Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Pale Belgian Sugar Experiment Tasting

Probably the most debated question among homebrewers when the topic of brewing pale Belgian beer (Belgian Blonde, Strong Golden, Tripel etc...) comes up is which sugar to use.  These beers don't need a characterful sugar (like a Dubbel of Belgian Strong Dark), just something easily fermentable to boost the alcohol while leaving a light body.  For years the answer was clear candi rocks, since it was assumed that these were the most authentic.  Then a few years back Brew Like a Monk came out, with the suggestion that those rocks were just overpriced sucrose, changing the answer to table sugar (cheap sucrose).  Then Dark Candi started selling clear candi syrup, the same stuff Orval (along with many others Belgian breweries) uses... and what about corn sugar?  Is sugar really necessary anyway? 

These were the questions I set out to answer for myself a few months ago on a wintery December day. I split one 5 gallon batch of 100% pils wort between the main sugary contenders, including one gallon with no sugar at all. Two weeks later each batch was primed with the same experimental sugar (the no sugar got light DME) and bottled.  Last night I finally had the chance to sit down to do a full, blind tasting, to see what results I could tease out of my experiment.

As expected the five batches were very similar, so I'll forgo a full review of each to focus on the flavor and aromatic differences. All of the batches had an identical golden-yellow/orange body with a nice white head with moderate-poor retention (I poured from left to right in the picture, so the first two are a bit less heady).  They were all crystal clear as well, so the sugar had no influence on the appearance.  The aromas shared a similar bready/pils malt character and the flavors had just a hint of hop bitterness.  All finished plenty dry within .001 of 1.006 (certainly within the margin of error for my hydrometer reading skills), and none of them came across as more boozy or alcoholic than the rest.

Table - None - Rocks - Syrup - Corn in that order

Table Sugar: The most apple character, a bit more sulfur/yeasty, and the spice is more toward pepper.  The sulfur has mellowed from when this batch was young when it was clearly different from the rest.

No Sugar: Brighter, the spice comes across as clove, the flavor also had a bit of less-fermented "worty" character. The hops also came across a bit more than the rest, maybe a testament to the lower alcohol or milder fermentation.

Clear Candi Rocks: This one is the only one that was a bit over-carbonated.  It comes across with a softer/rounder character though, and it also has a nice pepper zip. 

Clear Candi Syrup: The cleanest/mildest of the bunch, no real defining characteristic (although it certainly still had a distinct Belgian yeast character).

Corn Sugar: Another clean/mild one like the syrup, except for a bit of extra clove (second only to the plain).

I would like to emphasize that the flavors/aromas of these batches were all very close (say 95%) and I had to let them come up close to room temperature to get some of these differences. I think most of these differences could not be detected unless you were trying them side-by-side.

The most surprising result was that I picked out the table sugar (for whatever reason) as the most appley, a shock as I have long been a doubter of the so-called "cider" character some people claim cane sugar gives. It also was the only one that showed some signs of sulfur when it was first in the bottle a few months back.

I found it interesting that both the beers with sucrose (table and candi rocks) came across with a spice character of pepper while the no-sugar and corn sugar leaned more towards the clove.  Not sure what this indicates, but it may be that 3787 (Westmalle strain) has different byproducts when it ferments sucrose.

I also found it interesting that I didn't notice much body/alcohol difference between the no sugar batch and the other four with sugar, although I did pick it out as being wortier.  This is a testament to the fact that all of these sugars are easily fermented by Saccharomyces and left nearly identical final gravities, with just alcohol as a byproduct.

In the end my take away from this was that the difference between these different clear/white sugars when brewing a beer this clean is probably similar to the difference between using two pilsner malts from different maltsters.  That is to say something that you might play with when really trying to dial in a beer, but not something you need to to worry about the first time brewing a recipe.  While these beers did have slight differences, they were so slight that I really didn't have a preference for any above the rest.

I'll be running the five samples by more people in the future to get a broader sampling of what people can taste as the difference between these sugars.


Richard said...

Fascinating! I've been drinking a fairly young tripel and notice a big appley taste. Lo and behold, I made it with table sugar for 10% of the fermentables, which might be causing that prominent apple character.

Thanks for doing this experiment. Much more valuable than anything you read in any homebrewing book.

Doug said...

Thanks much for sharing! As my Chimay Red clone winds down I'm already thinking about what I'll do different next time, and this will help shape my next attempt.

PS. I'm the guy who recently asked a question about an infected beer; it turned out fine - the keg is about half killed now.

Aaron said...

Been waiting on the results of this experiment since you first posted it, so thanks for the follow through!

Interesting results, I've long doubted the "cider-like" complaint about cane sugar, too, but maybe there's something to it after all. I've never seen it come through in any of my beers, but any beer I've used plain sugar in has had plenty of other complexities to cover up anything subtle.

Dyan said...

"I'll be running the five samples by more people in the future to get a broader sampling of what people can taste as the difference between these sugars. "

Yes! Yes! Let me be your guinea pig!

Josh said...

I am interested to follow ups. I actually abandoned the Beer Advocate homebrew forums because I got really tired of the table sugar pissing contest. Like you, I brewed a split batch between "belgian" sugar and table sugar and I also though the cidery flavor was obvious.

It's REALLY obvious when you make yeast ferment straight up sugar. The cane sugar will come out like woodchuck cider (what does that say about woodchuck?) and the belgian sugar will be much cleaner.

My Year Without said...

This is so interesting. Love the experimenting you're doing!

Kevin LaVoy said...

Have you tried cooking table sugar at all, in essence, making a clear candi sugar? I usually make one as Randy Mosher discusses in Radical Brewing, and I'd be interested to see the differences with even a small bit of processing.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

The sugars were all boiled briefly with a bit of water. In the past I have done several homemade dark candi sugars (which were part of the previous 2 experiments with mixed results), but never done just a simple inversion with a bit of acid.

Mike said...

I have brewed several beers using cane sugar and the apple/cider flavors seem to vary quite a bit depending on the yeast I use. Wyeast 1388 and 3787: lots of apple. Wyeast 1762: none at all.

Unknown said...

Funny, I just ran into your 06 dark experiment elsewhere :)