Why Won't My Sugar Water Ferment?

Fermenting Sugar Water With YeastI typically make really high octane wine. I mean I like to make wines that are just short of whiskey. (Because not allowed to distill). But, when trying a new one I ran into a interesting problem. This particular one mostly water and sugar (trying for more of a vodka style) but it doesn’t seem to want to ferment at all. Never had one not ferment at all before. Go bad yes but not at all…. even tried a different yeast in case I killed the first one but still nothing?
Name: Jerry
State: MO
Hello Jerry,
Fermenting sugar water is something that will not work, straight up. This is for a couple of reasons:

  • The wine yeast needs nutrients
  • The wine yeast needs acidity (lower pH)

Both of these things are normally supplied naturally by the fruit in a wine recipe.
It is possible to substitute these items artificially for fermenting sugar water, but not in the well-rounded, holistic way that the yeast expect. The yeast will struggle along slowly with its fermentation under a lot of stress. The result will be an alcohol beverage that has many repulsive, off-flavors — nothing pleasant to drink.
The reason for this is that as the yeast struggle they put off a lot of nasty tasting enzymes. The enzymes is their effort of trying to break down and consume any nutrients that may be in the wine must. For this reason I would suggest that you abandon the idea of fermenting sugar water.
So that you don’t waste the sugar water you currently have, you can use it in other fruit wine recipes. If you know how much sugar is represented in each gallon of water, you should be able to calculate its use in other recipes you have successfully done before.
If after reading this you still feel like fermenting sugar water, then here is what I would suggest:

Even after doing all these things, you still have the issue of low acidity. You could add Acid Blend to the wine must to remedy this, but this would make the final product weirdly tart.
However, if you do all these other things you will have, at minimum, some marginal success at fermenting sugar water, but do not expect it to taste clean, with no off-flavors, and do not expect the fermentation to be able to complete all the way.
Best Wishes,
Ed Kraus
Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.

0 thoughts on “Why Won't My Sugar Water Ferment?

  1. Hi, Just read your reply to Jerry from MO about his sugar water not taking off or starting. I was surprised at your answer to him because it was almost the same as what I did on my own. I used pure spring water and doubled dosed the must with yeast nutrient but I also but a dose of tannin in it. After eight days I doubled dosed it again with yeast nutrient as it just started to slow down a little. The tannin discolored it a little to a light purple- garish look. but it fermented out just fine to 16% ABV. After three racking’s it is clearing out nicely and it does taste more like whiskey than wine, but the flavor is more flat tasting than bad tasting. So I use it with a mixer, ( like cranberry juice) in a glass, but I only use 1/3 mixer to my 2/3 spring water wine. And it taste like cranberry wine with high octane. Any way it has a kick and I liked it. Just thought you might like my input on this one? You guys have been great, thanks for being here. JR

  2. “Fermenting sugar water is something that will not work, straight up.”
    To bad reality disagrees with you.
    I’ve done it with just sugar, water, and baker’s yeast. If I had to drink it or Budweiser, I’d pass on the Budweiser.

  3. Wont work? What a joke. Stop cutting and pasting your info. Theres 4 gallons of sugar water happily fermenting under my kitchen sink. Yep, super market bakers yeast, tap water, and sugar. Nothing else at all. This time I didnt even sterilize anything. Sugar water happily fermenting away so what did you mean “sugar water wont ferment”,
    Op might have some dead yeast.

    • So after how many days can you get drunk off of it? I’ve had mine going for only 2 days now. Is it too soon?

      • Id recommend waiting atleast 4 days. If I were you I would freeze distill it as it will not be pleasant having to drink such a quantity to get a buzz.

  4. You can distill in MO, but it’s illegal in the US: In Missouri, for example, a person 21 or over may produce up to 100 gallons of spirits per year for personal consumption without a permit.
    But federal law trumps state law, and to the feds, distilling at home for personal consumption is illegal, period.
    PS: This was cut and pasted.

  5. kilju is a Finnish beverage made with just water, sugar and yeast. Some add fruit or juice during fermentation but, this is not required.

  6. I have successfully brewed with various juices, and just for giggles tried making kilju, thinking I could add koolaid mix for some interesting flavors. Here are my experiences:
    first attempt:
    1 Gal. Britta filtered water
    1 tsp yeast nutrient
    5 1/2 cups sugar
    1 pack Red Star Classique wine yeast
    starting specific gravity 1.1
    after 1 week specific gravity was only 1.08 (2.6% abv)
    thought I did something wrong so I scrapped the batch and tried again
    second attempt:
    same ingredients except up’d nutrient to 1 1/2 tsp.
    after 1 week specific gravity was only 1.07
    added another pack of same yeast and left another week then tested gravity; was 1.05 (6.5%ABV)
    I dislike using bakers yeast to make wine because it tastes like someone dunked a sourdough pretzel in a glass of red wine and ate it, so I refuse to use it.
    would rather not add tannin as someone here suggested as I do not want a whiskey taste (mainly because whiskey tastes like vomit to me. I have no idea how people drink that stuff.)
    I suspect after 2 attempts that the lack of acid blend and not enough nutrient is the problem.
    plan to attempt again using 3-4 tsp nutrient, 2 tsp acid blend and possibly 1 tsp pectin enzyme
    will try to remember to post an update

  7. My five gallon batch of sugar water fermented completely but it is still as syrupy as it was when it started. I used a good starter and hit if with a couple doses of yeast nutrient. That is all. It on!y took about two weeks to get the eleven percent abv. Could racking and time cut the thickness or is it an infection? Thanks.

    • Henry, the only thing that we can think of for it to still be thick is that it did not ferment all the way. Was the specific gravity reading .998 or less? If not, it did not finish fermentation. When all of the sugar is gone, the consistency would be thinner than water. If it is not finished, you can try adding 1/4 teaspoon of epsom salt to help it complete.