Making Belgian Candi Sugar

The Belgian Candi Sugars
Left: Attempt #1, Right: Attempt #2

With the Krampus Kristmas Ale transferred to the secondary & spiced my thoughts have turned to the next big beer – probably not to be brewed for a few months (some stouts & porters are in my new future) – but I like to think ahead.

One style I’ve always enjoyed, but rarely brewed, are the strong Belgian (trappist-style) ales. With lots of fruity esters and spicy phenolics, these beers are flavourful & well balanced. Their high-alcohol & dry finish makes them easy to drink, with the dryness deceptively hiding their strength.

The key to making these beers strong (7-12% alcohol) with a dry finish is the use of Belgian candi sugar – beet sugar which is heated & otherwise treated to create a candi (or syrup). Depending on how it is prepared, this candi can be anything from a light-amber with little flavour through to near-black candis with flavours of coffee, chocolate and dark fruits (e.g. plums & dates). It is the cost (often over $16/kg), and difficulty finding this product in Canada which has largely held back my ability to brew & explore Belgian strong ales.

So imagine my joy when finding out that it may be possible to produce Belgian candi sugar at home. Armed with one youtube video & a short write-up I embarked on my first experiment. After nearly two hours of heating, with little colour formation, I started reading further. It turns out I – and many other brewers out there – are doing it wrong!

Below the fold is my attempt to fix my mistake, and perhaps establish a method others can employ…

EDIT: I have solved some of the crystalizaiton issues people have been reporting when making candi sugar. Details can be found in this blog post.

What Makes this Stuff Special?

A lot has been written elsewhere about what makes this sugar special, so I’ll give the coles notes version. During the preparation of this candi, beet or cane sugar (both being nearly-pure sucrose) is heated under conditions which do two things:
  1. “Invert” the sugar – a fancy way of saying it breaks the sucrose (which is made of two simpler sugars – glucose & fructose – attached together) into individual molecules of fructose and glucose, and
  2. Reacts these “inverted” sugars with amino acids to form the various colour and flavour compounds that are desired. This occurs through Maillard Reactions; the same reactions which develop colour during long boils, decoction mashing, and during malting.

A Warning

Danger: 125-135C sugar
+ water = pain!

I would hope this goes without saying, but this is potentially dangerous. My instructions here are based on my own experience, which means that they are far from safe or perfect.  If you follow these instructions, you do so at your own risk.

Why is it dangerous – aside from the obvious (working with a hot sticky substance that is near-impossible to get off your skin before it transfers all of its heat into your skin), we are also using small additions of water to control the temperature of the sugar mix.  The high heat of the sugar mix – between 25C and 60C over the boiling point of water – converts these water additions near-instantly to steam; leading to globs of molten sugar being propelled rocket-like through the air – most often landing on some piece of exposed skin.

So if you’re going to do this, please be careful. Like bacon, making this in the nude would be a very bad idea.  Wear shoes (I’m speaking from experience here), and some sort of eye protection would not be untoward. Heat-resistant gloves (oven mitts are not great, as they kill dexterity) are a must.  This is something to do after the kiddies are safe in bed…and is not something to do after enjoying a few pints of homebrew.

How Are Brewers “Doing It Wrong”?

The process most brewers have attempted has been largely stolen from conventional candy-making methods. While this produces a good candy, it doesn’t achieve the desired end point. The process is, in a nut-shell:
2 hours of 125-135C = light amber.
WTFerment is up with that?
  1. Mix table sugar and water, using the minimal amount of water needed to dissolve the sugar (an astoundingly low 250ml per 1kg of sugar (roughly 1 cup per 2 lbs). Heat on the stove – a small amount of acid (a tablespoon of lemon juice, or 1/4 tsp of cream of tartar) is added once the sugar dissolves, to aid in the inversion process. At this time, many also add yeast nutrient to provide amino acids (proteins) required for the Maillard reactions.
  2. Using a candy thermometer, heat to 125C (260F), hold at this temperature by adding small amounts of water (a few tablespoons) when the temperature hits 135C (275F). Hold at 125-135C for 20 minutes to complete inversion. You now have a light candi sugar!
  3. Optional: Continue heating as in 2, to achieve a darker colour & some flavour. Be careful to not over-darken, as you are primarily charring the sugar (not conducting Maillard reactions). A medium-dark amber is about as far as it is safe to go.
  4. Heat to 150C (300F) to create a ‘hard-crack’; a fancy way of saying, to drive out enough water to allow the candi to form a hard/brittle product. If you skip this, you get something with the consistency of nougat.

So what exactly is wrong with this process? The answer is not very obvious – its the acid. The acid lowers the pH of the sugar, which brings the Maillard reactions to a near stop. In my first attempt I added well over double the amount of cream of tartar I was supposed to – meaning after nearly two hours of heating I was left with a light/medium-amber product, with a mild caramel-like flavour (a sign it was beginning to burn).

So what we have been making is less like a Belgian candi sugar than it is a caramelized English-style invert sugar. Good for stouts & bitters, but not really the product we’re looking for when making a Belgian-style ale.

How Do we Fix This?

Too much acid = nothing but
mild caramelizaiton

The short answer is “we don’t know – yet”, as the making of this product is a closely held secret by Belgian sugar manufactures. But Ryan, author of the Ryan Brews blog, is on the case! I would recommend reading Ryan’s post (follow the previous link) for all the details. Be sure to read the comments – a lot more information, plus the results of some additional trials, are outlined in the comments.

Long story short, we need to create an environment where:
  1. Inversion can take place. Luckily, this is easy; heating sugar in water for 30 minutes at 125-135C (260-275F) will do it – no acid needed (sugar can act as its own acid).
  2. Create a basic environment, preferably with something that won’t create off-flavours. Easily done with a concentrated solution of pickling lime (aka slacking lime or calcium hydroxide) added after the inversion process. Food-grade lye (sodium hydroxide) could be used as well – but with caution! Lye is highly corrosive!
  3. Provide a source of amino acids (proteins). Many (including Ryan) use yeast nutrient for this, but I have different plans…

My Second Plan (the first being a failure):

My plan here is simple: in the processing of beet sugar into candi sugar, the beet’s proteins act as an amino acid source for the Maillard reactions. I lack sugar beet proteins, but I do have a ready source of another plants protein – namely barley, in the form of dry malt extract (DME). DME is fairly high in protein (4% minimum) and as such should provide an ample amount of protein. To alkalinize the mix, I will add a small amount of pickling lime (I don’t have any, instead I’m using lye [sodium hydroxide]), and a two-stage heating process will be used to selectively drive the Mailliard and caramelization reactions I desire.
My plan is:
  1. For every 500g (~1lb) of sugar, add 1 tablespoon DME
  2. Dissolve DME/sugar mixture in water, at 250ml water per 1kg of sugar/DME mix.
  3. Heat to 125-135C for 20 minutes.
  4. Add a small amount of lime or lye (~2 teaspoons/kg of lime or 1 teaspoon/kg lye), pre-dissolved in water. This is added slowly, as to not drop the temperature below 125C.
  5. Continue heating at 125-135C (maintaining temperature with the additions of small amounts of cold water). This will drive Maillard reactions, but only allow for minimal caramelization (aka ‘burning’).
  6. If needed, more lime/lye can be added later on – caramelization reactions decrease pH, and thus can impair Maillard reactions. Heating at 125-135C is continued until a deep-red colour is achieved. This should produce a lot of the fruity & nutty flavours we expect – but we’ll be lacking the roasted flavours.
  7. To achieve the desired roasted flavours, and further darken the candi, the sugar mixture will be allowed to heat to between 150C and 165C (300-330F). At this temperature a lot of caramelization should occur – rapidly darkening the sugar, providing roasted flavours and the hard-beak all-in-one.
  8. The sugar mixture is then poured into a silicone tray and allowed to cool.

The Results:

Maillard reactions in action – left: candi immediately before
lye addition, right: candi 30 seconds after lye addition.

For consistency I decided to make the same amount of candi as in my first attempt – 225g. This was measured out and 0.5 tablespoons of DME mixed in (twice what I had planned). The dry mix was then added to a pot, along with 100ml of water, and heated gently until dissolved. Once dissolved, the heat was increased to about 1/2 the stove’s maximum, and the temperature held at 125-135C for 20 minutes. The sugar mix was super-foamy (see picture to the left), probably due to the high protein content. Any time the temperature got too hot, a tablespoon or so of water was added to cool the solution.

After the 20 minutes were up, I added 1ml of 1 molar NaOH (lye), and continued to hold the temperature at 125-135C. The initiation of Maillard reactions was almost instant (picture to left), with a red/brown colour change occurring within seconds of adding the lye. At the 5 minute mark it was already darker than the stuff prepared in my first attempt! As it cooked the sugar emitted wonderful fruity/nutty aromas, with a hint of malt. The build-up of colour was going slow, so after the 20 minute mark I added another 1 ml of lye – brining me up to the planned amount (described above). I continued heating until the 40 minute mark, where I guessed the Maillard reactions had progressed far enough to move onto the next step.

Colour development during the cook
(click for full-sized). Time 0 = 20min
of inversion & time of lye addition

At this point I raised the temperature further, holding at 150-165C. At this point the mixture began emitting roasted/caramelization aromas, and began to darken. The temperature of this mixture was hard to control – it heated quickly and small water additions cooled it far more than the 125-135C solution. 15 minutes into the hotter portion I decided to call it quits as I didn’t want a mess of burnt sugar – in retrospect I didn’t need to worry and could have continued heating for longer, and aimed for a much darker finishing product. It was at this point that I poured the mixture into a silicone bread pan and allowed it to cool for several hours.

You may notice that the candi became cloudy at the end time points – this was because sugar had begun to condense and crystallize on the sides of the pot; I started scraping this into the pot, leading to crystallized sugar in the mix. While it ruins the appearance, this isn’t something to fear – its still good sugar, which will dissolve in hot wort and be fermented by yeast.

Every 5 minutes, starting just before the lye addition, I dribbled a small sample onto a piece of parchment paper (see picture to right). These acted as both a colour control, and as tasting standards.
0 minutes *Sweet, no other notable flavours
5 minutesMy wife ate it
10 minutesMy wife ate it
15 minutesMy wife ate it
20 minutes *Mild fruit character, some caramel
25 minutesMy wife ate it
30 minutesMy wife ate it
35 minutesStronger fruit character, caramel still mild
40 minutes +My wife ate it
45 minutesMy wife ate it
50 minutesMy wife ate it
55 minutesTastes great – nutty flavour plus some plum;
roastines is mild, caramel is modest

* = 1 ml lye addition

+ = temperature increased to 150-165C


The Belgian Candi Sugars
Left: Attempt #1, Right: Attempt #2

The obvious conclusion is my wife liked the candi, but the other conclusion is this worked and provided a desired result – namely, stone-fruit & nutty flavours. I probably could have cooked it longer to get a stronger caramel/roast character.

One idea I may try next time is to hold the temperature mid-way between the Maillard & caramelization temperatures (i.e. 135-145C) for most of the cook; this should accelerate the process, while still keeping caramelization under control. To finish, a heat-up to 150-165C could be added to provide more caramelization & roasted flavours. The good news is that my concern about excessive caramelization was overblown, so these higher temperatures are not to be scared of. It also appears that a much darker colour is possible, without getting excessive burnt flavours.

Between the first and second batches of sugar, I now have about nearly enough candi for my planned batch of Belgian strong ale – one block of light amber, one block of medium/dark amber. Next time I’m going to try a full half-kilo batch, aiming for a much darker product, to provide the final bit of sugar needed.  The plan is simple:

  1. Invert the sugar/DME mix (1 tablespoon DME per 1 kg [2.2lbs] sugar + 250ml [1 cup] water) for 20 minutes at 125-135C (260-275F)
  2. Add lye (~teaspoon per 1kg [2.2lbs] of sugar) & raise temperature to 135-145C (275-290F).  Hold at this temperature until the desired colour & flavour is achieved*
  3. Heat to 150C (300F) to create a hard-break; if more roasted flavours are desired, sugar solution can be held at 150-165C (300-330F).
  4. Pour into a silicone pan
*Flavour & colour can be assessed by dropping a small amount of the hot sugar solution into a glass of water.  This will cool it quickly; and once retrieved, the sugar blob can be used to assess colour & flavour.

22 thoughts on “Making Belgian Candi Sugar

  • February 12, 2018 at 4:42 AM

    I live at 3400m water boiled at 90°C. The temperature keep the same for the mix sugar water or are they lower?

    • February 12, 2018 at 3:15 PM

      Temperatures will be the same for the sugar. Pressure affects boiling point of water, but not rates of chemical reactions (at the pressures we’re dealing with).

  • January 29, 2018 at 1:55 AM

    Hello i would like to know how could you get clear cany sugar (white like) with this method, since i am always getting from orange to brown collor candy sugar.

    • January 29, 2018 at 1:35 PM

      Clear candi is essentially inverted sugar; don’t add the DME or the lye, and heat only to 125-135C for 20 min. You can add a small amount of cream of tartar to accelerate sugar inversion.

      Although, honestly, adding light candi sugar is no different flavour-wise or fermentablity-wise than just adding table sugar. Why not save yourself the headache and just add table sugar to the boil?

  • February 24, 2015 at 12:54 PM

    I would be reluctant to use a non-food grade product in a beverage. YMMV.

    • February 1, 2023 at 3:52 PM

      Check out Baking Soda vs Caustic Soda – baking soda is NON TOXIC, caustic is TOXIC. Keep the caustic for cleaning your drains, use baking soda for the maillard reaction.
      There is no easy way to determine 1Molar concentration however. Bit of trial and error may be necessary. I have read 1:1 ratio of water to caustic so will try 50ml water and 50g baking soda next.
      I have also tried 3% H2O2 peroxide solution from contact lens solution. This didn’t give me nice roast notes to smell, but I have diluted the very hot (145C) sugar mix with water before adding to pre-heated bottles, and it is liquid, so shouldn’t stick to my brewing elements.

      • February 2, 2023 at 7:23 AM

        WRITING THINGS IN CAPS DOESN’T MAKE IT TRUE. While consuming caustic straight would be a very bad idea, the use of caustic (lye) in food preparation is very safe and has a history of use extending back several hundred years. The lye is consumed by the maillard reactions and none is left over once the sugar is prepared.

        In contrast, the pKb of baking soda is not high enough to drive maillard reactions in sugar mixtures. As such, replacing lye with it in this recipe would not only lead to a failure – you wouldn’t get Belgian candi sugar – but you’d also have a very unpleasant tasting residual material left over in the resulting caramelized mess left behind.

  • February 23, 2015 at 10:42 PM

    Any other idea will be apreciated, as i can't buy any of those pure stuff here.

  • February 23, 2015 at 10:41 PM

    if i can't find food grade lime can i use regular slaked lime?

  • November 21, 2014 at 2:13 PM

    I don't think you're doing anything wrong; in the sense that I don't think your sugar will not work for brewing afterwards. Its unslightly, but it still carmelizes/etc. I've done some reading (but no tests yet) on how to minimize crystalization. The solutions appear simple:

    1) Mix the sugar and water cold,
    2) Don't splash sugar onto the sides of the pot – this seeds the crystals
    3) Heat on medium heat
    4) Stir well until the sugar is completely dissolved; then stir mininmally
    4) Use a clean metal stirring spoon and keep it in the sugar – adding a cold spoon can spur crystalization
    5) Make sure you are starting with clean and dry pots/spoons/etc

    It appears the solution is to avoid creating nucleation sites for the crystals; so make sure the sugar is completely dissolved, that there is no sugar stuck to the sides of the pot, and avoid unnessisary stirring/jarring once the sugar comes to heat.

  • November 20, 2014 at 9:28 PM

    I'm having the same issue as the person above. I've tried this twice, and each time at about 10 minutes in to the 260-275 range, my mixture becomes crystallized and very thick. Any ideas what I'm doing wrong? Maybe I'm not letting it dissolve enough before reaching a boil? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  • November 11, 2014 at 1:26 PM

    I've had the same problem, in some of my batches. I'm not sure that adding corn sugar will help, but I also don't think its worth worrying about – it still browns fine and dissolves into beer quite nicely. My more recent batches I have been turning into syrup at the end (by adding a roughly equal volume of water to the sugar), which is far more convenient than breaking up and dissolving solid candi.

  • November 11, 2014 at 6:09 AM

    Mine keeps crystallizing completely at 250F, will try to add corn syrup and see if that helps.

  • October 24, 2014 at 5:15 PM

    In Canada you can buy pharmaceutical-grade Calcium Hydroxide from aquarium shops it is called Kalkwasser (Calcium Hydroxide) and from what I can tell it is exactly the same as pickling lime. You can also find this item on

  • March 13, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    Thank you for your hard work as you've helped make my first batch a success! I used some info from your blog and Ryan Brews'.

    My recipe was this
    500g sugar / 1 Tbsp DME / 1/2 tsp DAP / 1/2 tsp wyeast nutrient
    Took a long time to get to 125C so will scale back initial water addition just a bit next time. It aslo had developed a fair amount of color by the time I added 2 tsp of Lime but then the color took off just like you said. I didn't do a great job of watching the time but a little over 30 min I have what resembles the flavor of a 'nutty' caramello candy bar.

    When heating up the mixture (before adding the lime) I got a strong smell of ammonia. I know I have read somewhere where this may have come from but will have to go back over everything to find it. I thought it was mentioned as a sign of too much lime but this would not have applied here. It did eventually go away but not until close to the end of the process.

    I totally appreciate the work you have put into this.

  • November 21, 2013 at 5:44 PM

    I think the ultimate seal of approval for any homebrew-related adventure is that your wife enjoyed it! I'm always glad to see more work being done in this area- its a fascinating topic from a scientific and culinary standpoint. Most people don't realize the amount of hard science that goes into making even simple white table sugar, let alone that which goes into the Maillard and caramelization reactions.
    – Dennis, Life Fermented Blog

  • November 19, 2013 at 12:28 AM

    Matthew, welcome!

    I too am a Canuck, and I agree that it can be difficult to find pickling lime – it is not approved for industrial food use here, so its rare to see it. A few options for you:
    1) You can order food-grade lye from some on-line sources. You need less of this than pickling lime – indeed, this is what I use.
    2) High-grade calcium hydroxide (the formal name for pickling lime) can be purchased from some chemical supply shops, such as bioshop Canada. It is pure enough for food use, and I believe they will sell to non-university sources.
    3) Slacking lime (again, another name for the same thing) can be found in most farming supply stores. Generally in large quantities (25kg). Some aquariumists use this for controlling water pH.
    4) Some US stores will ship to Canada – check ebay,, etc.

    As for epsom salts I have not tried it, but I am doubtful that it would work. We're trying to put pH upto 10 or 11; MgSO4 is essentially neutral.

    Hope that helps!


  • November 18, 2013 at 7:27 PM

    I am in Canada where food-grade slaked lime (ie. pickling lime) is hard to come by due to some home picklers adding too much to a batch of pickles, over adjusting the pickle brine ph from acidic to neutral, and giving themselves a nasty case of botulism.

    Has anybody tried this with epsom salts (ie. magnesium sulfate) in place of the lime to increase the alkalinity of the sugar solution???

  • September 13, 2013 at 5:15 PM

    pH is very important to the process, and your lack of colour production may very well have been due to too low a pH. Depending on the mineral profile of your water, it may take more lime than Ryan/I needed to get the desired pH. One thing that may help is using distilled water, in order to keep the mineral content down. I am fortunate enough to live in a city with fairly soft water, so I didn't need to worry about that.

    My understanding with the lime (you used pickling lime, I assume – not the fruit) is because it is calcium hydroxide (rather than a sodium compound like baking soda) it is *less* likely to cause minerally off-flavours. So you're probably safe to add more to your sugar. That said, I used lye (sodium hydroxide) and had no minerally off-flavours; in fact, next time I'm thinking about using more, to get the colour reactions going faster.

    As for measuring the pH, that is not easy. I've read of a few bloggers dissolving samples of sugar in water, and then measuring that – you'd have to be pretty accurate to get a consistent read of the pH so I'm not too sure how you'd implement that during a cook.

    I cannot offer more advice than that – I have only attempted this twice, and while I got a good product the second time, my process still needs some more work. My plan is to try a few more test batches, until I get it right. My first attempt will probably find its way into my next bitter or dry stout; the second attempt is dark/flavourful enough that I think I'll keep it for a Belgian ale.

  • September 13, 2013 at 4:45 PM

    Thank you. I recently tried this with mixed results –

    Mine was taking just an incredibly long time to develop color even with my lime addition. I was trying to avoid too much lime as Ryan was cautioning about the medicinal flavor I might get.

    I appreciate you listing times and temperatures. The next time I do this I'm going to be much more controlled and scientific. Do you think there is a good why to measure the pH of the sugar?


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