|(see also "The Brewing Palette Part 1")
The topic of beer color comes up every time we help someone put a recipe together, or refine a recipe. Many of you will identify with the the experience of having had us ask the question, "What color would you like the beer to be?". Some of you may also identify with having said to us in response, "Oh, the color isn't that important to me.". To which we would respond, "But it is.", and following a brief question and answer session regarding the attributes you like in a beer, we then write your customized recipe and off you go... a little beer color wiser but perhaps still not totally clear on the issue.
We would be a bit presumptuous to think we could adequately explain all of the inter-relationships between beer color, flavor, and aroma. What we can do is give you the basic tools of facts and foreknowledge that will make your hands on experiences more educational... more filling in of gaps rather than laying the foundation. You will be able to see how and why color predicts flavor, but that sometimes a color can be achieved a number of different ways and each way will yield a somewhat different flavor. We are going to provide you with one of the most powerful secrets in decoding beer, and then stand back and watch while your collective beer brewing heads expand with creative possibilities until you fear they are going to explode. Well, maybe just a couple of exploding heads and the rest just drunk with new found knowledge and power. Please put down the glass. We said drunk with knowledge and power! Let's go on.
We believe one reason people sometimes think beer color doesn't matter is related to a common marketing technique by large breweries. Some produce "wannabe" and "microfake" beers that have color other than golden but don't taste like much more. That is simply because the megabreweries producing them are trying to exploit the opportunity that is a consumer who wants to try "microbrews", but may not know the difference between a real micro and a color enhanced microfake. After all, it looks like the real micro and it even costs a little less. So if "Joe" consumer isn't very familiar with real micros, he may think the fake is the same or as good as the real one. Further, if the megabrewery does a good job of marketing and advertising the microfake, "Joe" is likely to begin to fancy himself to be pretty darned beer savvy, and maybe even become brand loyal.
For some "Joes" the contentment only lasts until he tries more beers and learns that color in some other beers means more flavor. These days, it isn't so likely the megabrewery is solely trying to trick "Joe", but rather that they are producing what might be called a "transition" beer... a bridge between fizzy yellow generic beer and fuller flavored micro style beer. They know that some people will experiment beyond and find the world of true micros, and that others will either not experiment or will find true micros too intense and return to the microfake.
So... the more colorful but mildly flavored beer may have actually served a noble purpose, that being to entice "Joe" to try other than yellow beers and maybe even begin home brewing. The problem is that he may now be confused about the general importance of beer color in predicting real beer flavor. "Joe" may even home brew casually for years and not come to the understanding that color should at least generally indicate something of the beer's flavor attributes.
Having now considered at least one theory on perception of color's importance, let's look at factors or ingredients that can impact color. We'll start briefly with negative conditions and reactions that take place during beer preparation that can impact beer color, and then move on to the main consideration... desirable ingredient and reaction impacts.
Avoidable and unavoidable negative reactions can take place in the malt and beer preparation process. Falling pretty solidly into the avoidable category are Oxidation Reactions. Introducing too much oxygen into the beer during cooking or in the handling stage for bottling can easily cause not only a darkening, but also a stale flavor. A real world example of this darkening due to oxidation is the way a cut apple darkens when exposed to air for a short time. Heat exacerbates this problem and therefore stirring our beer too vigorously while boiling will actually contribute to darkening and oxidation. Another reaction that takes place in the cooking cycle is Caramelization. While caramelization requires temperatures higher than boiling to occur, we must realize that the surface of our brewing kettle is in fact very very hot, and that the beer directly in contact with the kettle bottom is unavoidably caramelizing. What is avoidable though is excessive caramelization, avoidable simply by stirring very frequently to distribute heat energy throughout the beer. ("Hey, wait a minute now... don't stir, but stir... how's a brewer to win???") Well, yes we are between a rock and a hard place on that one and the best practice is to stir frequently with a gentle sweeping action at the bottom of the kettle, causing minimal oxygen introduction while gaining maximum heat distribution. We can then accept the unavoidable slight caramelization while avoiding negative darkening and flavor impacts of excessive caramelization and oxidation.
Positive, controllable, intentional color and flavor impact for the purpose of creating a beer's "style" is achieved via the use of grains that have been kilned (or roasted or toasted) in a literally infinite variety of possible combinations of temperature, time, and moisture conditions. The resultant flavor and color qualities in the grains (and the beer) are the product of changes in the grain that collectively are called "Browning Reactions". The beer science geeks tell us these reactions themselves (the actual physical color changes) are not responsible for flavor changes... but that other changes (chemical and physical reactions) taking place at the same time are. Therefore, any brewer who employs the use of grains in their beer making is taking advantage of flavor and aromatic impacts of these Browning Reactions. Those influences are responsible for every major impact and minor nuance of the difference between a pilsner and a pale ale, or a brown ale, or a stout, or a ???,... except for the contribution of hops and yeasts.
The details of why browning reactions make for flavor changes is certainly important, but definitely beyond the scope of this article as well as the author's expertise. We will just accept that browning reactions are responsible for the various colors and flavors in the specialty grains we commonly use. If we look at these specialty grains we find two distinctly different groups. There are those called "Crystal" or "Cara" grains, and then there are "All Of The Others". We'll discuss these groups individually.
Crystal and Cara (standing for "caramel") malt grains are seperate from all of the others because of the level of moisture in them and temperatures at which they are kilned. Higher moisture allows sugars to form within them, and then those sugars caramelize in a controlled fashion creating specific color densities, color qualities, and caramelized sugar flavors... thus the designation of "Cara" or caramel grains. The term "Crystal" comes from the fact that as the grains are cooled after preparation, the sugars that were formed and caramelized harden and literally crystalize. So, sugar formation is achieved by controlling moisture and temperature, while the level of caramelization is controlled by kilning time and temperature once the sugars have formed.
Most of you have probably noticed a numerical designation assigned to each of the varieties of crystal grains. These numbers, followed by the letter "L" give an indication of how darkly kilned or caramelized the sugars in the grains are. The "L" stands for Lovibond, which is simply the name of the color scale against which the grain color density is measured and referenced. While the numerical designation gives us an indication of color "quantity", ie., 40L being twice as dark as 20L, it does not indicate specific color "qualities" such as whether it is deep coppery red tone or more of a light brownish amber tone. So while we could use 2 pounds of Crystal 20L in a recipe and 1 pound of Crystal 40L in another and have a finished beer of the same darkness, our perception of the colors would likely be that they are different. And since the processing techniques for one "L" level of crystal versus another "L" level favor one color tone more than another, we can use a particular tonal color quality as a probable indication of a specific "Lovibond" Crystal Grain use. An example of this could be a Pale Ale that has an amber/golden color (probably using Crystal 40L or 60L) compared to a Pale Ale having a coppery/golden color (probably using a smaller quantity of something more like a Crystal 90L), but each still being equally color deep. Are you starting to get the idea why color is so important??? The flavors and colors of these different Crystals are different, and the color quantity and quality is indicating a flavor.
All of the others in the "all of the others" category have not been grouped like that because they are less important but rather because unlike the Cara/Crystal grains, none of them have been prepared in a way to specifically create sugars that caramelize. Instead, their common ground is that coloration of these grains is due mostly to the Browning Effect on starches within them. In fact it could be argued most of the grains in this group are more color important, or at least that smaller quantities of them are more color influential. With the exception of a few lightly toasted grains in this group like "Munich" and "Victory", the remainder are all moderately to very darkly roasted, such as "Special B", "Chocolate", "Black", and "Roasted Barley". These dark grains carry Lovibond ratings as high as 550 to 600 and therefore have a very significant coloring impact, even when used in small quantities. Their variation in flavor and aromatic impact could be likened to the differences in burnt qualities of different coffee roast styles. Each has specific and critical importance in creating particular dark beer styles, and in combination they can be used to create flavor complexity. Rather than spend a lot of time here discussing styles and their predominant influential dark grain (and get far off of the subject path), we'll refer you to a prior newsletter article referenced herein entitled "The Brewing Palette (part one)...".
Reference to a specific dark grain's Lovibond rating is less frequently a point of concern compared to the Cara/Crystal grains. Though there can be some variation from manufacturer to manufacturer they are generally similar and are not being produced to give us a variety within any one type. Their Lovibond rating is important though if we are trying to design a recipe and estimate its color depth. Also of interest (as in the Cara/Crystals) is each dark grain's subjective color qualitites. Due again to moisture content, kilning temperature, and time, these grains have had created within them, and impart, anything ranging from reddish brown/black to greyish brown/black tones. Their flavors are qualities like burnt nut toffee, and bitter chocolate, and sharp espresso coffee, and smokey burnt roast.
Dark grains are used in many more beer styles than you might initially imagine. The potential complexity of dark roast grain use is due in fact to its color intensity, and it is that which causes more color/flavor confusion than anything else in beer recipe design. With so much color packed into every little grain package, using even relatively small quantities of these grains can have large color impacts. They are the tools that would allow you to make what we referred to earlier as a "microfake". A recipe for a bland golden "megabeer" with a just a touch of one of these dark roasted grains added would become something that looks like one thing (a micro) but tastes like another. Obviously this makes a "microfake" a very cheap beer to produce. (Another one of Megabrew's dirty little secrets.) If we took one of Mega's bland golden recipes and added a reasonable amount of Crystal type grains and a little bit of dark roasted grains, we would make a "transition" beer like the popular Irish red and amber Bock styles. We even use grains the same way at home when we are trying to improve the aesthetics of a beer without making the flavor heavier or stronger.
The complexity of beer color and flavor relationships is not one most will master without reasonable experience. With a bit of knowledge and insight though, any brewer can grasp the concepts of identifying grain flavor and color qualities. Understanding that measured color ratings are provided us for the purpose of giving us tools to use in building our beer is a major step forward. With that in our arsenal we can attack the more subjective nature of grain qualities with a hope of manipulating them in such a way as to create the beer we have in our minds.
The next time you are about to say "the color isn't that important to me", stop and think how monumentally untrue that statement is. Now let's get to work and build a beer.