Thursday, 24 September 2009

The use of sugar in brewing

The importance of sugar in British beers is often forgotten or ignored. It's good to see the reasons for its use - not just financial ones - set out nicely. As in today's quoted passage.

Most modern British beers require the use of sugar to get the right character in the finished beer. Despite what all-malt fanatics would have you believe. It's how brewers in the US can get British beers very, very wrong. By trying to brew them all-malt. Read on to discover why.

"When the tax on malt was abolished some years ago, and the so-called system of free mash tun substituted, little could it have been imagined what an important part such a step would play in the history of brewing. We venture to say that it would be impossible to produce beers of the quality which a critical ale drinker now demands, without the sanction to replace a quantity of malt with substitutes in the shape of sugar and kindred carbohydrates. Nowadays, sugar is used as a substitute for malt, not only for the sake of economy but because it has become absolutely necessary to do so. We do wish that the farmers, with whom we are in entire sympathy, would all recognise this fact. We are told, and have no reason to doubt, that the old-time beers produced from malt and hops only were very palatable. But we do know that it was necessary to store and mature them for a very long time before they became so. High taxation and other overhead charges have only been met by means of a quicker turnover of capital. In order to achieve it, brewing methods have had to be overhauled and speeded up. Consequently, beers must now be brewed such as will be in good condition and ready for consumption even within a few hours of being racked. This object can only be achieved by using materials such as sugars which are less subject to the influence of nitrogenous and albuminous matters. This argument is in itself indisputably in the favour of sugar. There are many others. With the gravities of beer too low to give fermentation and yeast reproduction such as we should desire, sugar is an undeniable asset.

When already inverted and used as a mixing, it is of the greatest benefit, and we know of many cases where apparently hopeless situations with sluggish fermentations have been saved by the addition of a suitable sugar solution. Furthermore, it may well be argued that great economy of space is effected by using sugar instead of malt. There is certainly much to be said for this argument when one comes to study the convenient method now adopted of solidifying invert sugar into hard oblong slabs, instead of sending it in inconvenient casks and pails, and the even more recent development of fluid delivery in bulk.

To those who agitate against the use of sugar, it has come as quite a shock and an amusing one when we have informed them that beer is only the produce of fermented sugars, and that all malt becomes sugar in the process of conversion in the mash tun. The resulting sugar differs very slightly from cane or beet sugars in its composition. The manufacturers of brewing sugars have made great advances in recent years. Every care is now taken to assure that they contain no deleterious substances, and they can be used with much benefit and every confidence."
"Brewing: a book of reference", 1st ed, revised, 1947.

There may be more from this source later in the week. About malt. Seems a good time, seeing all the discussions we've had about it of late.


mentaldental said...

One point to bear in mind is, in the first half of the 20th century at least, British brewers relied on foreign 6-row malt quite heavily. I don't know if this was out of choice or necessity.

Sugar would have been a useful nitrogen diluent. A lot of the early 20th century pale ale recipes I have seen are made with just pale malt and any protein haze would have been obvious.

The darker, more familiar, British bitter seems to be a later development. The current rash of "blond" ales seems to be a return to the old style!

Gary Gillman said...

Good points and maybe the darker style emerged to mask lack of clarity caused by use of some 6-row, sugar and other adjunct palliatives notwithstanding. So the idea that sugar caused the dark revolution may in fact be more the reverse (especially as I have read that sugar can be made to result in a light colour, it doesn't have to impart a caramel brown).

Regarding sugar adjunct, having consumed countless all-malt brews since the start of the brewing renaissance in North America 30 years ago I am convinced of the superiority of all-malt brewing. Sugars are are all very well and can enhance and create (as the author argues, in effect) a style of beer, but it isn't the same. Nor (at least today) do, say, the fine all-malt ales of California require long aging before dispatch to the pub.

Beer at its very best should be all-malt, it is an ideal always to attain and results in the best and truest beer character, in my opinion.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, the use of sugar gives brewers much more control over colour. Judging by the adjustments Barclay Perkins made in the 1920's and 1930's, in the 19th century beers must have been pretty inconsistent colour-wise.

Have to disagree about the superiority of all-malt beers. Most of my favourite top-fermenting beers contain sugar. Certain beers - strong Belgian types, for example - can't be made to taste right brewed all-malt.

Jeff Renner said...

The author writes, "all malt becomes sugar in the process of conversion in the mash tun. The resulting sugar differs very slightly from cane or beet sugars in its composition."

This is misleading. While the actual sugars resulting from mashing malt are similar (maltose vs. a sucrose, which is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose), all of which ferment 100% into alcohol, maltose comprises only a bit more than half of the carbohydrates resulting from the mash.

More significant in the discussion of all-malt vs. some sugar are the other, less fermentable and non-fermentable complex carbohydrates such as various dextrins, which remain in the finished beer.

An all malt beer will finish at a higher gravity than one brewed with sugar, all other things remaining the same, and will have less alcohol. This may or may not be appropriate for style.

mentaldental said...

Absolutely top class beers can be made from all malt worts. No doubt of that.But using sugar doesn't mean that a sub-standard beer necessarily results.

As Ron has written the use of sugar was/is widespread in the UK but is also common in Belgium. Many world class belgian beers are made with sugars. I don't think that all-malt is always superior.

Mind you, most of my home brews are all malt mainly because I held exactly the same view as you until recently. I have embraced the use of sugar recently and am still exploring its possibilities. Yes, I have become a sugar slut.

If you like, we can have a fight behind the bike shed to see who is right. :-)

Mike said...

I tried brewing Bitter with all malt back in the 70's; and the results were not good.I didn't dwell on what was wrong, I just went back to using sugar and the brews were OK.

mentaldental said...

Ron said: "in the 19th century beers must have been pretty inconsistent colour-wise."

I guess this must be true. The colour of malt probably varied significantly since the degree of kilning and kiln temperature would have to be judged experience. Even the few floor maltings still in operation in UK use temperature controllers/sensors etc. Even so the colour of their pale malt varies from batch to batch, although by less than one half an EBC unit in my experience(although as the colour is only 3-4 that's quite a lot).

Graham Wheeler said...

I think the snippet was a rather romantic view on the utility of sugar in beer. I would suspect that the author worked for someone like Gilman & Spencer.

To suggest that sugar is important to British beers is a little over the top.

There was no sugar before 1880 and its use abruptly stopped again at the turn of the century after the 1900 arsenic poisoning in beer episode, in which 6,000 people were known to have been affected and 70 deaths. The arsenic involved came as a free gift with the sugar used in brewing. Beer sales plummeted, breweries went on the market, and many brewers stopped using sugar, temporarily at least. And calls in parliament for a beer purity act. Of course WW2 restrictions would have made sugar prohibitive too, and continued until late in 1953.

True that British brewers used quantities of American barley and before that Turkish (Indian is a new on on me). I think it was much cheaper, but the larger husk size of six-row provided better mash tun run-off. One early 20th-century book in my possession states that it was essential (my word, but words to that effect) for that reason.

Foreign barley was used to a maximum extent of about 30% of the grain and such grists were usually balanced with about half that amount as sugar in the copper, to reduce the haze potential.

True also that the "standard" grists used by almost all early to mid 20th-century regional brewers used sugar. 16% in mild, bitter and stock ale; 25% in light ale and none in porter and stout. The fermentable extract supplied by the sugar would have been much more than 16% or 25% though. They probably also used a quantity of "foreign" in their grist; that seems to have been fairly standard practice too.

So, "taste-right" depends upon subjectivity. Cloying maltiness (the reduction of which is a common excuse for the use of sugar), might well have been highly esteemed.

There are examples of bitters and pale ales around today that do and do not contain sugar. The "do nots" are usually the most highly esteemed even by those people who are unaware, or even care, what their beer is made from.

Kristen England said...

The concept of a beer being brewed with any sugar will turn out 'thinner' than an all malt one is utterly wrong and has been taught over and over here in the US. 'Sugar' is a horrible generalization on a set of fermentables that are massively large. A beer that is 100% Maris Otter will finish with a lower FG than the exact same beer made with 10% No 2 or No 3 invert syrup.

Ron Pattinson said...

Graham, sugar was allowed before 1880. In the 1850's, I believe. London brewers were using it in the 1870's.

Didn't I post something about the quantities of sugar, malt and adjuncts a couple of months ago? It's use had been increasing before 1880.

I've yet to find a brewery that was brewing all malt after 1900. With the exception of the war years. (The Truman's log I analysed was all malt. Before and after the war they used both sugar and maize.)

There's always a blend of pale malts after about 1880. A portion of foreign six-row (From the USA, Middle East, Chile or India) with about double the amount of British malt. Not quite sure why they loved that mix so much, but whenever they could get the malt, they stuck with it.

I've seen plenty of Stouts and Porters with sugar in them. Barclay Perkins put it in all theirs, including Russian Stout.

There was a definite move in public taste in the late 19th century towards lighter beers. And it must have suited brewers to be able to reduce the long secondary conditioning strong, all-malt beers required.

What's clear is that the character of all British styles has changed often and often quite drastically over the last 200 years. It's fascinating to try and unravel it all. Porter grists were in a state of flux the whole of the period I've looked at (1800 - 1940).

Ron Pattinson said...

Mentaldental, I wouldn't jump to conclusions about the colour of 19th-century beer.

Yes, it was all pale malt. Apart from Porter. But exactly what colour was pale malt in 1850? Later, the distinction was made between pale ale malt and pale malt, with the former being paler in colour.

Like you say, pale malt must have varied a lot. And I'm sure the colour of beer must have. Based on Barclay Perkins records.

Their logs have the best record of colour information I've seen. In the front cover is a list of the target colour range for each beer. On each log the colour "as brewed" and the "adjusted" colour are given. And there are instructions on how much caramel you need to add per barrel to darken a beer 1º.

They were brewing on a large scale. With large batches of malt. And mixes of 3 or 4 pale malts in each brew. But they were always having to fiddle with the colour of their beers. I was surprised to see the variation in colour between brews.

So what must it have been like in 1840? When most beers were brewed from a single malt. How much must they have varied in colour?

My guess is that subtle differences in shade were only possible after 1880.

Gary Gillman said...

In the end it is a personal view, and mine is certainly subjective as any must be. I enjoy beers of many styles, and regularly consume beers which use some sugar. But I do feel that the purest beer character comes from all-malt brewing. The reason is probably that identified by Jeff Renner. When I have tasted a series of artisan brews made this way, which I regularly have done in the U.S. (California, Oregon, New York) but also in Canada, this comes home always to me. But I recognize there are different views on it and certainly traditions do change as the data on this site has shown.


Jeff Renner said...


I was unaware that invert brewers syrup was not almost entirely fermentable. Ron's June 1, 2009 post quotes a 1917 source:

"In addition to invert sugar, uninverted saccharose and water, therefore, commercial invert contains from 0.2 to 0.7% of albuminoids, from 3 to 6% of unfermentable organic matter and from i to 3.5% of mineral matter."

This suggests that invert syrup would be about 90-94% fermentable. Am I wrong somewhere here?

Belgian brewers use candi sugar, which is pretty near pure sucrose, which is 100% fermentable. Right?

US brewers corn syrup, which is made from starch, is made to have about the same ratio of various fermentable and unfermentable carbohydrates as results from mashing malt. Is invert sugar similar?

What about golden syrup, which has been mentioned here as a substitute for brewers invert syrup, which seems unavailable to homebrewers, certainly here in the US, and evidently even in UK.

Graham Wheeler said...

I am sure that for most of the 19th century, sugar was prohibitively expensive, and very highly taxed. It was expensive to produce without the tax burden; imported raw materials, inefficient processing and so on. That plus the the ridiculously high taxation made it a luxury that only the rich could afford. This made it much more expensive than malt, thus there was no incentive for brewers to use it, other than as caramel for colouring. The sugar tax was removed in 1874, which made such a big difference that it immediately made it affordable for the ordinary person. By this time, fast, steam-powered ships made importation cheaper and refining processes probably were more efficient by then too.

The removal of the sugar tax was the result of lobbying by interests outside of brewing, but I am certain that the removal of the sugar tax was the precursor to the free mash tun just six years later. I can imagine that Customs and Excise were pulling their hair out over the sudden availability of cheap sugar, and so another way of assessing beer duty was demanded.

Even so, Customs and Excise were, and probably still are, paranoid about sugar in the brewery. Pages in the regulations devoted to sugar; a separate, lockable, sugar store, used only for sugar; a sugar book to record ingoing and outgoing sugar; penalties and seizure if the amount in store does not tally with the sugar book; prior notice to the Excise man before you dissolve sugar and so on. Priming with sugar was not given the true blessing of the law until 1936, although it was permitted by Excise indulgence before that date, but it was then tangled with yet more procedural regulation. Frightening stuff sugar.

I looked up your posts about sugar usage, but they do not go back far enough. I see that your source was Christine Wassername's book on malting history, but I smell a rat (Don't I always?), because her figures do not match certain known serious glitches, like two world wars and the arsenic debacle.

I suppose the sugar thing will be always be a matter of opinion. I get tut-tutted at occasionally for including sugar in some of the "clone" recipes in my recent book, but sugar only appears in the recipes because the brewery concerned has used sugar, or that I have divined that sugar has been used because of discrepancies in their published O.G. and A.B.V. I think there are far worse crimes than 10% sugar in a beer. Like producing a beer from a bog-standard grist, adding a dollop of gravy-browning to it and calling it something else, like old ale, mild, stout or porter. You can fool some of the public some of the time.

bgw said...

Hey anything you add to your brew will affect the outcome. This is all about cooking (fine, alchemy really) and its all good.

Whether its a vanilla bean, the ol' coriander/orange peel, salt, or sugar.

With sugar however, (unless its caramelized ala Belgian Candi Sugar) there is no flavour as such contributed: The resulting effect is more alcohol and drier finish. With apologies to the previous poster, sucrose finishes MUCH lower than the assortment of sugars produced by malting. Some actually aren't fermentable at all.. So we're talking more buzz and lighter mouthfeel. There are obvious economic/entertainment reasons why one might want this, and aesthetically there are fantastic examples of this approach in Belgium.

With respect to British styles, I suppose you have to pick your time in history to define what's "real" - keep in mind however that we likely will never know what the brewer of that time period really thought about adding sugar. Maybe he thought it improved drinkability, maybe he thought it an unfortunate cost of increasing his pocketbook or assuring survival.

Hell, the evolution of brewing is littered with reactions to economic input. Some developments fortuitous, some not so much.

Personally though, for the British styles, I will venture that my preference leans towards those that showcase the malt and fruity esters from classic British yeast with enough hops to balance the residual sugars.

Great blog. Thanks and


StringersBeer said...

According to these people modern brewers invert sugars are 95-99% fermentable (depends on colour?). Of course various syrups, block, etc may contain varying proportions of water - so one would need to take this into account when doing sums.

A theoretical wort obtaining all gravity from (say) invert sugar would ferment out drier (lower FG) than an all malt wort of the same OG. All other things being equal. Intermediate mixtures likewise. I should think.

However, there's a big difference in the levels of yeast nutrients in all-malt and other worts which might very well limit attenuation if you bung in heaps o' sugar.

Kristen England said...

Re invert sugars, all one has to do is look at the ppg for the belgian invert stuff (amber, dark, dark2, etc) and you'll see its no where near fermentable. At 1.032 the dark leaves a lot of 'stuff' behind. This is the same stuff that Westmalle uses to make their dubble (use the clear for the triple).

The darker these sugars get the less fermentable they get. Same idea with dark malts.

As for Golden syrup, its 50% invert and 50% sucrose if I remember correctly.

StringersBeer said...

Kristen, I can't see how ppg (which I had to google for - apparently its one of those US homebrewers things, which I should have known) or any measure of the extract obtainable from something, is anything to do with fermentability.
"Fermentability" is usually understood as a measure of the amount of the extract which is fermentable, surely? Typically, for a brewers invert sugar, this will be more than 95%. The fermentability of a malt extract (i.e. an all malt wort) will be less than this, i.e. the all-malt wort will typically finish higher (with lower alcohol and less dry) than one (with the same OG) made with reasonable amounts of highly-fermentable adjuncts.

That said, high-adjunct worts may have nuritional deficits which may lead to lower attenuation than we might otherwise expect - but this would be surprising at 10% adjunct, wouldn't it?

Graham Wheeler said...

You seem to be confusing extract, which I assume is what you mean by ppg, with fermentability. Perhaps you are assuming that the extract figures given in maltsters data means fermentable extract; it doesn't - it just tells you what the hydrometer should read.

No.1 to No.4 brewers' invert, whether in block form or liquid, is totally fermentable as near as makes no difference.

Kristen England said...

So Graham, what you are saying is that 1lb of raw sugar, No1 invert and no4 invert will have exactly the same fermentability?