Most homebrewers are taught, or have somehow come to believe that sugar, plain refined sucrose, is the devil. It makes your beer "cidery". It's a relic of the old days. Of a time of poor ingredients and even poorer methods. It smacks of the sort of cost-shaving that is the hallmark of The Big Guys, added to save a few pennies at the expense of real flavor and "real" beer.
Across the pond, well, outside the confines of the Reinheitsgebot at least, brewers have long known that yes, sometimes you could save a dime by using sugar but you can also add character to a beer. In fact, sugar allows you to do some things that are much more difficult to do with all grain brews, and to achieve flavors unavailable from malt. That these sugars and syrups have left such a mark on the brewers of England and Belgium is shown by the fact that many continue to use brewing sugars, even after changes to tariffs and tax structures have made the sugar much more expensive in comparison to malt than it once was.
Though there are some notable Belgian brewers who do not use sugar, almost all do. And for good reason. Sugar, and here I mean plain sucrose, will ferment out almost completely. This means you can add alcohol without adding body, a hugely important characteristic in the effervescent, strong, and yet satisfying beers of Belgium. The monks call this balance 'digestibility', a character that everyone should try to emulate whenever brewing a Belgian. Without some serious skills, equipment, ingredients and practice, it is very difficult to get the degree of attenuation seen in most Belgian strong beers, typically more than 80%, without the use of sugar. Failure to reach that level of attenuation results in a heavy, cloying beer that seems to sit in your belly like a gargoyle in a cathedral basement, rather than a spray of Summer sunlight through an Abbey stained-glass window. (Preferably not a spray of Summer colors on an Abbey window. Always in moderation.) Point is, you should always be adding 10-20% sugar to your Belgians, and I like to add up to 10% in British beers as well.
But not just any sugar will do. Much has been said about how "Belgians use beet sugar" and that that somehow makes it clearly superior. Allow me to say poppycock.
At the level of refinement we see table sugar, the clear white crystals, sucrose is sucrose. It's a fructose and a glucose showing a little too much PDA and that's it. Any 'character' between the sugars would be the result of impurities, which you just don't see much of in refined sugar. Sugar is sugar, cane or beet, and I've not seen anything to convince me otherwise.
However, Belgian brewers are known for using something called 'Candi Sugar'. This has been available for a while in rock form, and more recently in syrup form. In it's lightest form, clear candi sugar, it's basically just the exact same damn thing as table sugar. If you buy those little clear rocks you are being suckered into paying roughly 10 times too much. Just use table sugar. If you really, absolutely must have it in little rock form, go ahead, make a simple syrup and dangle a string in it for a week or two. Rock candy will form, just like in elementary school. That's how they do it. Really. It isn't magic. Clear Candi sugar is just table sugar. Don't waste your money.
The darker colors on the other hand are something more special. Without them you really can't make a proper Dubbel or Strong Dark. Many of the abbey brewers will mash in with pilsner malt, maybe a little wheat or carpils, and then add color and flavor solely with the darker syrups. Fortunately, in the last few years Dark Candi, inc. has made them available to homebrewers. But how special is dark candi sugar?
It's just caramel after all, how hard can it be?
Well, yes you could take plain sugar and caramelize it until it is really dark and you'll have something that will have some interesting dark caramel flavors. But you'll get more toffee and burnt caramel, like you might find in a nice Toddy Porter, than you'll get dark fruit, cherry, rummy flavors. Also it will probably turn into a rock when you're done.
To really get at the dark fruit and chocolate notes in dark candi sugar, a little chemistry is needed. If you were just to caramelize the sugar as above, you're using pyrolysis to break down the sucrose under heat, at temperatures about 320 degrees F. But the flavors in the darker candi syrups come also from a different process, our good friend the Maillard Reaction. Here the sugar browns through the combination of heat and complex reaction with amino acids, producing similar yet distinct flavors from caramelization. It's the reason bread crust browns and tastes good, for example.
Poking around on the internet one day I came across this thread on Homebrewtalk. Though I'd read about this sugar chemistry in both Radical Brewing and Brew Like A Monk, I'd never tried to actually make some dark candi sugar from scratch. In the past I'd just made do with inverting and deeply caramelizing various sugars, which frankly works fairly well. But this looked like a fun experiment.
The basic idea is that you're making a syrup with the notable addition of an ammoniac compound, in this case our good friend and common yeast nutrient di-ammonium phosphate (DAP). The DAP breaks down, providing free nitrogen and a phosphoric acid to supercharge the maillard browning process. Once either boiled off or consumed in the reaction, the ammonia is gone, leaving a funky dark maillard candi syrup.
So I set out one afternoon to make a test batch or three.
The recipe I used was SnickASaurusRex's Sugar #5:
Over medium heat bring to a boilSo I got everything together and started boiling it on the stove.
2 Lbs Sugar
1 Cup Water
3 tsp DAP
Raise this to the terminal temperature of 290F. At 290F begin stirring and add in:
1 Cup Water
Continue stirring until the sugars are dissolved. Again, bring the solution up to 290F over medium heat. At 290F begin stirring and add in:
1 Cup of Water
Stir this until the sugars are dissolved and the temperature starts to rise a couple degrees. This Should be right at or just above soft ball (240F). This is when the syrup is done. Stop the cooking by submerging the pan in cool water or by transferring the syrup to a preheated mason jar.
And it was a complete failure.
A word on yeast nutrients. Frankly, there's a poor naming convention with regards to what is a "yeast nutrient", "yeast energizer" and so on. For this you need DAP, straight pure DAP. If it's clear, it's probably DAP. If it's brown and labeled 'Yeast Nutrient' it's one of the blends, which probably does have some DAP in it, but also has dead yeast cells, vitamins, and other things in it. It will not work for this.
I used some "Yeast Nutrient" because that is what I had around. As you can see, at the various temperatures where the reaction should have been taking place, it wasn't. Oh well, waste not want not. I poured it in a preheated mason jar and later inverted it, caramelized it up a bit more, and used it in a little British Fresh Hop Bitter which turned out delicious.
Once back from the store with some proper DAP I set out again. As you can see, this time I got a much more marked color progression. The first syrup I took a bit far, maybe 295 and it has an edge of burnt bitterness, but also exhibits dark stone fruit, plums, cherries, and a deep dark rumminess. I think it will be great in a Strong Dark.
One problem though was that, despite my best candymaking techniques, I could see small sugar crystals starting to form. This wouldn't be shelf-stable indefinitely. Yes, you could just make this on the day of brewing and pitch it right in at the end of the boil. But I figure it's better to make it beforehand and have it ready when you need it. No one wants to clean a boilover of this stuff, brought about by a busy and inattentive brewer.
So I set out again and made a batch of Amber, bringing it up to only 280 degrees. This time, at the end when I added the water back in I also added a tablespoon of tartaric acid. Bringing the whole mess back to a boil with this acid addition partially inverted it, meaning that some of the sucrose broke down into simpler sugars, fructose and glucose, which act to impede crystallization. This one was a much, much smoother syrup.
Just for fun I put a pound of honey on the back burner and caramelized the hell out of it. Unfortunately I was wrapped up in the candi sugar experiment, and it went a bit far. But it's still got a really interesting flavor, which I'd describe as burnt marshmellows with an edge of honey.
Finally some advice:
Ventilation. The syrup will pump out ammonia in the early stages. Don't take a big whiff, and make sure you open windows or run your stove fan. It was...intense.
Fresh air good!
Choose the right pot. You want one with a thick, conductive bottom and high walls. The syrup will bubble up and I promise you, you don't want a caramel napalm spill. I've got a nice high wall 4-quart All-Clad that works great. If it's too big you'll get a hot spot in the middle, which could make for uneven browning and probably darker syrup than you're shooting for.
Prevent crystals. Stir in the sugar really well at the beginning but stop stirring once it comes to a boil. You can take a pastry brush and some water and wipe down any sugar crystals from the side of the pan, if they're left there they could provide nucleation points for crystal growth later. I do recommend inverting the syrup when you're done, or you could just add a few tablespoons of corn syrup (glucose) at the end.
Preheat your jar if you're using glass. Let the syrup cool to at least boiling temp before pouring it in the jar and be sure to fill the jar with hot water for a few minutes first. Otherwise it may shatter from heat shock. Broken Glass. Scalding caramel. Bad news.
I'll be trying out my syrups in a series of brews to come, stay tuned!