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What does colour tell you about beer?

Four refreshing beers sit on a dark wooden surface: a brown ale in a pint glass, a golden ale in a pint glass, a wheat beer in a tall glass and a stout in a tulip glass

Brew hues span the spectrum from pale gold to inky black. Here’s what checking out a beer’s colour can tell you about its taste and personality

From light, straw-like gold to darker-than-night black, beer comes in a wide variety of shades. Colour one of the many creative elements brewers can influence when they’re building a new recipe.

But does colour tell you, the drinker, anything beyond the mood of the brewmaster on a given day? Yes, it does. Here are four areas where a brew’s hue may give you some insight into the liquid in your glass.

What does beer colour tell you about malt?

A beer’s colour is one major clue in figuring out the type of malted barley — often known simply as malt — the brewer used. Here what you can deduce by holding your brew up to the light.

  • Base malts make up the majority of the grains that go into a beer recipe. Pale Malt and Vienna Malt, two popular varieties, tend to yield beers that are lighter-coloured.
  • Specialty malts, such as Chocolate Malt and Black Patent Malt, are roasted for a longer time and give dark beers their distinctive, deep colours.
  • Of course, not all beers sit at the ends of the colour spectrum. The wide variety of malts between those two extremes — including Crystal Malt and Amber Malt — create everything from golden hues to rich reds.

Can a beer’s colour indicate its style?

Absolutely. You now have an educated guess on the type of malt that went into your brew based on its colour. That key ingredient also gives you a clue to the beer’s style.

  • Light, straw-coloured beers that are see-through (or nearly see-through) often use base malts, such as Pale and Vienna. These light golden brews tend to fall into the light lager and pale lager categories.
  • Dark beers generally incorporate specialty malts, which are roasted longer. They’re often used to brew stouts and porters.
  • In the middle of the spectrum, the colours span from deep golden hues to dark reds and browns, encompassing a wide range of styles. On the lighter end, you’ll find golden ales and India pale ales (IPAs); on the darker end, amber ales, brown ales and Belgian-style ales.
  • Another category is hazy beer, which can be nearly impossible to see through — in some cases, you might even think someone just poured you a glass of orange juice! If you have one of these golden to orange brews in your glass, then you’re about to sip a New England–style IPA or pale ale.

Does a brew’s colour give you hints about its flavour?

It can definitely help. With the type of malt and style narrowed down, you can start connecting the dots between a beer’s hue and its flavour profile.

  • A light yellow brew, which is likely a light lager or pale lager, will have some sweetness and a touch of grassy and bready notes. Of course, some varieties of lager don’t follow this pattern — pilsners, for example, offer up more bitterness.
  • Dark beers, including stouts and porters, generally feature notes of chocolate, coffee and caramel, which are imparted by specialty malts.
  • There’s quite a bit of variation in the middle. Amber and brown ales can be refreshing but a little sweeter; many give off toffee aromas and have more pronounced yeasty or bready flavours. Belgian-style beers run the gamut, from funky sours to rich ales with date-like sweetness.
  • Hazy beers can take on notes of stone fruit — think peaches and mangoes — as well as citrus and passion fruit. Their taste profile is often described as “juicy.”

Does colour give you a sense of mouth feel or texture?

Yep, it helps with this as well. With a good handle on style, you can also use your brew’s colour to predict its mouth feel or texture.

  • Expect high carbonation and a crisp finish from those light golden lagers. That fizzy hit means that these anytime beers pair well with nearly any sort of food.
  • Dark beers have much more variety in mouth feel. Most stouts are incredibly smooth and airy, especially if nitrogen is used to create a creamy head on top. Porters, on the other hand, tend to be a little more bubbly, while dark lagers are extra-effervescent and light-bodied.
  • Golden ales lean a little more toward a crisp, light, lager-like mouth feel, while amber and brown ales are fuller-bodied and rounded on your palate.
  • Hazy beers have what some pros call a “pillowy” texture. Expect a very smooth, soft mouth feel from these brews.

Trust your taste buds

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. West coast IPAs span the colour spectrum, and white stouts do exist (although they are a rarity!). Malts definitely contribute to a beer’s colour, but how the brewer integrates the hops and yeast dictates the outcome with regard to style, flavour and mouth feel.

Bottom line: It’s always best to observe with your eyes, take in the aroma, come up with an educated guess and then take a sip to see if you’re right. The fun, after all, is in tasting for yourself.

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