Friday, 13 August 2010

Why British beers need sugar

Browsing through an old brewing manual, as one does, on the tram, I came across this passage. It explains why brewing sugars are essentail for British beers.

"When the tax on malt was abolished many years ago, and the so-called system of frre 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 replacing 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 necessary to do so. We are told, and have no reason to doubt, that the old-time beers produced from malt and hops only were very very palatable. But we do know 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 within a few days of being racked. This object can best be achieved by using materials such as sugars, the addition of which does not increase the total nitrogenous matter in the beer. This argument is in itself indisputably in favour of sugar. There are many others. With the gravities of beer too low to give fementation and yeast production such as we should desire, sugar is an undeniable asset. Invert sugar can be added to the fermentations and may be of the greatest benefit, and we know of cases where apparently hopeless situations with sluggish fermentations have been saved by the simple 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."
"Brewing: Theory and Practice" by E.J. Jeffery, 1956, pages 160-161.

Why have I posted this? Because the important role of sugar in British brewing isn't properly recognised. And there are still those who think there's something wrong with its use.


Liquid Rubber said...

I don't know that why British Beers need sugar?

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Yes much of that view stems from the Reihestbebolicks and brewing marketing that goes on about purity I suspect.

John Keeling said...

Mr Jeffery's son Philip worked at Fullers for 30 odd years!

Gary Gillman said...

Well, one also reads (in new sources and old) that nitrogenous compounds, which includes proteins and various amnio acids, are necessary to healthy yeast growth. The acids work with the yeast somehow to facilitate its work. I can see the argument insofar as clarity is concerned: perhaps even low nitrogen malts were susceptible to producing cloudy beers unless they stood a long time. Today, fine filtration systems would dispose of this problem.

All I can say is, having tasted all-malt beers for a generation, produced by American and Canadian craft brewers under assumption of their superiority, they are very high class products (as of course much German beer is, but most of the latter is bottom fermented, so not a good example really in this context). I would go so far as to say all-malt beer is the best form of beer to drink, but I haven't been able to test this in any systematic way, so perhaps that is going too far; still, it's an abiding impression.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, some of my favourite beers contain sugar. St. Bernardus, for example. And Duvel. I can't see how these - and beers like Westvleteren, and Rochefort - are any way inferior to all-malt beers.

Gary Gillman said...

Maybe, Ron, but only a side by side comparison can really tell. I was able to do this with Heineken, when it switched to all-malt about 20 years ago; the improvement was noticeable. It's hard to think that, say, Pilsner Urquel would benefit from adjunct. Sugars in particular (but grain adjuncts too) confer no dextrinous sugars, that is the key in my view.

But then too this is all down to taste and I recognize that the particular flavour of many beers, some very reputed, appeals to many people (me included).


mentaldental said...

All malt beers are good and possibly great. So are beers with sugar in them. There are some truly great beers that are brewed with sugar, enough said.

Graham Wheeler said...

E.J Jeffery's book is probably one of my favourite books in my possession because it represents brewing as it was just before temperature-stepped mashes, mash-masters, 50-foot conical fermenters and the like came into being. It was when the majority of commercial brewers brewed in buckets - very big buckets admittedly, but buckets just the same - just as home brewers do in smaller buckets today.

Despite my admiration for Jeffery, I dispute his suggestion that a beer needs sugar (unless it is of very high gravity), it is just that some beers can withstand sugar.

16% sugar was just standard practice. If you look at the Thames Valley brewers; Wethered's, Brakspear's, Morland's, Morrell's, and so on, their grists were almost identical and something around 15% sugar was ubiquitous. It was what the brewers thought the beer could withstand, and is / was an economy measure.

Of course there were light ales of about 1032 and 25% sugar (many milds as well), and it does surprise me that the yeast coped with it.

You have to get up to very high, cloying, gravities and lightly hopped before sugar becomes a positive benefit.

I have no objection to sugar in beer in moderate amounts as long as the gravity can withstand it. I do get a lot of criticism for including sugar in some recipes in my "clone" book, but most well-known beers have 10-15% sugar. If I'd left the sugar out it would not be properly cloned - would it?

The Professor said...

For years I bought into the hype that "all malt" was the only way to go in terms of 'quality' beer. Having brewed at home for many more years than there even has been a 'craft' beer movement and stubbornly clinging to that all malt idea, I have to admit that in some cases brewing with sugars of various types as an adjunct has definitively resulted in a superior beer. Frankly, some of the recipes that Ron and Kristen have posted have been something of a revelation for me.

All malt is fine for certain brews, but to dismiss beers that utilize sugar (or any brewing adjunct) is just plain silly...there are some mighty fine examples in that category.

I support (and always have supported) the so called "craft" brewery movement...but that segment of the industry has certainly used --and lately, continues to use quite vociferously--their own share of hyperbole (some of it questionable) to sell their products.

In reality, there is nothing at all wrong with a properly applied use of sugar or any other adjunct...done wrong, yes, it can produce what beer geeks describe with a highly technical term: "swill". But done right,sugars and adjuncts can contribute to a very high quality brew. There is plenty proof of that both in the commercial arena AND the private stashes of homebrewers.

Though some might not agree.

rabbi lionheart said...

I nearly crapped my pants when I read this. As literally as I can say, my jaw dropped. Then I remembered this was something historical, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I see no reason to use sugars in place of malt. I only see sugar additions as necessary if it somehow improves the flavor of the beer, i.e. Duvel, etc that are very popular and employ sugar. These days, however, cloudy beers should not be a problem; in fact, decent marketing could make them acceptable. Malts, however, and processes, to be sure, should be well modified and well enacted, respectively, so as to ensure that little cloudiness remains, sufficient sugars are extracted, and attenuation is appropriate. If you need to add sugars nowadays, you very well may be doing something wrong.

Thomas Barnes said...

While it's no secret and no shame that much English beer is brewed using sugar, this snippet of information poses more questions than it answers.

When did brewing scientists figure out malting biochemistry? When did malsters start offering detailed malt spec sheets?

In 1956, Mr. Jeffrey, presumably a very experienced brewer, doesn't give a scientific explanation for the use of sugar in beer. Instead, he gives an empirical explanation which seems wrong.

What he says about all-malt beers putting excess "nitrogenous matter" into the wort, especially a low-gravity wort, doesn't follow. Why should an all malt wort be less fermentable than one with some sugar added? Why should fermentation proceed more slowly in an all-malt wort when the opposite is usually the case? Why is he complaining about excess nitrogen from all-malt worts? It seems like there was something very wrong with his malt or his mashing regimen.

As a wild guess, he might have been trying to use low-quality, high-protein, imported malt in a single temperature infusion mash and was frustrated by excess protein levels and low extract yields - hence my original questions.

@Gary Gillman - Some level of Free Amino Nitrogen (FAN) is necessary as yeast nutrient. Excess nitrogen, in the form polypeptides and proteins, can cause clarity, heading, and flavor stability problems. Historically (way back to the Middle Ages), finings were used to solve clarity problems. I believe that diatomaceous earth filtration systems were developed for breweries by the turn of the 20th century.

The good reasons to use sugar, other than cost, are flavor and body. Example: big Belgian abbey beers have added sugar to keep alcohol levels up while thinning body and reducing malt sweetness. Without sugar to "thin them out" they'd be excessively chewy and syrupy.

Don't be duped by the myth of all-malt superiority. There are excellent beers out there which would give Reinheitsgebot fanatics aneurysms over what goes into the grist.

Ed said...

It seems to be saying the benefits of sugar are for conditioning though, which it certainly is with cask beers, but only small amounts need to be added.

Ron Pattinson said...

Rabbi Lionheart, that brewers would use several sugars in a beer implies to me that their use was to attain a specific flavour profile. Otherwise they would have just thrown in the cheapest sugar and left it at that.

I'm trying to recall any beer in the logs I've seen after 1880 that was all malt. There were a handful of wartime beers without sugar. But they pretty much all had maize in them.

Ron Pattinson said...

Graham, I dispute that sugar was used for cheapness. Brewers continued to use sugar during WW I, even when it was more expensive than malt.

Thomas Barnes said...

I agree with Ron that brewers were probably using sugar for flavor, rather than just cost. Caramelized sugars, brown sugars/molasses and non-fermentable sugars add very distinct flavors and aromas to beer, which might have been difficult to get otherwise.

Martyn Cornell said...

I'm loath to make sweeping statements without completely solid evidence, but I'd be fairly certain there were/are modern iterations of some British beer styles, eg Burton Ale, that are simply impossible to make without the use of very specific combinations of brewing sugars.