Question (via email): How do brewers get a beer to be dark and 4% alcohol but some beers are pale yellow and can be close to 10% ABV and higher? Where does the ABV come from?
Bob: This question ties in with another closely related one which asks: Why do people assume that dark beer is heavy? Isn’t that true? I’ll address both here.
In brewing there is no real connection between color and ABV (alcohol by volume). However, because stout, porter, double bock, and some other dark beers are stylistically stronger, there is a perception that all darker beers have higher ABVs and heavier flavors. It’s a misconception that is exaggerated by the fact that darker foods and drinks are often somewhat bolder. Therefore if it is darker it will taste bolder, and if it tastes bolder it must be stronger.
Taste is the most highly subjective of the human senses and is strongly influenced by both aromatic and visual cues. We are conditioned to judge what we choose to eat or drink by what it looks and smells like. This is an evolutionary survival trait shared by all of us, albeit with a healthy dose of cultural bias and conditioning. As I have been asked this question many times, my stock answer is that color has no flavor and one should not assume that just because a beer is dark that it is going to taste bitter, nasty, strong, and heavy nor should one expect the opposite of all pale beers.
The percentage of alcohol in any given beer is determined by the amount of malt used per finished barrel of beer – not the color, or roast, of the malt. Actually, the darker the roast, the less convertible starches remain in the malt. Pale malt contains the highest amount of convertible starch and thus yields the highest ABV. So pale beers can be the strongest and dark beers the weakest. Opposite of what our eyes and cultural conditioning suggest to us.
A little dark malt in the brew goes a long way in changing the color. In most dark brews, pale malt makes up the greater part of the malt bill. However, in keeping with the perception of dark being synonymous with high ABV, many brewers deliberately make their dark beers stronger. There are exceptions, of course, with draft Guinness in America being the prime example with with an ABV somewhere in the neighborhood of domestic light beer.
So, the short answer is that dark does not necessarily mean strong and heavy – “robust,” if you will, even though it often can be so. Nor are paler beers always milder with lower ABVs, although they often are.
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