The Many Colors of Beer
Beer comes in many colors, ranging from golden to black. While appearance may sometimes surprise with the flavor profile the beer delivers (i.e. black IPA), beer color matters. Color measurement is important because it provides both theoretical and practical information for the brewer. Every brewer keeps his records and one way of measuring beer consistency is the consistency of color.
One of the first attempts at measuring beer color was using the Degrees Lovibond (°L) scale, named after its inventor Joseph Lovibond, a British brewer who in search of a way to ensure beer quality started comparing the color of beer to a number of colored glass strips. Today, two main methods for beer color measurement exist, SRM and EBC. EBC (European Brewery Convention) is the one more often used in Europe while SRM (Standard Reference Method) is more often used in the United States.
Beer color depends mainly on the ingredients used with malt being the most important one. Malt comes in different colors. The way maltsters create malt is through the Maillard reaction which is a similar reaction to toasting bread. In this case, the barley is kilned and invigorates the Maillard reaction that, depending on the process, enables maltsters to produce various types of malt, ranging from pale to dark. Darker malts like chocolate malt, black malt or Special B, to name a few, provide beer with darker color and specific flavor and aroma profile (i.e. chocolate, coffee, caramel etc.). Even the smallest amount of darker malt can influence the beer color.
Brewing methods can also affect beer color to some degree. The longer the beer is mashed, depending on the malt bill of course, the darker the beer becomes since the grain stays longer in contact with water. Also, the longer the boil lasts, the wort color tends to get darker.
The color of beer is usually the first thing we notice. We look at it, smell it and then consume it. It is simple human nature on display. Although often taken for granted, the golden color of a fine lager or the pitch-blackness of a stout hide many secrets and above all, a lot of knowledge.