Caramel sugar – an ingredient with potential

Malztrunk mit unterschiedlichen Anteilen an Karamellzucker – von leicht fuchsfarben bis kastanienrot

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, sales figures for malt beers – which are technically called malt drinks or malt beverages – have risen steadily. Prof. Jean Titze, Luisa Schubotz, Jannis Böhlke and Johannes Jeske from the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences in Köthen say this is a good reason to explore the characteristics of this drink and its special ingredient, caramel sugar.

Caramel sugar as a natural substitute for caramel colors and aromas

A 2021 representative survey showed that 6.1 million Germans consume malt drinks at least once a month. Since 2018, the proportion of people consuming malt drinks daily has risen by 44.4%. Meanwhile, the non-alcoholic soft drink has long since shed its image as a beer for children or pregnant women. Moreover, it’s very popular among recreational athletes as a quick energy source.

Malt drink classification and positioning

In the soft-drinks sector, two trends are currently unavoidable: Manufacturing with 100% natural ingredients where possible, and without alcohol. Considering this context, malt drinks offer quite a lot of potential, as they fit into both trends.

alkoholfreie Getränke Malzbasis
Classification of non-alcoholic malt-based beverages

Malt can be creatively processed into various products and recipes. Therefore, malt beverages can be positioned in just as many ways. Among the beverages manufactured from malt, malt drinks regularly focus on the pure malt aroma. But make sure to note here whether or not there is generally any residual alcohol in the product.

These malt concepts enable individual positioning that reach specific target groups. Although flavored malt beverages approximate traditional soft drinks (standard CSD), malt drinks share characteristics with beer. Malt beer contains protein, minerals and carbohydrates. All of these are important sources of energy for the brain, nerves and muscles, especially for sporty and mentally active people. When compared to their high nutritional values, malt drinks have relatively few calories. Furthermore, at around 44 large calories (184 kJ) per 100 ml, they even have fewer than fruit juice or milk. With these characteristics as an ideal, natural energy source, as well as their dark color, malt drinks can be easily positioned towards the premium market.

alkoholfreie Getränke Malzbasis
Positioning within the category of non-alcoholic malt-based beverages

Independent food ingredient

This dark, malty or sweet tasting liquid is frequently added to sugar. And this is one reason why the non-alcoholic soft drink can’t officially be declared beer. Nonetheless, the colloquial term “malt beer” has caught on. Moreover, the color is often intensified by adding caramel coloring. However, caramel sugar is a food additive, and it must be declared according to the chemicals used, listed by its additive class (colorant).

Eigenschaften Karamellzucker
Sensory characteristics of caramel sugar

Clean label with caramel sugar

Yet many desire to avoid adding these colorants, and thus remain within the clean label trend so that consumers perceive the product as more natural. In that case, caramel sugar is recommended as an alternative to caramel color. Manufacturing caramel sugar is simple: For centuries, caramel has been made by heating up sugar, mostly saccharose, without moisture in home kitchens. Sugar’s melting point is 125 °C, while the caramelization starts at 150 °C. At this stage, the carbohydrates combine into different polymers, ketones and aldehydes. These are responsible for the taste, aroma and color of caramel. Caramel must have its usual taste. But aside from the taste, caramel offers numerous additional sensory advantages.

Caramel sugar classification

No enzymes are involved in the browning reaction of caramelization. This is referred to as non-enzymatic browning, and it doesn’t constitute a Maillard reaction. For example, instead of being extracted from sugar, caramel sugar is manufactured via the physical process of heating. Therefore, caramel also doesn’t fall under the category of plant-based color extract or coloring foodstuff.

However, a distinction should be made between the term caramel and the aforementioned caramel colors. The caramel colors are only used for the brown/black color, and so they lack the sweet caramel taste. Within the European Union, this distinction is made by the “Decision Tree” from the European Technical Caramel Association. They clarify that caramel is to be used in food for reasons of taste. If this condition is met, then caramel sugar is classified not as a colorant, but as an independent foodstuff.

Caramel sugar in testing

At the teaching and research brewery of the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, different caramel sugar syrup usages were tested in a series of trials focusing on both the physical-chemical stability and the sensory characteristics of prepared malt drinks. Four different caramel sugar syrups were used in the trials, all of which came from Felix Koch Offenbach GmbH, a specialist in the development and manufacture of specific caramel products.

Non-alcoholic beverage

Malt beverages are essentially unfermented or partially-fermented full-bodied beers with less than 0.5% alcohol by volume. Because little-to-no fermentation occurs, the alcohol levels are typically well below this limit. Nonetheless, it must be said that alcohol serves to enhance the flavor. The fermentation process must be interrupted neither too early nor too late. As with non-alcoholic beer, it improves the overall sensory impression of the malt beverage without physiologically affecting the consumer. Furthermore, when nearly everyone today can publish their opinions and personal comments via public forums like YouTube, it seems appropriate to back up this statement with a reputable source: “Maximum blood alcohol concentration after forced consumption of non-alcoholic beer,” Rechtmedizin, 22, 2012. Thierauf et al. demonstrated in a clinical study that even the forced consumption (1.5 l/h) of alcohol-free beer with alcohol content between 0.41% and 0.42% by volume doesn’t lead to a relevant blood alcohol concentration in humans. Even for novice drivers subject to a strict ban on alcohol according to section 24c of the German Road Traffic Act, no negative legal consequences are expected. The forensic doctors saw no reason to consider a psychophysical effect of alcohol after consuming alcohol-free beer.


The caramel sugar is generally manufactured without chemical additives. Therefore, the sugar structure is increasingly affected during the heating process. As a result, the protein and acid stability decreases as the caramelized substances increase. This then requires stability tests to check whether turbidity or sedimentation will occur in malt drinks. To test the stability, malt beers were prepared using two manufacturing methods, whereby the caramel sugar syrup was admitted to still water both before and after filtering/stabilization.

A deliberately high caramel sugar dosage (around 8-9%) was selected to test how colloidals affect the stability.

The beer color was determined by using a color comparator. Due to the high syrup dosages, the malt drink’s color value was measured at up to 260 EBC. Then, the stability was analyzed according to the MEBAK method (forcing tests at 0 °C/40 °C).

Turbidity curves depending on the warm days after the MEBAK forcing test (0 °C/40 °C), with the details in brackets indicating the production method: admixture of water/syrup before (1.1) and after (2.1/2.2) filtering/stabilizing, with dosage of the caramel syrup after filtration, the turbidity values are generally higher; *due to altitude, turbidity values for sample 77/085-12 (2.1) are plotted on the secondary axis

Stable turbidity qualities

Initially, it was found that the malt drinks in which the caramel syrup was dosed only after filtration/stabilization had comparatively high turbidity values. Darker samples, and samples with more concentrated caramel sugar syrups, also displayed significantly higher turbidity values. Red light (650 nm) causes fluorescence in dark malt drinks, or those with more concentrated caramel sugar syrups, which comes from the caramelized substances within. If these samples are stimulated during the turbidity measurement according to the EBC guidelines at 650 nm ± 30 nm, then they emit fluorescent light, which greatly increases the turbidity results. Regardless of the measured value levels, the mostly flat turbidity curves show extremely stable turbidity properties within the forced aging period for the addition of syrup both before and after filtering/stabilizing. Yet despite turbidity values above 2 EBC, no opalescence was observed in any of the samples examined, even after the forcing test ended.

Sensors and color

Caramel sugar is manufactured in a slow caramelization process. At the same time that the sugar begins breaking down from the heat, the flavoring and coloring ingredients are created. As the heating process progresses, the ratio shifts towards coloring substances. This means that the typical caramel impression changes from sweet to tart-flavored as the color increases.

Tasting results of the fresh and aged sample according to the DLG 5-point scheme

In the style of commercial recipes, glucose syrup was utilized for sensory assessment, in addition to 0.8% caramel sugar syrup. To assess the impressions of the malt beers and their various ingredients, the fresh samples were rated verbally, and both fresh and aged samples were assessed according to the DLG 5 point scheme. The figure displays the results of trained DLG tasters for both the fresh and aged samples. The good ratings of 4.4 and 4.6 for the fresh products correspond to the verbal tasting results. In these, the smell and taste were described as pure, pleasantly malty and quite harmonious with a fine caramel note. The low difference between the overall impression of the fresh and the aged malt drink also indicates good taste stability.

Appearance was rated as light fox-red, bright and without sediment. Depending on the caramel syrup concentration, the shades of red in the malt drink can be adjusted from slightly fox-colored to chestnut red.


Thanks to its sensory versatility, caramel sugar is an ideal ingredient, particularly as a substitute for caramel color or aromas in malt beverages. The test described above demonstrates just how much potential there is in utilizing caramel sugar.

Would you like to find out about current trends on the beverage market and exchange professional information? Then we invite you to take part in the next drinktec, which will be held in Munich September 12-16, 2022.

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