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Do darker beers have higher alcohol content than lighter beers?

Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a beers strength by its color. Although many people assume that darker beers have a higher alcohol content than lighter beers, the truth is that a beer’s color has nothing to do with its strength. The color of a beer depends on the type of grain it was made from, and the alcohol content is determined by the amount of grain. The sugars in the starch (grain) convert to alcohol during fermentation, and thus, the more grain added, the higher the final alcohol content will be.

Much of the misconception directly relates the color to the weight of the beer. Many people tend to believe that the darker the beers, the more are rich, heavy, and high in calories it is. These same people tend to believe that beers with a paler color also have a lighter body, lower alcohol content, and fewer calories. Although this assumption is not entirely wrong, it is also not entirely correct.

The light and dark color of a beer is due to the malt content, not the malt color. The fermentable sugar that is in most craft beer is produced by the germinated and kilned malted barely. Let’s take a second to define the malt spectrum.

  • Light roasted malts: yield straw and golden colored beers with biscuit flavors

  • Medium roasted malts: yield amber and copper colored beers with caramel and nut flavors

  • Dark roasted malts: yield brown and light black colored beers with chocolate and coffee flavors

  • Heaviest/Darkest roasted malts: yield black colored beers with burnt flavors

Most craft beer recipes, except for wheat beers are made of 75-100 percent of pale base malts. Specialty malts form around 5 to 15 percent of the beer recipe, and black or dark colored malts form only about 1 to 5 percent of the entire beer recipe. Simply put, a minute amount of dark malt is needed to produce a dark colored beer. A comparable example of this is the use of food dye. If you’re trying to make a pink cake, a few drops of pink food dye can color the whole cake; although it does not make up a significant percentage of the recipe, a little goes a long way.

This makes color deceiving. There are plenty of pale beers with full bodies and high sugar content, just as there are dark beers with light bodies and low sugar content. The answer to this concept lies in the beers ABV (alcohol by volume). All you really need to know is that sugar and calories directly correlate to alcohol content. Science simply states that the higher in alcohol content that a beer is, the more maltose is required and added to it, which then leads to a higher calorie count in the final product.

Let's go over a few examples to make this concept more clear and understandable. The Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA has a 9.0 percent ABV and has close to 300 calories in a 12 ounce glass, meanwhile, 12 ounces of Guinness is 4.2 percent and has only 120 calories.

Of course not all dark beers have fewer calories and a lower ABV than light beers, and understanding the different beer styles can be beneficial when choosing which beer to drink. For beer drinkers seeking lighter style dark beers, the lightest bodied of the darkest color styles are Black/Dark Lagers and Schwarzbiers (average ABV of 4.2-6%), and Porters and Dry Stouts (average ABV of 4-5.5%).

Where exactly this misconception began we are unsure, but a comparable situation occurs with coffee. People assume the darker the roast the more caffeinated the coffee is, which is also false. The dark roast coffee makes the color darker and the flavor darker, but the caffeine is actually strongest in blonde roasts, since roasting the beans lessens the caffeine.

Hopefully you learned something new and are inspired to try new styles of beer in the future and taste the differences for yourself. If you're interested in trying different types of beer then our Beer of the Month Club is for you! Cheers!