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There is no ‘I’ in sugar

Excuse this crabby little rant, but I’ve started reading The Naked Pint: An Unadulterated Guide to Craft Beer and the author’s repeat a misstatement I’ve come across several times in just the past week, writing Belgian brewers often use “candi sugar.”

No the don’t. They mostly use what we call plain old sugar.

Yes, there are historical references to “candi sugar” and a few brewers use a product called by various names that include “candy” but they are not at all like the rocklike hunks sold as “candi sugar” in the United States.

Nope, when you taste a brooding beer like Nostradamus from Caracole that’s barley malt and about 15 percent sucrose. I’ve been to the brewery. I’ve seen the big sacks of sugar. They look a lot like the bags of plain white sugar at Westvleteren (which also uses a dark syrup). The whole sugar/syrup thing can get a little dense, so since rather than clutter this space I’ve posted a sugar primer at Brew Like a Monk.

So back to my rant. This matters because:

- What makes Trappist ales and beers they inspired special is not a secret or special ingredient.
- The brewers add sugar for a practical reason — not because of any flavor the sugar might contribute — to boost the level of alcohol yet deliver a beer that isn’t sweet or cloying. Put in positive terms the beer should be “digestible.”
- It’s an adjunct. And that’s not bad.

Phil Markowski, author of Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition an brewmaster at Southampton Publick House, puts it better than I:

“I believe that there is still a fairly prevalent anti-adjunct bias among many American brewers, both amateur and professional, that makes them hold back from using enough sugar to achieve the same level of dryness that the classic Belgian examples exhibit. It seems that many of these brewers tend to think of adjuncts as ‘dishonest’ ingredients.”

They’re not, so let’s call them what they are.

3 Responses to There is no ‘I’ in sugar

  1. Séan Billings October 29, 2009 at 11:40 am #

    The anti adjunct prejudice comes from the macro brands overusing them to cut costs, regardless of what happens to beer quality as a result. The adjunct haters also point to the Reinheitsgebot forbidding adjuncts (as if that law was designed for anything other than the Bavarian nobility maximising it’s malt tax profits) and seem to forget about the world class English ales and Stouts that use adjuncts of various kinds.

    Sugar in particular is reviled because of it’s use in those horrible cheap liquid extract kits. A can of hoped malt extract and a kilo of sugar. Ferment it in the hot press at 30C+ and then expect it to taste like a lager. The few people who didn’t chuck the hobby right there went on to better ingredients and inexplicably, blamed the sugar for the bad beer (although 1kg in a 1.04x gravity beer is way too much).

    I would never attempt to make a Belgian style strong ale without some sugar.

  2. Jeff Alworth October 29, 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Craft brewing employed many useful old wives tales, but now it needs to abandon them. Like:

    all malt = good beer
    adjuncts = bad beer
    small brewery = honest craftsman
    large brewery = producer of corporate swill
    big beer = well-crafted

    I’m sure there are others. These should have been considered shorthand for people new to beer in about 1988. They really add more confusion than they relieve.

    And to show that even the best of us can stow away these old chestnuts, I’ll confess that I was unaware that candi sugar was wholly in disuse now. What’s that picture I saw of monks making it on long strands of twine? Was that a historic picture?

    A wise man once told me I need to get out more. What I need is to get to Belgium.

  3. Thomas Cizauskas October 30, 2009 at 6:02 am #

    Succinct post, and good comments to it.

    Right on, Brother Stan!

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