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The Color of Beer and Why It Confuses People

From The Iron Horse Brewery Blog

The Color of Beer and Why It Confuses People


And now…back to the rants. This week: The light beer/dark beer conundrum.

Here is a statement commonly overheard by me at bars/beer festivals:

“I don’t really like dark beer.”

Oh, the ignorance (think overly dramatic acting). The fact is that color and flavor don’t necessarily go together hand in hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are exclusive either. I could gather a large quantity of beers that, when tasted blind, would fool the many people that seem to think there are only two styles of beer, light and dark. It takes an incredibly small amount of dark malts to turn a beer a very dark brown and those same small amounts would yield very little in the roasted, astringent character that I assume is what light (in color, not some low cal garbage) beer drinkers despise in “dark” beers. The other reason people might not like “dark” beers is the association with “heaviness” or an increase in flavor. Both of these reasons will hopefully be disproved during the course of this rant. Maltsters have even developed roasted products and extracts that lend only color and very little flavor. One could very well “dye” a beer black with no flavor impact.


Beers primarily get their color from the malt (or lack of malt) that they are produced with. Before we begin, I will write a quick blurb about the measurement of color in beer. There are basically 3 methods to quantify the color of beer: comparison, spectrophotometer, and CIE-L*A*b*. The comparator method is the most simple and basically involves comparing beers to color standards. The resultant number is in degrees Lovibond. The spectrophotometer is a much more scientific method and involves reading a sample for absorption at 430 nm (Don’t fall asleep yet, it’s almost over, kidding, it’s not). This measurement, after a series of calculations, yields SRM, which is closely identified with Lovibond but takes the human error out. Both of these are relatively one dimensional (you can have two beers withthe same SRM but look totally different). The final method is a complicated affair that is designed to have results closer to what the human eye sees and has numbers for color, brightness, and intensity.

The reason I bored you with this is because I am going to use these measures a lot in the following conversation how beer gets its color.

Malt color, like beer, is measured in SRM or Lovibond (L). However, there are many types of malt that have very different flavors but the same SRM (starting to get the idea?).

For example, kiln amber malt has a SRM of 15-20 and lends a biscuit/bready character while Crystal 15 (yes that is 15 SRM) has a light caramel sweetness.

Same color, different flavors.

As stated above, dark (400-500 SRM) malts can be used in varying quantities to affect flavor with burnt, coffee, and chocolate flavors or be used in small quantities to give a beer deep ruby red to black coloring with little to no impact on flavor.

Okay, because I am a running out of energy, I will make a rough transition to a conclusion.

Beer color can range from an impossibly light yellow to jet black and everything in between.

Color and flavor don’t necessarily go hand in hand, so I’ll fall back to my standard advice:

Try it, if you like it drink more of it.

The key to that statement is “try it”. Don’t short yourself on what could become a new favorite just because it has more or less color than you’re used to.

Dividing all beers into light and dark is like saying all orange food tastes the same.

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One Comment

Tyler Sharp
May 23, 2013 2:26 pm

Had this happen a few weeks ago. Love Irish Death to pieces, and a cadre of beer aficionados could have told me that I was missing out on your lighter toned beers while I continued to buy your dark nectar ten times out of ten. Had a sampler with my girlfriend and we rediscovered your light rail ale. Had all the flavor and smoothness we were looking for.

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