Caramelizing Sugars

by Andy Walsh
There has been some discussion recently on caramelising sucrose as a replacement for candi sugar for brewing. I have some comments on this.

What is caramel? How do you make it? How far do you take the process?

With reference to the "New Larousse Gastronomique", the world's greatest cookery reference book, according to the cover (! - how many homebrewing books make similar claims?), boiling sugar takes it through a number of stages, named according to the manner the sugar behaves after being cooled. The temperatures shown are the temperatures at which the stages are reached (interestingly in another paragraph it makes contradictory claims about these temperatures!)

small thread
large thread
small ball
large ball
light crack             129C
medium crack            133C
hard crack              143C
extra hard crack        168C
caramel                 180C

The book says to first make a syrup by dissolving the sugar in 1/3 of its weight of water, and to heat it in a heavy based saucepan, without stirring as it causes graining. Another way of preventing graining is to add 100g glucose per 500g sucrose.

Charlie Scandrett has expressed concerns about heating in direct fired pots causing uncontrollable scorching at the metal/solution boundary. Fortunately us homebrewers usually would only want to make small quantities of caramel, so if we heat sugar syrup in a clear glass bowl in a microwave oven, we can observe the colour and remove it at the correct stage, and be assured of fairly even heating.

I have done this twice now, in an attempt to get some caramel flavour into Belgian ales. Both were around 1.070 OG. In the first (I'll call it Fred) I caramelised 500g sugar (just to a light amber colour) in a 45 litre batch, and added an additional (uncaramelised) 500g sucrose to the boil. In the second darker beer (Pete) I caramelised 1Kg of sugar to a dark amber colour. I added both as (hot!) liquid to boiling wort. (Be careful if you do this! 180C caramel has massive boilover potential. Add it slowly and carefully!)

Well it worked! Both beers have an excessive caramel/sweet flavour and aroma. Fred finished at 1.016 and Pete at 1.022. The aroma is quite nice with fragant caramel tones but strong. The flavour in both is just over the top caramel. I fermented both with the same yeast strain (Yeastlabs Belgian) and I use pure O2 aeration etc.

*If* I try caramelising sugar again, I would use possibly use just 100g in a 45l batch. I think some Belgian ales benefit from a little caramel aroma/taste (eg. dubbels), but the amounts I used are excessive. I do not know how the Belgians make their dark candi sugar but I think my technique is way off the track somewhere. Probably a better way to get the caramel taste is to use speciality Belgian crystal malts (unavailable to me). I am yet to read in beer mags/books a thorough treatment of caramel.

Andy Walsh,