Sweet Choices: Corn Sugar vs. Granulated Sugar in Fermentation

Sweet Choices: Corn Sugar vs. Granulated Sugar in Fermentation

Posted by Matteo Lahm on 15th May 2024

Whether you’re brewing beer or making wine that require sugar additions, one of the first questions you’ll face is: What kind of sugar should I use? If you are a winemaker working from grapes or a beer maker using malt extracts or grains, additional sugars will be in small quantities if you use them at all. Your sugars are often adequately provided by your source ingredients. But if you are making a fruit wine with something other than grapes or trying to substantially up your ABV, your additions will make up a large enough portion of your fermentable sugars for it to matter. We often fret about the right yeast but how much attention do we give to the right sugar? It is the equivalent of caring about the car, but not the gas and as you well know, putting kerosine in your tank won’t get you very far. Today, we’re pitting corn sugar against granulated sugar in an epic showdown to see which one reigns supreme.

First, let’s get a bit nerdy. Corn sugar, also known as dextrose, is a simple sugar derived from corn. Chemically, it’s a monosaccharide, meaning it’s a single sugar molecule (C6H12O6 for you chem geeks). Granulated sugar, on the other hand, is sucrose. It’s a disaccharide, composed of glucose and fructose (C12H22O11). Without getting too geeky, try to summon some memory of your high school chemistry class. You at least remember that all the numbers in the formulas refer to quantities of elements. The disaccharide in granulated sugar is a much more complex molecule that is twice as heavy as the single sugar compound in corn sugar.

Here’s why this matters. Yeast, those tiny, hardworking microorganisms, prefer simple sugars. They break down these sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since corn sugar is already in its simplest form, yeast can gobble it up faster than a kid in a candy store. This leads to a quicker and often cleaner fermentation process.

Granulated sugar, however, requires the yeast to break it down into glucose and fructose before fermentation can kick off. This extra step can slow things down a bit and sometimes introduce off-flavors, especially if your yeast is feeling a bit lazy that day.

When it comes to yeast performance, corn sugar generally takes the cake. The rule with yeast is to limit stress. They produce the best results when they do not have to do extra work, like breaking down larger sugar molecules or trying to survive in a solution with an unfavorable pH. Yeasts are the socialite extraverts of fermenting. They like things to stay free and easy and, they prefer large gatherings. The pool party is not going to be fun if you ask them to clean the pool before the party.

The bottom line is that beer and winemaking yeast strains tend to perform better with dextrose because it’s easier for them to metabolize. This means you’re likely to get a more predictable and consistent fermentation process.

That said, granulated sugar isn’t a complete slouch, though. Going back to the pool party analogy, they will clean the pool, because they really want to party, and unlike your average trust fund hedonist, they will do a good job. That is why granulated sugar is widely used and can produce excellent results, especially in winemaking. However, it is a bit like asking your yeast to run a marathon wearing ankle weights. They’ll get there, but it might not be as smooth a journey.

Alright, you’ve chosen your sugar. Now, how do you use it? Here’s where things get interesting. You can’t just dump your sugar into the batch and call it a day. That’s a rookie mistake. Just dumping a bunch of solids into your batch is not only making them clean the pool, it is like deliberately making the job as hard as possible. Not a good idea. Both corn sugar and granulated sugar need to be liquified to ensure they’re evenly distributed throughout your wort or must. Think of it like making a simple syrup. Dissolve your sugar in a small amount of boiling water, let it cool, and then add it to your batch. This ensures that every yeast cell gets its fair share of the sugary goodness.

For beer priming, a common rule of thumb is to use about five ounces of corn sugar per five gallons of beer. Granulated sugar can also be used for priming. In winemaking, the amount of sugar you add depends on the desired alcohol content. Corn sugar is often preferred for its clean fermentation, but granulated sugar can also be used effectively. Just remember to adjust your measurements accordingly.

Now for the million-dollar question: Will your brew taste different depending on the sugar you use? The short answer is yes, but it’s subtle. Corn sugar tends to ferment more cleanly, leaving fewer residual flavors. This makes it ideal for lighter beers and wines where you want the primary flavors to shine. Granulated sugar can leave behind trace amounts of fructose, which might add a slight sweetness. You may want this result so it is not always a bad thing. On the downside, it can result in off-flavors or a cider flavor, especially in delicate brews. However, in robust wines or heavier beers, this difference is often negligible, and sometimes preferred.

So, who’s the champion in this sugary showdown? If you’re looking for a quick, clean fermentation with minimal fuss, corn sugar is your go-to. It’s the yeast’s best friend and will likely give you more predictable results. However, granulated sugar is a versatile contender. It’s readily available, a little more cost-effective, and can also produce excellent results, especially in winemaking. Just be prepared for a slightly slower fermentation process and the potential for minor flavor variations.

At the end of the day, brewing and winemaking are as much about the journey as the destination. Experiment with both types of sugar and see what works best for you. After all, the best part of this hobby is that you get to drink your mistakes! Whether you choose corn sugar or granulated sugar, you’re in for a delicious adventure. Just remember to liquify that sugar, treat your yeast with respect, and most importantly, have fun. Cheers!

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