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.

Klink

Old fellers drinking in a pub, from an illustraton c.1914.

There’s a ghoulish glee in reading about the grotty brewing practices of the past, especially when the product in question has a catchy brand name.

According to a correspondent of the Lancet in 1865, the people of South Staffordshire were particularly prone to getting legless on a by-product of brewing known as ‘klink’:

In the larger breweries there is always a varying amount of… strong ale which has become so tart or acid as to be unfit for ordinary sale. This strong ale is modified in various ways to make it palatable, and is then reissued at a very low price… In the district this liquor, known as “klink,” is sold at the low rate of twopence per quart, and being exceedingly strong, the above quantity is enough to intoxicate most men… It is not, however, the intoxicating power of klink beer which is its only bad property; but, from the development of certain acids, the effect upon the mucous lining of the stomach, upon the liver and kidneys, is most injurious, and those who are in the habit of drinking it are well aware of the effect. Unfortunately, too, this kind of beer has got largely into use as harvest drink… Probably neither brewers nor employers are aware of the amount of injury inflicted by this drink.

Every other mention of klink we’ve been able to find with an admittedly superficial search, including  a piece in the British Medical Journal from 1869, seems to derive from this source.

So, it’s not very reliable. It might also be temperance campaign misinformation, or simply a misunderstanding about some aspect of the brewing process.

But, in the context of 19th century brewing practices, it doesn’t sound at all unlikely to us.

It made us wonder what it might taste like but, mostly, it reminded us how lucky we are that this kind of practice has all but died out…

Hasn’t it?