How should you describe beer colors for different SRM degrees?Oct 19, 2023
What subjective beer color descriptor should you use to describe beer of various degrees SRM or EBC?! This is a question I've been asked by Beer Scholar students many times because, understandably, if you're studying for the Certified or Advanced Cicerone exam or the BJCP judging or written exam, you want to have your descriptive language perfected.
Here's what I'm getting at - let's consider a beer of 8 SRM:
- The BJCP Style Guidelines say a beer with an SRM between 6 and 9 is "amber."
- According to the Cicerone Certification Program, German Marzen with an SRM of 8-17 is described as "gold to dark amber."
- The BJCP describes German Marzen as, "amber-orange to deep reddish-copper color; should not be golden."
- By combing through the BJCP Style Guidelines to match subjective descriptors to SRM ranges, I found the language to be inconsistent, but by charting it all out I found that 6 SRM is most often referred to as "Deep Gold" while 9 SRM is often called "Pale Amber" or "Light Amber."
And so, back to our original question...just what exactly do you call a beer that's 8 SRM?!
Well, it turns out that if you're obsessing over the exact subjective language to use here, you're missing the point - the sources do not agree for a reason. It turns out that SRM isn't a measurement of color or hue, it is the absorption of light moving through the beer as measured by a spectrophotometer...that data does not provide information on color, it's essentially telling you about the darkness level of the beer (which is why SRM & EBC work well for determining the darkness of a fruit beer, but totally fails to describe their color). Most beer ranges from what we'd call "straw" at the low end (roughly 2 SRM), to opaque black on the dark end (40+ SRM)...with gold, amber, copper, and brown somewhere in between. The color scales you'll find online simply add typical beer color descriptors to SRM numbers in a rough manner that isn't meant to describe specific beers.
Keep in mind that descriptions of hue and color are subjective within reason. Gold and copper are not the same. Unless you have a physical issue that impairs your personal ability to sense that difference, then copper being darker than gold is something we can all agree on. It's like with tasting beer, yes the aromas and flavors you get from that beer are somewhat subjective, however, if you say you're experiencing roasty coffee-like burnt flavors while tasting a typical German Pils, you are in fact incorrect and on an exam you'll lose points. Subjective descriptors are words, which have meanings that are generally agreed upon (keeping in mind, of course, that "generally agreed upon" sometimes reflects the bias of those empowered to make such determinations...for instance, I'm not too familiar with what an actual "horse blanket" smells like even though I know people use that term to describe certain concentrations of Brettanomyces produced 4-Ethylphenol in beer).
When we say descriptors are subjective, we mean subjectivity at the margins. "Copper with amber highlights" or "light brown with red highlights" or "deeply amber with ruby highlights" are all great descriptors of a beer's color (which is just one of several element of appearance) that will get you max points on your beer exam...even though they all sound slightly different. They're all similar evocative phrases that mean pretty much the same thing.
Ultimately, the BJCP Style Guidelines literally says it best on page xxi, right by the BJCP color descriptor scale:
Note that SRM is a measure of beer color density more than hue, tint, or shade. Keep this in mind when attempting to use only SRM numbers when describing beers. Within these Guidelines, beer color descriptors generally approximate this mapping to SRM values.
Do not be overly pedantic about ascribing perceived color names to SRM references, as viewing conditions often greatly influence this perception, individual perceptions vary, and hues outside of the yellow-to- brown spectrum can skew results. In the event of apparent contradictions, favor the named descriptions over the numbers.
They say it themselves - when matching up SRM numbers to subjective terms, there is no perfect consistency. Look at the beer and call it the color that it is! If you're answering questions on an exam, have an arsenal of descriptors at the ready and don't stress about whether to call something "deep amber" or "light copper," it's the same thing!
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