What are the ale colours?

What are the Ale Colours: The Ultimate Guide to the Best Rainbow

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A friend of mine always asks for an ale whenever it’s my turn to buy the drinks. Now, I never want to be that guy, but I need a little more direction. Do you want a pale ale, a brown ale, perhaps even a robust porter? Many people are unaware that ales come in various colours, resulting in a beautiful rainbow. However, this rainbow offers a few hours of drunken fun and a stonking headache in the morning rather than a pot of gold.

But, what are the ale colours that create this spectrum? This article not only breaks down the different ales but also explores the two main scales used for measuring their colours. Are you ready to taste the rainbow (Skittles, please don’t sue me)? 

Taste the Rainbow: What are the Ale Colours?

The rainbow of ale colours ranges widely, providing a visual delight that hints at the diversity in taste, aroma, and texture that beer enthusiasts, such as us, just ruddy love. This colour spectrum is influenced by various factors, including the type of malt used, the brewing process, and any additional ingredients. An ale’s colour can tell you a lot about its flavour before you even take the first sip. 

Pale Ale

  • Colour Range: Pale gold to amber.
  • Characteristics: These ales are often characterised by a balance of malt and hop flavours, with the lighter end of the spectrum tending to be crisper and the darker end being more malty.

Golden Ale

  • Colour range: Light gold to deep gold. 
  • Characteristics: Easy-drinking nature with a balance between mild maltiness and hop bitterness. 

Amber Ale

  • Colour Range: Amber to deep red.
  • Characteristics: These have a more pronounced malt character with caramel notes while maintaining balance with the hops.

Red Ale

  • Colour range: Deep amber to reddish copper.
  • Characteristics: Distinguished by their rich caramel malt flavour and moderate hoppy bitterness. They often have a slightly sweet malt character with hints of biscuit and can include subtle fruity notes.
What are the Ale colours: Kilkenny Cream Ale
A Glorious Red Head

Brown Ale

  • Colour Range: Light brown to dark brown.
  • Characteristics: Brown ales have a noticeable malt sweetness with chocolate, caramel, and nuts flavours. They can range from lightly hopped to well-balanced with hop bitterness.

Black Ale

  • Colour range: Deep brown to black. 
  • Characteristics: Also known as Black IPA or Cascadian Dark Ale, it combines the hoppy bite of an IPA with the dark malts of a stout or porter.

Porters & Stouts

  • Colour Range: Dark brown to black.
  • Characteristics: Porters and Stouts are known for their dark malt flavours, including chocolate, coffee, and caramel. They are darker than brown ales. 

Measuring the Colour

Before we jump into the different ale colours, let’s quickly explore how we actually classify their colours. No, it’s not as simple as holding a pint up to the light. There are two professional methods for measuring an ale’s colour. Spoiler alert: the US does things differently from the rest of the world. 

  1. The Standard Reference Method (SRM) colour scale in the US ranges from pale straw colours around 2 SRM to black at 40+ SRM. This scale helps brewers and enthusiasts discuss and classify beers based on their colour.
  2. The European Brewery Convention (EBC) colour scale is commonly used in Europe and works similarly to the SRM system. However, the scale numbers differ due to different reference points and measurement units.

I will examine these two scales in more detail, but what is their difference? The EBC and SRM scales serve similar purposes but use different numerical values. Roughly speaking, 1 SRM unit is equivalent to approximately 2 EBC units. This difference means EBC numbers will be higher than SRM for the same beer colour.

The Standard Reference Method Scale

The SRM scale is a numerical system used to specify beer’s colour. It provides a way to quantify the shade of a beer, ranging from pale straw hues to deep black. This scale is widely used in the brewing industry to ensure consistency and help consumers understand what to expect from a beer’s appearance before tasting it.

Origin and Methodology

The SRM scale was developed by the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) in the mid-20th Century. To determine the beer’s colour, the method involves passing light through 1cm of the beer and measuring the amount of light absorbed by the beer.

Scale Range

The SRM scale starts at 1, representing very pale beers, and can go up to 40 or beyond for extremely dark beers.

  • 1-3 SRM: Pale straw colour, typical of light lagers and pilsners.
  • 4-7 SRM: Gold, typical for blonde ales and lighter ales.
  • 8-14 SRM: Amber to copper, seen in amber ales and some IPAs.
  • 15-20 SRM: Deep amber to brown, characteristic of darker ales, such as some brown ales.
  • 20-30 SRM: Dark brown, often found in porters.
  • 30+ SRM: Very dark to black, typical of stouts and dark beers.
The SRM wheel
What is the SRM? Home Brewers Association

Importance in Brewing

Brewers use the SRM scale to ensure that their beers have a consistent colour from batch to batch, essential for meeting consumer expectations.

Understanding the impact of different malts and brewing processes on the SRM can help brewers design new beers and innovate within styles.

Brewers can help consumers anticipate the type of beer they’re about to enjoy by indicating the SRM value on labels or in descriptions, as colour often correlates with specific flavour profiles.

Use in the Industry

The SRM value of a beer is determined using spectrophotometry, where a light beam is passed through a beer sample, and the absorbance is measured. This measurement is then translated into the SRM scale to give a numerical value for the beer’s colour. This process allows for a standardised method to describe and compare the colour of beers within the brewing industry. 

The European Brewery Convention Colour Scale

The EBC is an important organisation and system in the brewing industry, with a significant presence in Europe. When it comes to beer and brewing, the term “European Brewery Convention” is often used to refer to the EBC colour scale, which measures the colour of beer and malt.

How the EBC Colour Scale Works

The colour is measured by passing light through a sample of beer (or wort) and calculating the absorbance of light at a specific wavelength (430 nm). The measurement is then expressed in EBC units.

The EBC scale starts at lower numbers for pale beers and increases in value for darker beers. It ranges from as low as 4 EBC units for very light beers to over 40 for dark beers like stouts and porters. The scale can go much higher for certain types of malt.

Importance in Brewing

Like the SRM, the EBC colour measurement is crucial for brewers to ensure consistency in the colour of their beers, which can affect consumer perception and satisfaction.

The EBC scale helps brewers, maltsters, and consumers communicate more effectively about the product by providing a standardised method to describe the colour of beer and malt.


Brewers use the EBC colour scale to match their beer’s desired colour profile, adjusting the malt bill and brewing process as necessary. Some breweries mention the EBC colour value on their labels or marketing materials to give consumers an idea of what to expect from the beer’s appearance.

Pale Ales: The Lighter Side

Pale ales are a versatile and popular style of beer known for their balance between malt and hops, offering a range of flavours from the more subtle and nuanced to the robust and complex. 


  • Colour: Ranges from golden to deep amber.
  • Alcohol Content: They are generally between 4% and 6% ABV (alcohol by volume), making them moderate in strength.
  • Clarity: Typically clear, though some variations like New England pale ales can be hazy.
  • Carbonation: Medium to high, contributing to their refreshing quality.

Flavour Profiles

  • Malt: Provides a solid backbone with flavours ranging from biscuity and bread-like to caramel and toasty, depending on the specific malts used.
  • Hops: The hop character can vary widely but often features floral, citrus, piney, or fruity notes. The balance between malt and hops is vital, with neither overwhelming the other.
  • Yeast: The yeast character is often subdued compared to the malt and hops; it can contribute to fruity esters or a slight spice note in some varieties.
  • Bitterness: Moderate bitterness is typical, balancing the malt sweetness rather than dominating the flavour profile.

Varieties and Examples

  • American Pale Ale (APA): This style is known for its clean, hop-forward profile, often with citrus and pine notes. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is one of the most iconic APAs, and it helped popularise the style.
  • English Pale Ale: This style tends to be more malt-forward with a more balanced hop character, featuring earthy and floral notes. Boddington’s Pub Ale is a classic representation of the style.
  • Indian Pale Ale (IPA): This beer has a wide range of hop flavours, including citrus, floral, pine, resinous, spicy, and tropical fruit. Goose IPA by Goose Island Beer Co. is hoppy and bold with a smooth flavour.
  • English Bitter: Characterised by its moderate to low alcohol content, the English Bitter is a staple of British pub cultureFuller’s London Pride is a traditional example of this style. 
  • Belgian Pale Ale: These ales often showcase a more pronounced yeast character, with fruity and sometimes spicy notes complementing the malt and hops. Orval Trappist Ale was first brewed in 1931 and owes its unparalleled taste to the water quality, hops, and yeast used.

Amber Ales: The Heart of Colour and Flavour

Amber ales are characterised by their distinctive amber to deep reddish-copper colouration, a palette derived from speciality malts. 


  • Colour: Amber ales range from light amber to deep reddish hues. This colouration is primarily achieved through the use of caramel and crystal malts.
  • Alcohol Content: Amber ales typically have an ABV ranging from 4.5% to 6.2%, making them moderate in strength.
  • Clarity: They usually have good clarity, though the depth of colour can sometimes give them a richer appearance.

Flavour Profiles

  • Malt: The malt profile is prominent, with flavours of caramel, toffee, and nuts. These malty flavours are the backbone of the beer, providing sweetness and body.
  • Hops: The hop character can vary significantly from one amber ale to another but usually leans towards floral, citrus, or piney notes. The hops are used more for balance against the malt sweetness rather than dominating the flavour.
  • Yeast: The yeast character is often in the background but can contribute subtle fruity or earthy notes, depending on the fermentation process.
  • Bitterness: Bitterness levels are generally moderate and carefully balanced with the malt to ensure neither overwhelms the other.

Examples of Amber Ales

  • American Amber Ale: This variant is known for its more pronounced hop character. American hop varieties contribute to a more citrus- or pine-oriented flavour. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale features a rich malt foundation paired with fresh hops.
  • English Amber Ale: These tend to be more malt-forward, focusing on caramel flavours and a more restrained hop bitterness. Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter), though not labelled as an “amber ale” per se, shares many characteristics with style, emphasising malt sweetness and balanced hop bitterness.

Red Ale: Crimson Connoisseur

A Red Ale is a beer with a reddish hue known for balancing caramel malt sweetness and mild to moderate hop bitterness.


  • Colour: Red Ales boast a vibrant spectrum from light amber to deep reddish-brown hues. This distinctive colouration comes from carefully selecting roasted malts and sometimes caramel or crystal malts.
  • Alcohol Content: Typically, Red Ales have an ABV range from 4.5% to 6%, placing them in the moderate strength category.
  • Clarity: These ales often exhibit brilliant clarity with their deep, rich colours, making them visually appealing.

Flavour Profiles

  • Malt: The malt in Red Ales imparts a spectrum of flavours, from sweet caramel and toffee to more complex and subtle hints of biscuit and nuts. The malt character is notably pronounced, offering a robust foundation for the beer’s profile.
  • Hops: While the hop presence in Red Ales can vary, it typically balances the malt sweetness with notes of floral, grassy, or citrus flavours, contributing to a well-rounded taste.
  • Yeast: The yeast profile tends to be more subdued in Red Ales, occasionally adding a slight fruitiness that complements the malt and hop characters without overshadowing them.
  • Bitterness: The level of bitterness in Red Ales is usually moderate, designed to balance the malt’s sweetness without becoming the dominant flavour component.

Examples of Red Ales

  • American Red Ale: Known for a bolder hop character, American Red Ales often feature hops that bring forward piney or grapefruit notes, creating a more pronounced bitterness that complements the caramel malt flavours. Red Rocket Ale is a full-bodied and hoppy brew that finishes on the palate with sweet, caramel malt flavours.
  • Irish Red Ale: Irish red ales are characterised by their smooth, easy-drinking nature. They focus on the malt profile, with less emphasis on hop bitterness. They offer a gentle toastiness and slight caramel sweetness. Kilkenny Cream Ale is a classic example, with its deep red hue and rich, creamy head that delivers a distinctively smooth and flavourful taste.
Kilkenny Cream Ale
Kilkenny Cream Ale

Brown Ales: The Rich Hues

Brown ales are known for their rich amber to brown colouration, encompassing various flavours from sweet and malty to more balanced profiles.


  • Colour: Brown ales have a broad spectrum ranging from light amber-brown to dark brown, almost bordering on black for some varieties. The specific colour often hints at the malt profile to expect, with darker versions typically presenting more roasted flavours.
  • Alcohol content: Brown Ales typically have an ABV range of 4% to 6%, depending on the specific style and brewer.
  • Clarity: Brown Ales usually have moderate to clear clarity. However, some versions, especially those with more traditional or craft brewing methods, may exhibit a slight haziness due to unfiltered ingredients.

Flavour Profiles

  • Malt: The malt character is the star in brown ales, delivering flavours of caramel, biscuit, nut, and sometimes chocolate or coffee, particularly in darker versions. The richness and depth of the malt flavours are often the beer’s defining characteristics.
  • Hops: Hop bitterness and flavour in brown ales are generally subdued, balancing the malt sweetness rather than dominating the profile. However, some American-style versions might feature a more pronounced hop character with floral, citrus, or pine notes.
  • Yeast: Depending on the fermentation process and the yeast strain used, brown ales can also exhibit fruity esters or a slight spiciness, adding complexity to the beer’s flavour profile.

Examples of Brown Ales

  • English Brown Ale: Typically divided into two sub-styles: Northern English Brown Ale, which is drier and more subdued in malt sweetness, and Southern English Brown Ale, which is sweeter and often has a richer body. Newcastle Brown Ale (Newkie Brown) is one of the most iconic Northern English Brown Ale examples.
  • American Brown Ale: These ales tend to have a bolder hop profile than their English counterparts, with a more pronounced bitterness and the use of American hop varieties that can impart citrus or pine flavours. Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown is well-hopped and malty simultaneously (it’s magical!). 
  • Belgian Brown Ale: While not as commonly categorised within the brown ale family, certain Belgian dark ales share characteristics with brown ales, including rich malt flavours and a complex yeast profile that can add fruity or spicy notes. Leffe Bruin/Brown, a Belgian Abbey Ale, perfectly balances a discreetly bitter yet slightly caramelised taste. 

Black Ale: Agent of Darkness

A Black Ale is a dark beer with a colour ranging from deep brown to black, characterised by flavours derived from roasted malts. 


  • Colour: Black Ales feature an intense, dark colouration that ranges from deep brown to pitch black, akin to a stout or porter. This rich colour comes from heavily roasted malts and often black malt.
  • Alcohol Content: The ABV for Black Ales can vary widely, typically ranging from 5% to 7%, though some variants, like Black IPAs, may have higher ABVs.
  • Clarity: Despite their dark colour, Black Ales can have good clarity, though this is often obscured by their opacity. They may show hints of ruby or deep mahogany when held to light.

Flavour Profiles

  • Malt: The malt profile is robust, with dark chocolate and coffee flavours and sometimes a smoky or burnt character. These dark malts provide a rich complexity that defines the style.
  • Hops: In Black Ales, especially those leaning towards the Black IPA sub-style, hops play a significant role, imparting a moderate to high bitterness. Hop flavours can range from piney and resinous to citrus and floral, contrasting the dark malt flavours.
  • Yeast: Yeast characteristics are generally more neutral in Black Ales, allowing the interplay between malt and hop to take centre stage. However, some variants may exhibit slight fruity esters that add to the complexity.
  • Bitterness: Bitterness levels are typically moderate to high, particularly in Black IPA variants, balancing the sweetness and roasted qualities of the malts.

Examples of Black Ales

  • Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale: This sub-style combines the hop intensity of an IPA with the dark, roasted malt flavours of a stout or porter. Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Black IPA showcases a harmony of dark malt richness and bold hop bitterness.
  • Traditional Black Ale: Less common than the Black IPA, traditional Black Ales focus more on the dark malt character without the pronounced hop bitterness. They may offer a smoother, malt-forward profile with subtle hop notes in the background.

Porters and Stouts: The Dark Side

Stouts and Porters are celebrated for their deep, intense colours and rich, complex flavour profiles. 


  • Colour: Porters typically have a dark brown to nearly black colour. The depth of colour comes from using dark malts and roasted barley.
  • Flavour Profile: The flavour of porters is predominantly malty, often with notes of chocolate, caramel, and coffee. Depending on the specific recipe, they can also carry hints of toffee, biscuits, and dark fruits like cherries or plums. The bitterness level can vary, usually balancing the malt sweetness without overwhelming it.
  • Iconic Examples: Fuller’s London Porter is dark, rich, and creamy and is regularly voted the number one Porter by various award panels.


  • Colour: Stouts are famous for their pitch-black colour, achieved through heavily roasted malts and barley. They’re often so dark that light cannot penetrate even the thinnest glass of beer.
  • Flavour Profile: Stouts generally present flavours of roasted coffee, dark chocolate, and burnt caramel, with variations adding layers of complexity like sweetness, bitterness, and even smokiness. The range within stouts is vast, from dry and bitter Irish stouts to sweet and full-bodied milk stouts.
  • Iconic Example: Guinness Draught is perhaps the most iconic stout worldwide, known for its dry finish and roasted character.
Beamish vs Guinness vs Murphy's
The Great Irish Giant that’s Guinness

The Impact of Ingredients on Colour

The colour of ales, and beers in general, is significantly influenced by the ingredients used in the brewing process, with malts and adjuncts playing pivotal roles. Understanding how these components affect beer colour helps craft a wide spectrum of styles, from the palest ales to the darkest stouts. 


Malts are the backbone of beer colouration. The type, variety, and treatment of malt profoundly impact the beer’s final colour.

Base malts are lightly kilned and form most of the grain bill in most beers. They provide a pale colour, contributing to light straw to golden hues in the final product. Examples include Pilsner malt and Pale malt.

Caramel/Crystal Malts are stewed before kilning, which caramelises the sugars inside the grain. They can range from light to dark and add colours from gold to amber and deep red. The darker the caramel malt, the richer the colour, and the more it contributes to the sweetness and body of the beer.

Roasted Malts are kilned at high temperatures to achieve a dark colour. They contribute deep brown to black hues and impart flavours ranging from chocolate to coffee. Examples include Chocolate malt, Black malt, and Roasted Barley. These malts are predominantly used in stouts and porters.


Adjuncts are ingredients other than the traditional water, malt, hops, and yeast used in brewing. They can influence the colour, flavour, and mouthfeel of the beer.

Adjunct grains like corn and rice are typically used to lighten the body and colour of the beer, often used in light lagers. However, darker grains like rye can add a reddish hue and complexity to the beer.

Dark sugars, such as molasses or dark Belgian candi sugar, can deepen the colour of the beer and add unique flavours. Lighter sugars contribute less to the colour but can increase alcohol content and lighten the body.

Fruits, vegetables, or their extracts can add distinctive colours and flavours. For example, pumpkin ales might have a deep orange hue, while beers brewed with berries can take on red to purple tones.

Other adjuncts, such as ingredients like coffee, chocolate, or caramel, can also affect the beer’s colour, adding brown to black hues depending on the amount and type used.

The Role of the Maillard Reaction

The Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavour, also plays a significant role in malt colour development during kilning and roasting. This reaction contributes to the flavour complexity and the colour range found in malted grains and, subsequently, the beer.

Brewing Techniques That Affect Ale Colour

Brewing techniques can significantly influence the colour of ales, alongside the choice of ingredients. These techniques, applied at various stages of the brewing process, offer brewers control over their creations’ aesthetic and sensory profiles. 

Home Brewing & Beer Recipes
Your Classic Stock Photo of Brewers Brewing


The mashing process, where grains are soaked in hot water to extract sugars, plays a role in colour development. Higher temperatures and longer mashing times can lead to more Maillard reactions and a darker wort.

The proportion of dark vs. light malts in the grain bill directly impacts the colour. A higher percentage of dark, caramel, or roasted malts results in a darker ale.


Extended boil times can lead to the caramelisation of sugars in the wort, which can darken the brew. This effect is more pronounced in stronger ales where the boil is longer to concentrate flavours and sugars.

Like mashing, boiling can facilitate Maillard reactions, especially in a more concentrated wort, further darkening the beer.


The mineral content of the water used for sparging (rinsing the mashed grains) can affect the pH of the mash and the wort. A higher pH can lead to darker colours due to enhanced extraction of colour compounds from the grains.


While yeast primarily influences flavour and smell, its interaction with the types of sugars and other compounds in the wort can subtly affect the final colour of the beer. Darker ales might not significantly change, but the clarity and hue can be impacted in lighter ales.

Conditioning and Aging

Oxidation during conditioning and ageing can lead to changes in colour, usually darkening the beer. This is more noticeable in beers aged for extended periods or those exposed to oxygen due to improper handling.

Beers aged in wooden barrels can pick up colour from the wood, primarily if the barrels previously held other beverages like whiskey, wine, or sherry.

Filtration and Clarification

The methods of clarifying beer, such as filtration or fining agents, can also influence its colour perception. While not drastically changing the colour, these processes can brighten or dull the appearance, affecting the visual impression of depth and hue.

Special Techniques

Decoction Mashing is a traditional method where a portion of the mash is boiled and then returned to the main mash, which can deepen the colour of the beer. This technique is more common in certain traditional European styles.

Steeping dark grains in cold water before being added to the mash can extract colour and flavour from the grains without imparting excessive bitterness, allowing for control over the darkness of the beer.


Exploring ale’s vibrant rainbow, from pale gold Pale Ales to pitch black Stouts, reveals a tapestry of flavours shaped by malts, brewing processes, and additional ingredients. Lighter ales offer crisp, balanced tastes, while Amber and Brown Ales deepen into malt-rich, caramel, and nutty profiles. Porters and Stouts dive into robust territories of chocolate, coffee, and roasted malts. The colour is precisely measured by SRM and EBC scales, indicating the beer’s potential taste. Ingredients, from base to roasted malts, alongside brewing techniques like mashing and boiling, play pivotal roles in crafting this colour and flavour spectrum, creating beers that cater to every palate. What is your favourite ale colour? 


What Gives Amber Ale Its Sweet Flavour? 

Amber Ale’s sweet taste mainly comes from caramel and crystal malts used in brewing, which impart caramel, toffee, and nutty flavours balanced by mild hop bitterness.

Golden Ale vs Pale Ale? 

Golden Ale is lighter, often crisp, focusing on mild fruity and floral hop flavours. Pale Ale is more diverse, balancing malt and hops, leading to a broader range of flavours from citrus to pine. Both are refreshing, but Pale Ale has a slightly more robust hop character.

What Is The Most Common Ale? 

The most common ale is arguably the Pale Ale. It’s widely enjoyed for its balanced blend of malt and hops, offering a variety of flavours from bitter to fruity. Pale Ale is a foundation for many sub-styles, including the popular IPA (India Pale Ale), making it a staple in the beer world.

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