Alternate Priming Sugars

Most people use either table sugar or corn sugar as their primer when bottling beer.   Others venture a little further out of the box and use things like honey, various semi-refined sugars, or sugars sourced from plants other than sugar beets.  I’ll cover some of these briefly, but another interesting alternative, and a way to add yet another layer to your beer, is just about any fruit juice.

First, some of the usual suspects:

  • Table sugar (sucrose): Nearly perfectly refined, this is a readily available, cheap option that works well.
  • Corn sugar (glucose, aka dextrose): Many say this sugar works faster and more consistently than table sugar.  This makes sense because table sugar needs to be enzymatically broken down into fructose and glucose before it can be consumed by the yeast while glucose can be consumed directly.  But, I have used both on many batches and have never noticed a difference- I suspect as long as you have healthy yeast they will do their job.

Some other common priming sugars are used when a slight amount of additional flavor is desired.  However, in my experience and the experience of others, most of these are too lightly flavored to add anything to the beer- there’s simply not enough added to a batch to make a noticeable contribution.  Molasses and perhaps some dark Belgian syrups may be the exceptions.  Even when added in large amounts to the batch (5-15% of fermentables) the difference can still be subtle in many cases.  See this post for some more information on sugar science and Belgian sugars.

  • Honey: Honey is primarily glucose, with fructose also being a major component.  There are also small amounts of sucrose, maltose, and other sugars.  I have heard of people using honey so that if they try their beer before its fully carbonated, it is still tasty instead of just awkwardly sweet.
  • Semi-refined sugars: This category includes brown sugar, molasses, candi sugar/ syrup, turbinado, raw sugar, and others.  Some of these are potent enough to add a hint of flavor when used as a primer.
  • Other plant sugars: Agave nectar is a well known plant sugar, but I have also heard of people priming by simply dropping a raisin in the bottle (though many things about that plan make me a little nervous).
  • DME: Dried malt extract can be used for priming as well, and is especially useful for those trying to abide by the German beer purity law (which forbids the addition of anything outside of malt, hops, water, and later yeast, after it was discovered).  Some say that it does not work as fast as simpler sugars, though the “evidence” is anecdotal and there is no real reason I have seen that this would be the case.  It could be that they simply forgot to account for the fact that DME is only about 70-80% fermentable (more or less, depending on the brand).
  • Krausening: This is reserving some un-pitched wort to add back right before bottling.  This is the traditional way to adhere to the purity law, if you’re interested in doing so for some reason.  It is an advanced technique which requires immaculate sanitation and wort handling.  Many people like it because it is guaranteed to not change the flavor of the beer  by adding a separate priming ingredient, but I think this is being far too paranoid and could be solved by following best practices elsewhere in the process.

Another option that certainly will show up in the presentation and tasting is fruit juice.  Just make sure you get high quality juice, preferably not from concentrate and without preservatives; preservatives are added specifically to inhibit the growth of things like yeast.  If you can’t get it without preservatives it will probably still be fine to use, as it is diluted in a much larger volume of beer.  You’ll definitely want something pulp free to keep gunk out of your beer (unlike elsewhere in the process, where you can rack off of any pulp/ gunk).  Also, look for juices that are high in your desired fruit- most juices use apple or grape juice as a base and only flavor with cherry or blueberry, for example.

I originally heard the idea on a Basic Brewing Radio episode on 28 October 2010.  In the episode, they discussed making a grapefruit IPA with the standard grapefruity hops and various amounts of grapefruit juice in the primary, secondary, and during bottling.  The basic idea is to use the nutrition facts on the side of the jug to find the grams of sugar (not carbohydrates) in each serving size, which you can then use to calculate the amount of sugar in each fluid ounce or milliliter.  The primary sugar in most any fruit juice will be fructose, which is very nearly completely fermentable, so you can treat it like table sugar.  You can calculate your priming sugar amounts as normal, then measure out the correct amount of juice.  At least pasteurizing the juice is probably a good idea before adding.

A quick example: lets say you want 120 g (~4.2 oz) of priming sugar for your batch, and your juice has 30 g of sugar per 8 fluid oz serving.  You’ll want 120/30= 4 servings of juice.  This amounts to 4×8= 32 fl oz (4 cups or about 946 mL) of juice.  This is more than the usual 2 cups/ 500 mL of water or so that gets added with the priming sugar, so you can do a slow reduction if you wish, though this is probably not necessary and will likely change the flavor of the juice (perhaps in a good way?).

I have used this method in a small two gallon batch to prime a wheat beer with orange juice.  I would not use this juice again, but the principles are sound, and I have been meaning to try other juices for some time.  Orange juice, even the pulp free kind, had enough texture to lend some light little bits to the beer that would barely settle out and easily pour out with the beer.  Additionally, it made the beer taste somehow “raw” for quite some time.  The finished beer had the aroma of the yeast cake/ fermentor gunk fresh after racking a beer off of it.  It would slowly dissipate after pouring as the beer warmed, but it took months of conditioning for this effect to go away.  This may have been an odd artifact of my small batch set-up, but I have never experienced that issue before with exactly the same base beer recipe.  That said, the beer itself did taste like fresh orange in a way not achievable with orange peel.

Perhaps if first run through a fine filter orange juice could work, as I suspect both the raw flavor and the little bits of gunk were caused by small particulates in the orange juice.  But, I am particularly intrigued by the idea of adding any number of other juices like cherry, pomegranate, blueberry, etc, before I go back to orange.  The pH of your beer is something to keep in mind, though its probably not a problem.  If its too high (basic), the fruit flavors will be dull and lifeless; too low (acidic), and the acidity of the juice may push it outside of an ideal range.

This method can be used to add yet another dimension of flavor to your beers, enhancing or adding to existing flavors from the yeast or hops.  You can also play up flavors already present in certain beers- think plum juice in an abbey ale, or mango or pineapple juice in a beer with mosaic hops or clean-fermented with brett (disclaimer: I haven’t tried these combinations… yet).  If you are a bit nervous to try this method, you can simply brew a batch as normal and reserve a gallon or so to try this way, or just brew a small batch to begin with.  Or brew a full batch and put different juices in each different gallon (or even each bottle if you feel confident measuring such small amounts!).

- Dennis,
Life, Fermented

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About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

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