Sugar Additions Homebrew : When and Why

There are two common reasons you might use sugar additions in a homebrew recipe. Either it was planned in advance for a particular recipe, or you are using it as a stopgap measure to recover from a poor gravity reading in an all-grain recipe. I will address both reasons here. If you have never added sugar to your homebrew as a response to a problematic brew process, this might be a good time to pull out your note pad and take some notes. While not your first pick when planning a normal recipe, adding a pound (or two) of sugar to the end product, might be just what you need if you take your gravity reading and find it wanting. There are many reasons the mashing process might fail, and you may find a gravity at 1.038 when you really were aiming for 1.048. We won’t talk about brewhouse efficiency in this article, but this can be one cheap and ugly trick to recover from bad brewhouse efficiency. Adding simple sugar (corn sugar ferments out the cleanest) is a quick way to get those gravity-read sugars up closer to where you want them to be. On average, you will see about a 10 point rise in gravity readings for every lb of corn sugar you add, or roughly 1% in alcohol in a 5 gallon batch.

Drawbacks of Sugar Additions

Careful though, as every bit of corn sugar added to fix your gravity woes will thin the beer out, adding alcohol, but no real flavor or body. This can throw your beer out of balance in both the flavor, mouthfeel, and hop profile. In essence, you might be able to nudge your beer closer to the desired starting gravity (and in turn desired ABV), but don’t get carried away or you’ll end up with a substandard product. In some cases your batch may take on some "cider-like" characteristics. I don’t think I have ever felt comfortable with adding any more than a pound for this purpose. 

Planning Sugar Additions Into Your Recipe

The second, and more legitimate reason for using sugar in a homebrew recipe, is for when you have a recipe that actually calls for it. In this case, it is the particular flavor that is being sought and will then determine how much or what type of sugar is called for. While corn sugar can be used this way (I have brewed recipes that called for corn sugar) to intentionally thin out a beer. Examples of this may include IPAs (west coast particularly) where you want a gravity around or even a bit below 1.010. Some other examples include Belgian Ales (of many kinds), but most call for more complex sugar additions. Belgian Candi sugar can be used to add new and interesting flavor profiles to your beer.

Other Options Beyond Simple Corn Sugar

More robust sugars can leave behind desirable unfermentable sugars and flavor profiles, creating a unique character in the beer you wouldn’t get anywhere else. Here are a couple examples: Brown Sugar: which is plain sugar with small amounts of molasses in it, providing a rum-like flavor to the beer as well as some sweetness. Sugar In the Raw: This is just slightly more complex than it's table counterpart, but could be what you're looking for if brown sugar is too much. Belgian Candi Sugars and Syrups: There are different types of Belgian candi sugars and syrups. Each adds its own set of unique characteristics form bread, to caramel, to toffee and plums. Honey: Honey is bright and floral, and can even be citrusy (check out orange blossom honey), so you can also use it to alter the profile of your beer. 

When To Add Your Extra Sugars

While it's safe to add sugars at any time in the process, adding them late can be very beneficial to your cause. This is because of two reasons. First, yeast can get lazy if offered simple sugars up front, and stall out early or ferment slower than normal once they have to convert more complex sugars. To prevent this, add the sugar after a few days of primary fermentation. Next, if you're adding sugars with a lot of flavor and aroma (like Belgian Candi or honey), the initial portion of primary fermentation can send a lot of desirable aromas out of the beer. Adding them after this vigorous portion of fermentation helps keep them in the beer, but still allows the yeast to ferment them out.  Get creative, and experiment with sugar additions. If you have the ability, the best way to test these things or learn the flavors would be to split your beer into separate fermenters after brewing and add different sugars, while keeping a control batch. This will allow you to taste the same beer with different additives and note the difference. If you do this successfully, you should walk away with a basic understanding and first-hand knowledge of what each sugar you are testing does to the beer. There are many more details on types of sugars and what each does to your beer, but hopefully this has whet your appetite. Sugar additions can be so much more than just a sneaky way to up your ABV. Have fun and play around with this additive. If you're ever wondering how to get some new flavor profiles in your beer, using brewing sugars appropriately can be the answer.

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