By now, most of us realize there is far more to beer than simply swigging your brand of choice from a can or bottle without much consideration for what goes into it and, by implication, what comes out in the finished product.
The national and local explosion of craft beer has caused many people to pay closer attention to aromas, flavors and even the color of the beer in the glass. Beer drinking, like wine drinking, is a sensory experience and most fully enjoyed when you can smell, taste and see what you are imbibing.
A beer’s color is a fascinating and occasionally misunderstood topic. Some think all beer is pale yellow and clear with a foamy white head. While this describes one ubiquitously popular beer style, it certainly doesn’t describe the vast majority of beers throughout the world. And judging a beer solely by its color can be quite deceptive.
A Belgian-style Tripel, for example, can be quite pale in color and appear in the glass almost like that light, crisp lager. The eight-plus percent alcohol level and full body of the Belgian, however, will quickly disavow you of that light lager notion. Likewise, a German-style Schwarzbier (black beer) looks like it would be thick and heavy, but it's actually a relatively low-alcohol lager that drinks much like its pale counterpart, despite the black color.
Beer color gives you clues about a beer’s style. It plays a significant part in the aroma and flavor profile, but it is not always so black and white when you consider what gives beer its many hues.
So, what makes one beer look so different from another? The depths of this topic can’t be fully plumbed in our limited space, but suffice to say that it is all about the backbone of beer – malted barley.
When a maltster kilns malted barley for beer brewing, the “browning” of the malt causes something known as the Maillard reaction. Basically, amino acids react with a certain type of sugar and cause the browning effect you see in everything -- from breakfast toast to your dinner roast. If that sounds like a lot of science for a beer column, it probably is; so, a rule of thumb is that lightly kilned malts produce beers with pale color and a cleaner flavor profile. Think Pilsener or Blonde Ale. Heavily kilned malts produce darker beers with roasted or even burnt characteristics. Think Porter or stout.
The beer industry measures the color that malt contributes to beer in something called degrees lovibond. If you’re one to read beer labels, particularly in craft beers, you’ll often see ingredients such as Crystal 60 or Chocolate 350, which denote the degrees lovibond of the malts used in brewing your beer.
Another influence on beer’s color is a process called caramelization. This process happens during the boil, when sugars are literally broken down, and color, along with additional flavors, is imparted. This technique is most often employed in beers with a sweeter, maltier flavor profile like Bock, Barleywine, Scotch Ale and Old Ale. Caramelization, as the name implies, also adds a significant amount of flavor to these big-bodied beers.
When evaluating the color of a finished beer, a scale known as SRM (Standard Reference Measurement) is used. Technically, this measurement is determined by the use of an instrument that measures a certain wavelength of light as it passes through beer, but, again, there’s a simpler way to understand the scale by using a visual reference chart showing beer color in a spectrum from lightest to darkest with each color attributed a number corresponding to its approximate SRM. A Belgian Witbier (white beer), for example, is typically 2-4 SRM, while a dry stout can range anywhere from 25-40 SRM. There are literally dozens and dozens of beer in between, as well.
If you are interested in the wide world of beer colors, a fun suggestion is trying a flight of beers from a local craft brewery, such as Big Muddy Brewing, Scratch Brewing Company or St. Nicholas Brewing Company. You’ll get a small pour of a number of beers, side-by-side, and the brewery can help you determine their lightest and darkest beers on tap, and everything in between. This way, you can evaluate for yourself just how color influences aroma and flavor.