Why Did Brewers Use Sugar?

Illustration: Sweet Tooth brand can sugar cube.

It’s good to be stopped in your tracks occasionally, as when Ron Pattinson challenged us last week over our assertion that brewers used sugar to cut costs.

Here’s what we actually said, in our post on David Pollard:

Sugar has been used in British brewing for centuries not only to increase alcoholic strength while saving on raw material costs, but also to thin the body of the beer (to make it more ‘drinkable’); to add colour, in the case of dark sugars; and to add a range of often subtle flavours.

To which Ron replied:

I don’t think you’ve got it right about sugar. Its principal functions seem to have been flavour and colour, especially in Mild. That it wasn’t particularly about cost is demonstrated by the fact that brewers continued to use sugar even when it was more expensive than malt.

That made us pause and think about our assumptions.

We knew for sure that there was a perception in the 1970s that all-malt beer was purer and generally superior. Here’s what Michael Hardman, co-founder and first chair of CAMRA, said in his 1976 book Beer Naturally:

Sometimes the brewer will add sugar to the boiling wort to complement the natural sugars extracted from the malt. This practice, which was illegal until 1880, is now widespread, though many brewers proudly adhere to recipes which use only malt and hops.

But we realised that, yes, Ron was right — we had taken for granted that brewers used sugar to save money without any particular evidence in mind. It was just an idea we’d absorbed, somehow.

To answer the question about why brewers did use sugar we turned to one of our favourite historical sources: the online archive of the journal of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). It can be a pretty dry old thing — lots of formulas and lengthy debates about piping materials, or food for brewery horses — but if you want to know what brewers were saying to each other about a particular issue behind closed doors, it’s hard to beat.

Item 1: The Economical Production of Modern Beers, 1895

In a paper read before members of the Yorkshire Institute of Brewing in Leeds (link to PDF) Fred Maynard complained about the tendency of brewery owners to demand top notch beers while providing their brewers with mediocre ingredients — an entertaining read, as it happens — while acknowledging that there were some ways to save a bit of cash without excessively compromising the end product. On sugar in particular he says (our emphasis):

The oldest method of effecting economy, and the one most generally adopted, consists in the employment of sugars as a partial malt substitute… In cases where a heavy, well-cured Yorkshire or Scotch barley malt is in use a cheap glucose may possibly be employed with advantage, but the same glucose would give rise to thin, harsh beers utterly devoid of character, if the malt used consisted of a light, under-cured English variety, or a highly diastatic foreign grain. 

That seems pretty unambiguous and makes us a feel somewhat more confident in our original assertion.

Item 2: The Manufacture and Use of Brewing Sugars in America, 1899

This paper, by Rolfe and Defren, was read at a meeting of brewers in Manchester, and contains commentary that supports Ron’s point above:

From an economical standpoint glucose and grape-sugar are sometimes used, although at times the prices of these substitutes have been higher than malt or prepared grain, which would contain equivalent amounts of extract. A little more than a year ago American glucose was selling pound for pound at less then half the price of malt. To-day the market conditions have placed the price of glucose and malt on a more uniform basis, although it is still a decided economy for the brewer to use glucose at present quotations in combination with malt.

In other words, depending what the market is up to, sugar (relatively plain varieties) might contribute to savings, but that’s not the only reason to use it.

Item 3: Invert Sugar, 1896

At an 1896 meeting in Manchester a paper by John Heron was read and discussed. After a detailed description of the process for making invert brewing sugar, he has this to say on the question of economy:

For a number of years, in fact, not until 1875, did the use of sugar make much headway in brewing, very severe restrictions being placed upon it, so that it was only in those years when good barley was scarce that it paid the brewer to employ sugar at all…

Which would seem to suggest that the decision to use sugar, if not driven purely by economics, was certainly influenced by the relative price of malt vs. sugar. This section, meanwhile, suggests that sugar became popular because it helped to make the kind of beers the public wanted:

Slowly a taste for a lighter and less alcoholic class of beer began to spring up. This meant storage for much shorter periods, so that quickness of consumption was thus fostered. This necessarily involved earlier conditioning and brightening in cask, and to meet this new state of things the brewer has been led to use less malt, fewer hops, and more sugar… For the last 50 years the use of sugar in brewing has been recognised by Government as a legitimate material in the manufacture of beer, and whilst the public taste generally demands a light beer of such a character as can only be produced with the aid of sugar, no agitation of so called protectionists will ever be able to prevents its use in the brewing of that beverage which we claim as our national drink.

Item 4: The Economics of Brewing, 1969

All the above examples date from the very tail-end of Victorian period — what about later? This paper by J.O. Harris of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries gives a fantastic overview of where savings were really being made at the dawn of the CAMRA era, which is to say not through using sugar to replace malt:

Little need or can be said in this connection which is not obvious. Cane sugar (per unit of extract) remains expensive and its replacement by cheaper glucose preparations is a matter of individual consideration.

Instead, Mr Harris suggests, the real economies are to be made through using replacement cereals (wheat, corn), extracts (especially from barely-malted malt), hop extracts, and changes to fermentation processes.

* * *

We’ll try to do more reading around this but our feeling is that, yes, it is probably fair to say the use of sugar was sometimes motivated by profit concerns, but not solely; and that by the 1970s when sugar was used in brewing, it wasn’t to save money.

In that context, ‘all-malt’ as a marketing angle was probably more about corn, wheat, potato and onion starch (Protz, Pulling a Fast One, 1978) and other adjuncts than sugar per se, although we wouldn’t be surprised to find lingering ancestral memories of the Victorian period continuing to inform consumer perceptions.

16 thoughts on “Why Did Brewers Use Sugar?”

  1. Can I just point out that Michael Hardman is wrong when he says sugar was illegal before 1880. It was actually allowed from 1847, as long as duty was paid on it.

    And that duty is why it was uneconomic to brew with sugar before 1880 – tax made it much more expensive than malt.

    I can dig out some examples if you want from brewing records that list the prices of the ingredients. Sugar wasn’t always the cheap option.

    1. Oh, Mr Hardman himself makes no great claims for that book — it’s just a handy encapsulation of a certain point of view that was prevalent in the 1970s, really.

  2. [“… and using primary sources…” he rewrote with teeth clenched screaming YES YES YES inside his own skull.]

    The lingering ancestral idea is interesting. In 1983 I was in an English Lit class as a 20 year old which had a very elder fellow taking the class for fun. He said he had met someone who met someone who knew the Brontes when we were studying their books. Then he told a story about their lives that had been passed on. Everyone in class stopped and started counting fingers. He heard it in 1920 in his undergrad, from someone who heard it in 1880 from the guy who hear it first hand in the 1840s. Entirely reasonable but a bit shockingly direct. It’s entirely possible my taste in things contains a family memory from my great-great-grandparents kitchen. I do know I grew up in suburban Toronto in the 1960s eating curry due to my mother’s grandfather being a Sgt Major in India in the late Victorian era, going a bit mad due to a fever and then later making his eight daughters learn to make his favourite dishes (as well as making them do military drill in the yard every morning before school.)

  3. Seem to recall Miles Jenner telling me that he used sugar in the brewing of his beers as it gave him something extra to play tunes with (or something along those lines).

  4. I worked for Camerons in the 90s back in the dark days of Bent (sorry, Brent) Walker Breweries and sugar was used partly as a flavour but mainly to supplement poor malt bought because the company was in such dire straits malt supplies were limited to spot buying and the quality was variable, as was the beer. Moving on a couple of years later to Jennings and block invert sugar was used in most recipes, but mainly mild and bitter, to add flavour but I was under the impression that the age of the brewery and mash tun meant that regardless of the malt, a full extraction was difficult so the sugar would bump up the SG of the wort.

  5. Sugars, , some breweries used comparatively small amounts and some shockingly high percentages ( eg Gyle Types in the Peter Walker & Sons Dallam Lane Brewery ledger records @ Liverpool Archives) .
    I’d plump for the use of sugars in beer being allied to all of the following design factors,1) Gyle Type (High % in darker / Mild ales) , 2) Taste profile requirements, and 3) Shelf life/ expected period before the beer will be drunk / go off .and finally, the size of the brewery itself and the brewed products range vs gyles brewed.

  6. As another little nugget to consider, I’ll add that (per Ron’s excellent book on British beers) Whitbread used only malt and sugar, no adjuncts, for most of its history. (I assume it was forced to use oats during WWI just like everyone else, and I don’t know whether standards fell toward the end.) I don’t know quite what to make of this, but it may indicate that sugar was viewed primarily as a way to modify the beer’s characteristics, and not a way to save money (at least from Whitbread’s perspective).

    By the way, I’m curious as to the source of the sugar used by British brewers. Could Britain’s colonial legacy in the Caribbean have factored in the way sugar was viewed at home? I believe, for instance, that William Gladstone’s father owned a sugar plantation (which eventually became embarrassing to William because of its use of slaves). Whereas presumably cheap grain would have come from the Baltics and the United States (but also perhaps from Canada, which would somewhat complicate my theory).

    1. Access to sugar was obviously important. In the logs Barbados and Mauritius turn up a fair amount.

      The grain came from everywhere. I’ll quote my excellent new Scottish book:

      “A glance at Thomas Usher’s brewing records from 1912 shows how diverse the origin of their barley was. There’s malt described as Hungarian, Danish, Calcutta, Smyrna (Turkey), Ouchak (also Turkey), Polish, Karachi, Danubian, Roumanian, Tunis, Californian, Oregon, Bulgarian, Spanish, Canadian and finally, three pages in, the first mention of Scotch.”

      Surprisingly, one of the primary sources of barley – Chile – is absent from that list. As is Australia, another important source.

      1. Thanks Ron! I guess I was thinking more of non-barley grain, though, of the sort looked down upon by CAMRA and of course illegal to use until 1880. Corn, rice, wheat(?), and what have you. It occurred to me that British sentiment might be more favorable to an Imperial/Commonwealth product such as sugar (assuming that to be the case) than to corn and rice from outside the Empire. Just speculation on my part.

        1. I think British imports of rice come mainly from India, so it would have been an Imperial product back then. But I’m not sure it would ever have occurred to British brewers to bulk out the malt with either rice or maize, or not until American brewers had started to do it.

        2. Maize was always British brewers adjunct of choice. Occasionally rice.

          I don’t think they were really bothered where raw materials came from. Enormous quantities of Californian barley were imported. In fact almost all the sources of foreign malting barley weren’t part of the Empire. Brewers just sourced the cheapest ingredients that were of the quality they needed.

          1. I miss the good old days when you could talk complete bollocks on the Internet without being overheard by people who actually know something.

  7. I think you should specify the difference between invert sugar made from sugar cane and used in many British beers, glucose (ie brewing sugar as sold to homebrewers) and ordinary white granulated. Invert sugar is great stuff and adds flavour, body and colour to relatively weak beers. I’ve made some using the recipe in Ron Pattinson’s Homebrewers Guide to Vintage Beer and, apart from some slight burning problems, I got great results making beer.

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