Brewing with Simple Sugars By: Matt Schaefer

The use of simple sugars has gotten a bad rap in homebrewing. One of the primary sources of this belief are early homebrewing texts that claim the use of simple sugars in homebrew can lead to cidery off flavors. There was also a concern that the presence of simple sugars in wort would some how make the yeast lazy, that they would use up the simple sugars and then fail to move on to the more complex sugars derived from mashing. Despite the negativity associated with simple sugar adjuncts, they do have a place in brewing and it is now well accepted that the early concerns are unfounded.

Early homebrewing texts are littered with concerns that the use of simple sugars can lead to cidery off flavors, and these concerns were not unfounded if perhaps only misguided. At the time most homebrew “kits” were little more than a can of malt extract with a package of yeast taped to the top of it. The instructions directed you to supplement the malt extract with table sugar and the end result often had a flavor reminiscent of apple cider. When those same brewers moved on to all malt extract beers, they noticed that the cider flavor disappeared and noted a correlation between the use of simple sugars and off flavors. But correlation is not causation, and the source of those off flavors was more likely old extract, old subpar yeast, a failure to control or even appreciate the need to control fermentation temperatures and a million other things that we now know and take for granted.

Perhaps most telling is that there are classic styles from traditional brewing centers that rely on simple sugars as part of their recipe formulation. Some styles of Belgian beers use candy sugar or even table sugar in order to produce a big beer with a high attenuation, and many British beers use sugars as part of their flavor profile. Using simple sugars can help you brew high alcohol beers that are dry, crisp and have a light body, or you can use them to darken your beer and add perceived sweetness with strong flavors of toffee, caramel, and raisins.

Many Belgian Styles use simple sugars in place of malt to increase the overall strength of the beer, while allowing for very high levels of attenuation. The goal is to produce a strong beer that has a very light body making it easy to drink. By replacing some of the malt with simple sugars, you are basically removing some the unfermentable sugars produce during the mash with sugars that will be easily consumed by the yeast. I brew a Belgian Trippel that uses two pounds of dextrose with 12 pounds of Pilsner malt, in order to push the original gravity up to 1.086 while achieving a final gravity around 1.008. This produces a very dry and very crisp beer, without the extra sweetness that the beer would have had, had I used an all malt recipe.

I often see some confusion on forums about using sugar to lighten the body of a beer after the beer has been brewed. Often someone asks about a beer that did not attenuate as much as expected and someone almost always recommends adding some sugar to the beer to help “dry it out”. This may help in a very particular set of circumstances where the fermentation has stalled unexpectedly with a very long way to go, but when that happens there are better ways to go about fixing the problem. (Add fresh or different yeast) The other thing that this could do is increase the alcohol content, giving a perception of dryness but unless taken to the extreme this is unlikely to be a major contributor to the overall perception of the beer. The only real way that sugar will help dry a beer out, is if it is used a replacement for malt when the beer is brewed not as a later addition. .

The other area where simple sugars are used is as a flavor addition. These are often strongly flavored sugars, which will can impart their flavor and aroma to the final beer. A short internet search will find recipes which call for honey, molasses, candy sugar,or treacle . British beers are known for using treacle in recipes for bitters, stouts and porters. Treacle is similar (but different) than black strap molasses and can add a flavor that reminds me of burnt caramel and raisins. Honey can be used as a flavor addition, but I often find that the flavor of honey is very nuanced and it is often overshadowed by flavors derived from the malt and yeast. Molasses is often associated with early american brewing, as molasses was sometimes easier to come by than malt. It is also used in British Beer styles in addition to, or as a replacement for treacle. Many Belgian recipes for Tripples and Quads call for the use of Belgian Candy Sugar; as with honey I believe that candy sugar has a very slight nuanced flavor that is often lost to the aromatics of belgian Abbey yeasts. In such a case, I fall back to using simple dextrose to avoid the cost of acquiring Belgian Candy Sugar.

I hope this information proves useful to you. If you ever have any questions on this or any other topic related to brewing, please feel free to contact me at You can also follow me on twitter @craftedbarley.