The sugar industry has had a pretty bad rap in recent years, especially when it comes to the amount found in beverages (think back to the New York ban on serving any “sugary beverage” in a cup over 16 oz).
Sugar hasn’t got a great reputation when it comes to beer either with many commercial brewers adding larger amounts of sugar to their brew to make something more like rocket fuel than beer.
Although malt purists may back away in horror, and the German Purity Lawmakers certainly wouldn’t approve, many a home brewer starting out on their adventure will have used a kit-and-kilo (or can-and-kilo) recipe kit, so named as you would combine a can of malt extract with a kilo of household all-purpose sugar.
That doesn’t mean beer doesn’t need sugar, anybody who knows anything about fermentation will tell you yeast needs sugar to feed it and then converts the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide for that fizz.
Normally the sugar will come from the malt but sometimes a brew may require some additional sugar.
There are several types of sugar for beer that brewers can use, including cane sugar and corn sugar. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at these two types of sugar and discuss their similarities, differences, and how they affect the brewing process.
What Is Sugar and How Does Beer Use Sugar?
Sugar is a natural carbohydrate that occurs in many different forms. The most common sugars you will find in beer are dextrose (glucose), sucrose, fructose or maltose although others can also be found in beer too.
Beer gets its sugar from malt through a process called mashing. Malt is made by sprouting and then kiln-drying cereal grains, such as barley, which converts the starches in the grain into forms of sugar.
During mashing, the malted grains are crushed and mixed with hot water to create a mash. The enzymes in the malted grain convert the starches into fermentable sugars such as maltose and glucose. This process is known as enzymatic conversion.
The mash is then heated and stirred to activate the enzymes and to ensure that all of the starches are converted into fermentable sugars. The temperature and duration of the mash will affect the type and amount of individual sugars that are produced.
Once the mashing is complete, the liquid is drained off, and the leftover grains are rinsed with hot water to extract as much constituent sugar as possible. This liquid, called wort, is then boiled with hops and other flavorings to create the finished beer.
The type and amount of malt used in brewing will affect the flavor, aroma, and body of the finished beer. Different types of malted grains, such as roasted barley or wheat malt, can be used to create different styles of beer.
The amount of malt used will also affect the alcohol content of the beer, as the sugars in the malt are converted from sugar to ethanol during fermentation.
Why Do Some Homebrewers Add Extra Sugar to Beer?
Before we start looking at the difference between cane sugar and corn sugar for homebrewing beer, it can be equally important to briefly explain why sugars can be important.
- For adding carbonation. Sugar is most commonly added to beer to give it that extra fizz we desire in some styles. As the yeast eats up the sugar in the primary fermentation it produces mainly alcohol with the carbon dioxide escaping through the airlock. Bottled conditioned beers will often add a simple sugar such as corn sugar as priming sugar for a secondary fermentation to give the beer slightly more fizz when stored under pressure.
- Sugar for flavor and color. Although most simple fermentable sugars are not added to beer for flavor, some sugars, if added in higher quantities, can sweeten the beer or even give the beer a darker color.
- For raising the alcohol level. More sugar in the wort means more fuel or food for the yeast to work with. As a result you will end up with a stronger beer but without affecting the final gravity too much.
What Is Cane Sugar?
Cane sugar is derived from the sugarcane plant, and is a sucrose made up from of glucose and fructose molecules linked together. Cane sugar is, in the most common form, table sugar or all-purpose sugar.
You will find granulated sugar is used for baking cakes or sprinkling on top of cookies. Granulated cane sugar is normally free-flowing, easy to find, and 100% fermentable when used in brewing beer.
During the fermentation process, yeast consumes sugar and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Cane sugar is composed of glucose and fructose, which yeast can consume at different rates.
Glucose is the preferred food source for yeast, so it will consume it first. This can lead to a slower fermentation process because the yeast will consume the glucose before moving on to the fructose.
When you are homebrewing beer, you can make use of cane sugar in several ways. Cane sugar can be used to adjust the final gravity of the beer by affecting the balance of non-fermentable and fermentable sugars.
If using only a little cane sugar, less than 10% of total sugars, the overall flavor should not be impacted too much.
One of the advantages of using cane sugar in brewing is that it can add a unique flavor to the finished product when used in larger quantities. Cane sugar has a slightly molasses-like flavor that can impart a subtle sweetness to the beer.
This sweetness can balance out the bitterness of hops and add complexity to the flavor profile. Additionally, cane sugar is highly fermentable, meaning the finished sugar will be converted into alcohol by the yeast, resulting in a higher alcohol content.
However, there are some downsides to using cane sugar in brewing. One of the most significant is that it can be challenging to dissolve completely in water, leading to clumping and uneven distribution of raw sugar crystals throughout the wort.
This can cause inconsistencies in the fermentation process, leading to off-flavors and potential issues with carbonation.
One beer style that often uses cane sugar is Belgian Dubbel. Belgian Dubbel is a dark, malty beer with a sweet, caramel-like flavor. It is brewed with a combination of specialty malts, such as Munich and caramel malts, and often includes Belgian sugars like dark Candi sugar, which is made from cane sugar.
The dark Candi sugar contributes a rich, molasses-like flavor to the beer, which complements the maltiness and adds complexity. In this case, using cane sugar rather than corn sugar can be important for achieving the desired flavor profile.
The Advantages of Cane Sugar for Homebrewing Beer
- Easy to find and inexpensive.
- Perfect for brewing sweeter beers or ciders.
- Can enhance the flavor of the beer. Darker cane sugars can also enhance the color too.
- Cane sugar helps balance the final gravity of the beer.
What Is Corn Sugar?
The most common sugar for homebrewing beer is corn sugar, which is often referred to as brewing sugar.
Corn sugar, also known as dextrose, is made from corn starch. Naturally occurring corn sugar is 95% solids with 99% being pure glucose. As most yeast strains are glucophilic (glucose-loving), they will seek out the glucose for converting to alcohol before any other form of sugar in the wort.
As corn sugar is composed of only glucose, which is the preferred food source for yeast, it can result in a faster fermentation process because the yeast can consume the glucose more efficiently.
Corn sugar is a popular choice among home brewers because of its ease of use and consistency. Because it is a simple sugar, it dissolves quickly and easily in water, ensuring even distribution throughout the wort.
This can help to prevent inconsistencies in the fermentation process and ensure that the finished product has a consistent flavor profile
Another advantage of using corn sugar in brewing is that it is highly fermentable, similar to cane sugar. This means that it will be converted into alcohol by the yeast, resulting in a higher alcohol content in the finished product.
Another difference between cane sugar and corn sugar is their impact on the flavor of the final product. Cane sugar can contribute a subtle, molasses-like flavor to the beer. This can be desirable in certain styles of beer, such as brown ales or stouts, but may not be desirable in others. Corn sugar, on the other hand, is flavorless and will not impact the flavor of the final product.
This means that the beer may have a somewhat bland or one-dimensional flavor profile, which can be less desirable for some brewers. Additionally, because it is a simple sugar, it can contribute to a thinner mouthfeel in the finished product, which may be less desirable for certain styles of beer.
In terms of cost, corn sugar is generally less expensive than granular cane sugar. This is because corn is a more abundant crop than sugar cane and is easier to process into sugar. However, the cost difference may not be significant enough to sway a brewer’s choice between the two sugars.
Beer styles that often use corn sugar include American Light Lagers. American Light Lager is a light-bodied, low-alcohol beer with a crisp, clean flavor. It is brewed with a large amount of adjuncts, such as corn or rice, which help lighten the body and contribute a mild sweetness.
Corn sugar can be used in place of corn as an adjunct and can contribute a similar mild sweetness without affecting the flavor profile. In this case, using corn sugar rather than cane sugar can be a more cost-effective choice.
The Advantages of Using Corn Sugar in Homebrewing
- The best sugar for bottle conditioned beers as they add more natural carbonation.
- Corn sugar doesn’t add sweetness to the beer.
- Can raise the alcohol level and reduce the body of the beer making it more suitable for high gravity beers like Belgian Ales or Imperial IPAs.
- Corn sugar can also be used as a sugar wash to aid fermentation due to it’s neutral flavor.
Hints for Using Corn Sugar in Your Homebrew
If you want to add corn sugar to your beer, there are a few useful pointers you should take heed of:
- Always sanitize your brewing sugar. Although most corn sugars are highly refined, bacteria or small traces of contaminants can still be present which could effectively spoil your beer. An easy way to sanitise the sugar is to boil the corn sugar in some water before adding it to your beer recipe.
- Use only a pinch of corn sugar. It’s a case of less is more. Although your recipe will normally dictate how much corn sugar should be added, if in doubt, an ounce of corn sugar per a gallon of beer is a good guideline. Too much corn sugar can result in an over-lively beer when bottle conditioning or can prevent some of the other sugars from fermenting and result in a stuck fermentation.
- When using corn sugar as a priming agent for bottle conditioned beers, you should allow for the yeast to begin breaking down the sugars before you actually put the beer in bottles. The carbonation process will occur once the beer is placed in an airtight container.
What’s All the Fuss About Corn Syrup?
Another type of sugar or sugar adjunct often used in the brewing of beers, especially light beers, is corn syrup.
Budweiser recently caused a controversy when in the Super Bowl LII they proudly declared Bud Light doesn’t use any corn syrup unlike their rivals Miller Lite or Coors Light. The case is still rumbling on in the courts with MillerCoors suing AB InBev in the federal courts.
Corn syrup is a commonly used ingredient in the brewing process especially when brewing American Light Lagers. Corn syrup is essentially the starch from corn which has been broken down into almost pure dextrose.
For many beers where you want a lighter body, corn syrup is much better than cane sugar, where the ratio of simple sugars should be higher than the complex sugars. Cane sugar is better where you want a slower fermentation and the sugar to impart some flavor to the beer.
Budweiser tends to use grains such as rice as an adjunct, which are mostly starch and can be easily converted to dextrose (glucose) during the mashing process.Corn syrup is another adjunct which does the same job. The reason these adjuncts are used more in commercial brewing is the cost.
Although there may only be a few cents difference in cost between cane sugar, corn sugar and corn syrup which may not make too much difference to the home brewer, imagine when you are brewing on the immense scale of AB InBev or MillersCoors. A couple of cents on very barrel makes millions in savings by using the cheaper adjuncts.
The problem comes with High Fructose Corn Syrups where the corn starch has gone through another enzymatic process, which results in the syrup being nearly 50% fructose.
There have been links with health issues such as diabetes and obesity through the use of HFCS. In reality, most beers don’t use HFCS, and why would they? You want as pure a glucose or dextrose as possible for the most efficient fermentation.
Corn Sugar vs Cane Sugar in Beer – It’s All About the Saccharides
When making your choices of sugar to use, you will find although they may seem very much the same, there are a few key differences between cane sugar and corn sugar.
The main difference is in the chemical composition of the sugar, dextrose or glucose found in corn sugar is a monosaccharide, which consists of just one glucose molecule, while a sucrose sugar such as cane sugar is a disaccharide, which has two molecules which need breaking down.
A disaccharide will normally take more time for the yeast to break the bond between the molecules, which can lead to the sugar imparting some flavor to the finished beer.
The other difference is how the two sugars can affect the gravity. Granular cane sugar has 43 points more gravity per gallon than corn sugar, so if you are planning to use cane sugar in place of corn sugar you will need to use 10% less than the recipe calls for.
Cane Sugar vs Corn Sugar – Last Call
When it comes to brewing beer, there is no right or wrong choice between cane sugar and corn sugar. It ultimately depends on the brewer’s preferences and the style of beer being brewed.
If a brewer wants a faster fermentation process or a flavorless sugar, corn sugar may be the better choice. If a brewer wants a subtle molasses-like flavor or is brewing a style of beer that traditionally uses cane sugar, then cane sugar may be the better choice.
Cane sugar can add a unique flavor profile and increase the alcohol content, but it can be more challenging to dissolve and more expensive. Corn sugar, on the other hand, is easy to use, affordable, and highly fermentable, but it may not add much flavor complexity to the finished product.
Cane sugar can contribute a subtle, molasses-like flavor to the beer and is often used in styles such as Belgian Dubbel and English Barleywine. Corn sugar is flavorless and can be used to contribute a light body in styles such as American Light Lager and American Cream Ale.
Ultimately, the choice between cane sugar and corn sugar comes down to the brewer’s preferences and the desired outcome for their beer.