Use our Color Convertor Calculator to quickly convert between the three color systems used to describe the color of a beer – SRM (Standard Reference Method), Degrees Lovibond, and EBC (European Beer Color).
Anybody who is familiar with beer will know it comes in a wide range of colors, almost as many as there are colors themselves.
Although the color of the beer may give you a clue to the beer flavor itself and maybe even the strength, it’s not always true that you can tell what beer is going to taste like just by looking at the color.
Many beer geeks will often say a lighter beer will have a lower ABV but an exception to this misconception is the Belgian beer Dubbel with its pale golden color but a double-digit ABV. Likewise, a dark beer may not be initially as strong as you might expect (think of an English bitter!)
If you are more of a casual beer drinker you may think all paler beers are soft while darker beers will be more intense.
The only true way you will know what a beer tastes like is to actually sample the beer and decide what flavors it contains, and whether they are to your liking or not.
Why Does Color in Beer Matter So Much?
The colors in a beer can tell you a lot about the beer recipe and the grains which have been used and the brewing process in the beer production.
Additionally, if you are brewing for competition, judges will expect certain beer styles to have a certain color range.
How is beer color measured? That’s the tricky part with three different scales used, each assigning colors their own measurement.
Hopefully, our calculator and this brief article can help you determine what color your beer is, in addition to looking at what affects the coloration of beer and how you can tell what color your finished beer will be.
The Measurement Methods of Colors In Beer
Depending on what region people live in, the color method used to calculate grain and/or beer color can be different.
The three methods used to measure color for beer are SRM (Standard Reference Method), Lovibond, and EBC (European Brewery Convention or European Beer Color).
While EBC and SRM usually refer to the color concentrations in beer worts, Lovibond is more commonly used nowadays to describe the grain color values.
Unfortunately, even here in the US, different brewing suppliers can use a mish-mash of the three methods, especially when talking about grain color or beer recipes that have been imported from across the pond.
So which should you trust? Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, but whichever you choose, try to stick with it throughout your homebrewed beer production (if brewing for American beer competitions the BJCP judges will nearly always use the SRM method!).
The oldest method of measuring the color of beer and/or grains, the Lovibond system was created in 1883 by J.W. Lovibond and used colored slides that were compared to the beer color to determine an approximate value.
The main problem with the Lovibond method was how subjective it was and prone to various interpretations by different people. This was primarily down to three reasons:
- Not all people see colors the same way. Remember the last time you insisted a certain object was turquoise while others may have argued it was blue or green.
- The light which was used to compare the color to the colored slide may not always be identical for everyone.
- The glass container used to contain the wort for measurement depending on its size and the thickness of the glass may also modify the color.
Although standardized containers are now used and the light conditions tend to be standard too, it is still down to the human eye to make the final decision.
By the mid-20th century light spectrometer technology was developed which meant an automatic system of detecting color could be devised without the need for the subjective nature of the human eye.
Although the Standard Reference Method is used more commonly to measure the color of a beer today, the Lovibond method was later modified to a 52-series Lovibond scale which is the common color measurement used for malt.
So you will still see Lovibond used to describe the color of a finished product, even if it refers more to the malt.
Standard Reference Method (SRM)
Developed by the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) in the 1950s, SRM uses a light spectrophotometer to measure the SRM color of a beer through a 1/2″ glass cuvette with a light wavelength of 430nm.
The SRM color is approximately 10 times the absorbance of light, which is measured by a logarithmic scale. Developed to give more accurate results than the Lovibond method, at paler colors the results are virtually the same.
But, as a liquid gets darker, the light from a UV spectrometer cannot pass through as easily and results can be significantly different.
For example, if a malt is at 4 Lovibond degrees, it will be 4.66 SRM but a malt that is darker at 160ºLovibond will have an SRM of 216 – quite a difference!
The simple formula for working out the difference between SRM and Lovibond degrees is:
European Brewing Convention (EBC)
At about the same time the US developed the SRM method, the Europeans also devised another visual system known as the EBC.
Although it originally used visual comparison similar to the Lovibond method, 25 years later it changed to using a spectrophotometer but in a slightly different way to the SRM.
Prior to 1990, the EBC values were measured with a light wavelength of 530 nm rather than the 430 nm of the SRM, and were results were not directly comparable.
The Europeans may now use the same light wavelength of the SRM but a smaller cuvette is used of 1 cm for a smaller wort sample of just 10 mm. In practical terms, this means the EBC color is approximately 1.97 times the SRM color.
If you don’t have a spectrophotometer handy in your personal arsenal of brewing tools, there are other options available.
Beer reference color cards or a Flavor Color wheel are available which can help you recognize the color of beers, although I always recommend buying one from your local store or a reputable online retailer rather than printing one from the net – not all color printers print the same colors.
You can even find stickers that you can put on a small jar of beer to directly compare the color, or another method recommended by Ray Daniels in his chapter on beer color from his book Designing Great Beers is to dilute your beer with distilled water before comparing it with the known color standards for mass-produced commercial beers.
Although Ray’s book is a great purchase for any dedicated brewer, for my money a color card or wheel is much easier to use.
Let Our Calculator Do the Maths for You!
Estimating Beer Color for Your Beer Recipe
Although some beer recipe software like BeerSmith will automatically estimate the color of your recipe as you build it, it’s always good to know what’s going on under the hood, especially when formulating your own favorite brew.
The most simple way of estimating the color of a beer involves calculating the Malt Color Units of a brew.
For recipes that use multiple grain additions you simply work out the MCU for each grain and add them together for an SRM estimate.
MCU will provide a fairly decent estimate of the SRM of lighter color beers but as soon as the color exceeds 6 – 8 SRM will diverge as light absorbance is logarithmic and not linear.
For a more accurate estimate that will hold up for beers up to 50 SRM the Morey equation is used.
The Moray equation works for beers from 1 to 50 SRM and is the one generally used by most brewers today.
Defining Color with SRM Scale
Now we know how we get those numbers, what exactly do they mean?
Beers at 2 – 5 on the SRM scale are considered to be pale or gold and can include styles such as Pilsners and light lagers. Beer that falls in the 7 – 15 range is generally considered to be amber and includes styles such as Oktoberfest, American Ambers, and English Pale Ale.
At 16 – 25, the beer takes on a copper or brown color with styles such as the IPA, a Bock from Germany, or English Brown Ales. Above an SRM of 25, we are moving towards shades of dark brown and black topping out at about 40.
Although the SRM scale can often go as high as the 70s and 80s, over 40 and the beer will be effectively black and opaque as found in the heaviest roasted beers like an Imperial Stout.
The Limitations of Beer Color and Estimates
No matter which beer color system you choose to use, you have to recognize all of their very real limitations.
Visual methods such as Lovibond or color flavor wheels rely heavily on the human perception of color. I’m not sure about you, but my eyesight isn’t what it used to be!
The SRM color system and the other spectrophotometer-using method, the EBC, only measure the absorbance of light using a single wavelength and cannot always tell the difference between similarly colored red beers and an amber beer, for example.
The subtle difference in hue of red and brown may look the same at a wavelength of 430 nm.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to specify the precise color of a beer using a simple beer color or beer darkness number such as the EBC or SRM.
Subtle variations in the red, brown, gold, and straw colors can’t always be captured in a single-dimension color measurement system. Irish Red Ale is the best example I can think of, with the estimate for an Irish red on a color card not looking too red at all.
But the addition of a tiny amount of roasted barley will bring a distinctive red hue color to beer which the SRM fails to capture.
Extract brewers also need to be wary that liquid extracts, especially, will get darker as they age, and extracts will also darken as they boil in the process called caramelization.
The net result of the boiling and aging effect on extracts is that many of these beers come out with a significantly darker color than estimates would have suggested.
Factors That Contribute to Beer Color
This means one simple thing: the older the beer gets, the more its color will change. As the beer stays longer in storage, additives floating in the beer begin to settle—additives like yeast fall to the storage container base.
This will, in turn, cause the beer to be more resistant to light reflections and look darker. Therefore, regardless of other factors, age will always be a factor in the coloration of dark beers.
On the molecular level, beers should all be the same color. You’re surprised, right? We were too.
All beers share the same color: red.
But we all know that most beers are either brown or gold. So what gives?
Color differences mean something. There is something crucial that takes place at the molecular level to change beer coloration.
The main influencer is the color of the grain used in making the beer. Grains are colored by melanin, which produces a rust-red coloration. Changing the color of the beer from this rust-red color requires specific chemical processes.
Chemistry of Beer Color
To change the color of beer, you need two types of chemical reactions. They are caramelization reactions and Maillard reactions.
Caramelization is the result of heating sugar to the point that it breaks apart. As you may know, grain in the field does not contain sugar. Thus, the conversion of grain starch to sugar is an initial requirement. This conversion is done through heat.
As starch-to-sugar conversion occurs, the temperature rises. The rise in temperature in turn releases more sugar from the starch.
What you have after this process is caramel flavor. Some will call it ‘burnt sugar.’ It is important to know that the longer the caramelization process, the darker the beer color.
Meanwhile, when you process amino acids with sugars, you get something different. When you process these two through intense heat, you get Maillard reactions.
In return, the heat will result in different aromas and tastes. This process also helps with darkening the beer color.
There is a famous grain browning process similar to toasting white bread. The heat from the toasting machine darkens the bread. The longer the bread stays in the heat of the toaster, the darker it gets. It is the same for beers too. The longer the grain is heated, the darker the beer.
The toasty flavor in beer is mainly a result of Maillard reactions. Maillard reactions convert amino acids to sugars. This taste becomes the most prominent flavor in beer, but an experienced brewer will find it easy to taste a host of other flavors in a beer.
Two factors play a very pivotal part in this process. These factors are temperature and time. Altering the intensity or longevity of any process can have a significant effect on the beer color. It can affect the aroma too.
What a Beer Color Can Tell You About a Beer
When you look at a beer, you somehow can tell, to some extent, how it will taste. Beer colors help you guess the taste of a beer, but it does not determine it.
You can guess that a beer with a lighter color will taste like lightly toasted bread. It could taste like new baked bread or biscuits.
When the beer is a bit darker, you can guess that it tastes like toffees. The correct guesses will be similar to cocoa flavor and the like, should it have a dark color.
These are mere guesses because the color of a beer is pretty easy to alter. A small addition of any substance could change the beer’s appearance instantly. This might be a contrast to what it tastes like.
Thus, color can be deceptive. Flavor wheels try to make assumptions, but grain is the dominant factor for flavor.
It is safe to say that it is a misconception that color predicts beer flavor. Do not judge a beer flavor by its color.
On a Final Note
We have delved into the factors that influence beer color while establishing that color does not determine flavor.
Yet, you won’t be wrong to feel that lighter-colored beers have grainy tastes. In contrast, darker ones may have more coffee flavors.
You now have an exhaustive look into what makes your brew look the way it does. Go grab yourself a bottle! You’ve earned it.