The Syrup Koan: Syrups Keep a Beer from Being Syrupy

(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This post introduces the concept: The Syrup Koan: Syrups Keep a Beer From Being Syrupy.)

Honeys, saps, and syrups lighten the body of a beer. Paradoxically, they prevent beer from getting syrupy and gelatinous. This is a very common source of misunderstanding. I remember first hearing about mead while reading Beowulf in high school, and it sort of broke my brain. I pictured something with roughly the consistency of honey, but alcoholic, and aromatic and solvent like a fortified wine, and somehow people drank this boozy sludge and fought dragons well. Imagine my surprise when I finally had some mead it tasted simply like a crisp, white wine, with none of the texture of honey though much of the flavor. It was not some ineffable Viking slime. I was disappointed.

Brewers have exploited this paradox for centuries, though. Because a larger percent of the sugars in, for instance, honey are fermentable, and because there are fewer solid particles left over by honey than by grain, a mead of 14 percent alcohol can still be quite crisp and sharp, where as an all-grain beer of the same gravity is so thick and round that beers of this strength are often described as having the texture of motor oil. You can basically make clay figurines with it. In fact, a Belgian quad has a thinner, more vinous body while an American stout of equivalent strength is oily and gelatinous precisely because the Belgian Quad uses a syrup derived from beet sugars for a significant part of grain bill, and that is why that syrup was introduced. The syrup keeps the Quad from being syrupy. Fermentation is an inverted world, as Hegel said of philosophy.

Each syrup also imparts its own particular character.  Maple sap is prized for imparting a certain mineral quality, that benchmark of old world wines. Avocado honey imparts a buttery and vegetal quality. Buckwheat honey imparts a taste profile not unlike roasted malts and molasses and a smell that has been reminded people of goats.  The difference in flavor between rum and tequila comes primarily from the fact that rum derives from the sap of sugar cane and tequila derives from the sap of the blue agave plant, though to state it this way perhaps suggests the extraction process is less complex than it is. The caramelized beet syrups of the Quad are responsible for the creme brûlée and rum and raisin notes which define that style. The syrup makes the beer, not just in body but in aroma and flavor as well.

There’s a Zen koan quality to the notion of, “the taste of honey without the sweetness of honey,” and we will be looking at the pleasures of that contradiction this month, as well as the myriad more idiosyncratic ways that honeys, saps, and syrups affect three beers we have in the store: Brunch Punch, Life and Limb, and Cinq Cents. If you want high gravity beers with crisp, vinous bodies and flavor profiles no grain can provide, there is no other better way than honeys, saps, and syrups. 

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