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. I can’t add much to the dis­cus­sion itself, but I want­ed to say that this is the way to debate his­tor­i­cal issues. Calm­ly and rea­son­ably, and using pri­ma­ry sources.

  3. [“… 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.)

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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