What the Colour of Craft Beer Tells You

As the autumn leaves changed colour all around me this fall, I was reminded that the same golden, reddish, and darker shades of brown that can be found on trees at that time of year also tend to appear regularly in my refrigerator.

In fact, consciously or not, many of us craft beer lovers tend to categorize our favourite not so much by type (lager, stout, etc.) but by the way they catch our eyes when being poured into a glass.

take your first sip of beer with your eyes

This might not be logical, but colour preference is natural.

As someone who makes a living in the design industry, I know firsthand that visual impressions are important… just as they can be misleading. That’s why I want to use today’s post to examine the subtleties in craft beer colour, where they come from, and how they affect our experience with a particular bottle.

By the way, if you’re interested in the precise science at work here, you can check out the industry-standard guide for different beer colours here.
beer colours

Where Beer Colour Comes From

There are a few different factors that can affect the colour of beer. The biggest has to do with the concentration of malt within a batch. As the brew is heated, malt is oxidized, giving off a brownish tint. The temperature and duration of the heating can go a long way towards determining the final shade of yellow, red, or brown.

Of course, because the aesthetics of craft brewing matter almost as much as taste, it shouldn’t be a surprise that brewers look for a certain shade. This can be a matter of personal preference, market expectation, or even seasonal variety. For example, a beer with chocolatey overtones might be expected to have a darker profile, while another brew with citrus notes would usually be much brighter.

Toward that end, some brewers may apply artificial colouring to a batch. The obvious example here can be found in the green beer many people drink around St. Patrick’s Day, but colour alterations are often more subtle and natural.

Darker Beer is Not Necessarily Heavier

As a rule of thumb, lighter beers tend to be crisp and less-filling, while darker beers are thought of as being rich, heavy, and featuring both higher calorie counts and per-volume alcohol contents. The craft beer lovers should remember that these profiles aren’t written in stone (more on this in a second). But, they can be good guidelines when trying and evaluating new beers, or pairing a craft beer with a specific type of dish.

Most craft beer fans will already know the broad differences between Pilsner’s, lagers, and darker brews. What’s interesting, however, is that our minds tend to make these associations without much conscious effort. That can lead to false assumptions that don’t necessarily hold up.

To understand why, we have to understand that darker beer is not necessarily heavier than light beer. For a deeper look at why, check out this article by a craft brewer that goes deeper into the myth of dark, heavy beer, along with a better look at the molten oxidation process. What Ashley explains is that our eyes and experiences can sometimes play tricks on us – just because a beer is dark doesn’t mean it has to taste or feel that way.

Generally speaking, darker beers are going to have a stronger, more distinct profile. But, to judge a beer by its colour is to miss the chance to fully appreciate the subtleties of a good brew.

You Take the First Sip With Your Eyes

One thing that often gets overlooked when enjoying a fine craft beer is that the first sip you take is with your eyes. That is, you see the beer and anticipate its flavour before you have ever actually tasted it. In fact, it would be fair to say that your tongue actually gets the third chance to experience it, since sight and smell come first… but that’s a different subject for a different day.

The reason this matters so much is because it influences our expectations. If we anticipate a dark, bitter brew that’s going to pair well with a slice of chocolate cake, how do we react when we get something light and springy in return? Are we disappointed, or delightfully surprised?

The answer can depend on a lot of different things, of course, but there perhaps two things to appreciate and consider. The first is that it’s a good idea to ask questions, read labels, and generally be curious about the beers you want to try. Not only will you learn some interesting things along the way, but you’ll also have an easier time choosing which bottles are pints to sample.

The second is that we should never judge a beer just by its colour. All beers are beautiful, and we can gain some insight into their taste from looking at them. But, the shade of gold, red, or brown you see might not tell you the whole story.

Maybe that’s for the best. Sampling craft beers – like anything in life – is a lot more fun when you don’t always know what’s coming at you next!

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