Beer Lesson: How Beer Gets Its Color

October 3 2013, 12:00 PM

You've probably heard a friend say: “I can’t drink dark beer. It's too strong for me.” But does a beer's pigment have anything to do with alcohol content, or even its density? As most beer savants and home brewers already know, the answer is no. With the help of Very Nice Brewing Company's owner Jeff Green, here's a lesson on how beer gets some color:

Water: This is beer's primary ingredient, but it should be as colorless as possible. If you come across a brewer who uses water that has color, you should probably run in the other direction.

Hops: Hops have everything to do with the bitterness of a beer, and practically nothing to do with the color.

Yeast: Strains of yeast eat up sugar during fermentation, and in turn, “poop alcohol,” as Green, likes to say. But, alas, yeast have nothing to do with the beer's ultimate color.

Malt: Ding! Ding! Ding! The cooking process for malted grains is similar to roasting a coffee bean, which changes in color the longer you cook it. The same principle stands for malts: It's initial color, and how it is roasted, will end up influencing the final pigmentation of the beer. In simple terms, a caramel-colored malt is going to produce a caramel-colored beer, like a Belgian Tripel, while a black malt is going to give you a dark beer, like a German Schwarzbier.

Spectrum: Brewers often use the Standard Reference Measurement (SRM) to calculate beer pigmentation by seeing how much light can get through one centimeter of beer in a photometer (read more about it here). 

Alcohol: To be certain, the color, or roast level, of the malt has nothing to do with the amount of alcohol in the beer. The most common example of the color-to-alcohol disparity? Guinness. One of the darker beers on the market has just a 4.2 ABV.

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock