What Causes Beer Color?There’s a lot that goes into brewing a beer. Water, hops, malted grain, and yeast work together to create your favorite bottled beverage. But when it comes down to it, the only ingredient that actually the most significant effect on color is the malted grain . The chemical reactions that occur in malted barley give beer the color you see.
Without getting too technical, the two chemical reactions that most drastically affect beer color are called The Maillard Reaction and Caramelization. Any time you sear meat, toast bread or roast a marshmellow, your food gets browned in color and produces a toasted flavor. When your food or beverages browns like this, The Maillard Reaction is happening. During The Maillard Reaction, a chemical reaction occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars. In beer, The Maillard Reaction happens when you kiln malted barley, which produces chocolate malt and black patent malt. You can expect chocolate, toasted or coffee notes and a darker color from darker malts like these.
Caramelization also contributes to a beer’s color. This reaction occurs when you heat the sugar during a boil until it decomposes by itself. Longer boils means darker beer. Along with the darker colors, you can also expect caramelization to cause caramel, buttery or toffee flavors.
It only takes a small amount of darker malt to make your beer a darker color.
Does Beer Color Affect Alcohol Volume?Many people mistakenly think that a beer’s color affects its alcohol volume. But in reality, any color beer can be any ABV. In fact, Guinness Draught, which is a very dark stout, clocks in it at only 4.20% ABV. On the other side of the spectrum, very light beers can have high alcohol content. Berghoff’s Stock Ale, which is a pale amber in color, features an impressive 10% ABV. Lesson learned: Don’t judge a beer’s alcohol content by its color.
What Are The Colors of Common Beer Styles?So now that we better understand what gives beer its color, we know that the only thing the color of beer can really tell you is its style, as a result of the malt grain used, and a hint about the flavors you might taste (darker beer will taste toastier or more like coffee than lighter beers).
This chart, by Box Brew Kits, tells you the colors of common beer styles so that you can better know what to expect in flavor just by looking at beer colors. SRM (Standard Reference Method) is a measurement system that identifies the intensity of beer color. The higher the number, the darker the beer.
Chart by Box Brew Kits.