flavoring. It is only 95% fermentable and contains other natural contents that may interfere with sugar breakdown. It is best used after the initial fermentation process and should be pasteurized to prevent contaminants from interfering with the brew structure. More honey will result in more noticeable flavoring.
- Rice syrups: This is another sugar alternative, but it is significantly less fermentable than other sugar alternatives. It may produce desired elements but can be challenging to work with when fermentation falls below 80%. The variations in syrup will dictate results.
These sugars can also be added to your homebrews, but they should be researched and take more steps than the ones I recommended.
If your primary concern is unique flavor profiles, these may be good sugars to consider for your beer.
While almost all sugars are fermentable, allowing for the many benefits of adding brewing sugars, those that are less so can also be used in creating sweeter beers. When the sugar is not broken down by beer yeast, its sweetness remains. Much larger sugar molecules, greater than three glucose molecules, are needed to create a sweeter and higher gravity beer.
Some of these unfermentable sugars include:
- Highly caramelized malts
These sugars should be considered for sweetening in your homebrews but are not recommended to deliver on carbonation or higher alcohol content.
Why Does Sugar Matter for Homebrew?
While added sugar is not necessary to create a great beer, it serves as an excellent addition to influence many of the qualities and flavors of your homebrew.
Using corn sugars, table sugars, and raw sugars are recommended because they help to achieve the most consistent and predictable results (when measured out according to the recipes).
Sugars not only help with the initial fermentation to help define the body of a beer, but they can largely influence the alcohol level and provide the natural carbonation that defines beer.
Being mindful of the type of sugar you use, the limited amount you include, and the step at which you add will all contribute to a high-quality homebrew.
While following different recipes, try experimenting with different types of sugar in your brews. It allows you to have greater control over the beer-making process and can lead to some creative outcomes.
Homebrewing is enjoyed because it allows you to take standard beer-making and personalize it. Adding sugars can aid in this quest for unique and tasty beers.