The process of priming is critical within homebrewing and is necessary for natural carbonation within bottles. People sometimes overlook the importance of carbonation, but it is one of the most significant aspects of beer, affecting its appearance and how it feels in the mouth. You'll need to know about priming sugar, especially if you're a beginner without a kegging setup yet. As a bonus, you can practice your “real ale” homebrewing techniques.
The most common way of carbonating a bottle of beer is to add priming sugar, but this isn’t as simple as it seems at face value, as you have to work out precisely how much sugar to add, and the type of priming sugar to use. Here's my preferred calculator from Northern Brewer. I've always used that one because it lists the beers by styles, so I don't have to look up an exact volume of CO2 that I need. One step less for me!
This chart has done well for me for many years.
Volume of CO2 is essential, but it's not the only thing to consider. Using unique priming sugars can add another dimension to your beer. When it comes to choosing what type of priming sugar to use, one of the key considerations is what flavor you want to add to the beer. If you don’t want to add a particular flavor, then corn or table sugar are the best ways to go, but otherwise, there are many other options.
Table Sugar (or Cane Sugar)
This is the most basic type of priming sugar and is appealing because it is low cost and easy to obtain. Table sugar does not add any flavor to the beer, so is useful for any type of beer, making it highly versatile. Some homebrewers use table sugar on a regular basis without any issues, but other brewers claim that table sugar produces inconsistent results and should not be used.
Like table sugar, corn sugar does not influence the taste of beer. Corn sugar has the additional advantage of being higher quality and brewers tend to find it more reliable overall. An additional benefit of using corn sugar is that it can be obtained packaged in the amounts that you need for bottle carbonation, making it easy to get the right amount without having to worry about measurement.
Some homebrewers also argue that there is a difference in taste between table and corn sugar, with table sugar producing a less desirable taste. However, just as many homebrewers argue that there isn’t really any difference at all.
Honey & Maple Syrup
As a primer, honey is a good way to add extra depth to the flavor of a beer. The flavor will vary depending on the flavor of the honey that you add. Additionally, syrups can be used for priming, such as maple syrup and molasses. As a general rule, sugars and syrups that are darker will produce a noticeable aftertaste that is sometimes desired, and works well with heavier and darker beers. Honey could be used for a light beer like a kolsch or blonde, while maple syrup could be used for a holiday ale or porter.
Using honey (or syrup) as a primer can be challenging, particularly to new homebrewers, as the gravity of honey is different in each jar, and there is no concentration standard to work off. To effectively use honey as a primer it is necessary to dilute it and take advantage of a hydrometer to measure the gravity of the mixture. That's another big step on bottling day that isn't worth it for me, since for most beer drinkers, the slight honey flavor may not even be perceptible.
If you want honey in your homebrew, try making a bragot and get your honey in there before bottling day.
Using brown sugar as a primer for carbonation can be particularly effective in darker beers. Color matching isn't so hard! I would imagine that the flavor difference would be very subtle, if any. However, it does sound like a delicious treat to have a winter porter with brown sugar added during secondary fermentation. See how easy it is be a beer marketer?
Using Other Primers
An important point to note about different types of priming sugar is that they all produce different amounts of carbonation. These differences have to be taken into account during calculation of how much priming sugar to add. Anything with sugar can be used as a primer, and you may have to experiment to get things right. Take a look at what type of sugar is used to get a starting point. For example, Hershey's chocolate syrup contains mostly high fructose corn syrup.
Why not fruit juice? Adding some watermelon juice to after your wheat beer ferments out could make a delicious, refreshing, summer beer. You could do a five gallon batch of an IPA and add different fruit to each bottle! After all, individualization and experimentation is what homebrewing is all about.
What's the craziest priming sugar you've used or wanted to try?