Belgian Candi, Huzzah
Hello fellow beer nerds! I’ve been busy prepping a lot of Belgian candi recently for our inaugural brew days. No, Belgian candi isn’t actually a sweet treat – or at least not for humans (though it is sweet and candi-like if you eat it). Our Imperial IPA uses over 50 lbs of the sweet stuff in an 8BBL run! It got me thinking about the little yeast-beasties that we add to the brews to consume the sugars in wort to give us alcohol, and more specifically the types of sugars that the beasties prefer (I am a chemist after all). Yes, not all sugar is equal in the eyes of yeast, so I figured I’d take the opportunity to throw some beer chemistry at you!
Belgian candi (which you may have heard being called “invert sugar” or “brewers sugar”) comes in a few different color options commercially (light, amber, dark) and can take on a vast array of colors in-between when making it yourself depending on the amount of caramelization that you allow to happen. It is composed of a mixture of fructose and glucose, two types of sugar that yeast has an easy time using to make alcohol. It’s rather sticky by itself, so it is fairly common to find it with a light coating of powdered sugar on it to make it easier to handle.
Now, if you are a home brewer, I’d guess that at some point you’ve experimented with adding table sugar to a beer in the hopes that it would increase the alcohol content without affecting the flavor. You probably found out that adding sucrose, or table sugar, often results in a green apple aroma. An overly simplified explanation for this is that yeast has to work much harder to ferment sucrose and as such off-flavors and aromas tend to develop.
So how do we turn that hard to chew sucrose into the desired glucose and fructose? Simple water, heat, and a bit of acid can do the job in your kitchen. Chemically speaking, you are performing what is known as an acid hydrolysis of sucrose – a disaccharide – to form two monosaccharides – fructose and glucose – via the addition of a water molecule.
In practical terms, you are dissolving table sugar in water, adding some acid (Cream of Tartar, Lime juice, or Lemon juice all work), and then heating the mixture to the point that the hydrolysis happens readily. In the process the majority of the water is driven off, so when poured the thick sugar substance crystalizes and hardens rapidly into clear sheets that can be shattered and stored for long periods of time.
Start by grabbing 4 cups of table sugar and mixing it with 2 cups of water (less is ok if you are feeling adventurous) and ½ teaspoon of Cream of Tartar. Stir the mixture and begin heating on high. You will notice that all of the sugar will rapidly dissolve into the hot water. Continue heating until the temperature hits 260F (127C). This can take some time as you must drive off the majority of the water so that the temperature can increase beyond the boiling point of water (100C or 212F), but will go rather quickly once the ~230F threshold is passed.
The thick sugar solution must then be held between 260F and 275F (135C) for a minimum of 20 minutes. The longer it is held at that temperature beyond the 20 minutes, the more caramelization will occur and the darker the candi you will get. I typically shoot for 25 minutes to get a nice amber candi as I like the mild caramelized flavors that develop and the color.
Once the desired color has been attained, rapidly heat the candi to 300F (149C) and pour it into a pan lined with aluminum foil to cool and solidify. At 300F the sugar contains very little water and is known as the hard-crack. After cooling the candi overnight, you can shatter it with a hammer or whatever utensil you have handy for hitting stuff. If you sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on it after shattering it you will have an easier time handling it.
Enjoy! That is all there is to making Belgian Candi, saving a few bucks on your homebrews, and keeping your yeast from overworking!