Nailing the color of your beer can be tricky. Sometimes the recipe just doesn’t turn out as expected. Today, I’m brewing an Irish Red Ale and along the way, I’ll discuss different ways to easily color-adjust your home brew to ensure you nail that perfect color and know how to course-correct next time you’re in a bind.
I’m Trent Musho, and this is The Bru Sho. Let’s color-adjust our beer.
Beer can come in many colors, from light straw to midnight black and everywhere in between. And while in many cases the color of your beer doesn’t really matter, the way your beer looks does impart some impressions of the beer before you even drink it. And if you have a vision or style you’re trying to nail, then hitting the right color is a big deal.
Beer color is typically identified by SRM, or Standard Reference Method, which assigns a number for the color or wavelength of light that passes through the beer. In the lab, this can be pretty scientific, but for us home brewers, there are these handy charts that can help us make a judgment call on the SRM when we hold it up to light.
There’s also the EBC, or European Brewing Convention, which measures in a similar manner, but for the sake of this video, we’ll stick to SRM.
Something like a pale lager has an SRM of 2, while a style can have an SRM of 35 or higher. But since St. Patrick’s Day is here, I wanted to brew up an Irish Red, which typically has an SRM around 9 to 18.
Depending on how intense you want the red to be, too low and it will look more like a copper gold, too high and it will look dark and stout-like. So the question is, how exactly do you get to the right zone? That was the quest I was on, and there were a few speed bumps along the way.
So, let’s jump into the recipe and I’ll talk a bit about what inspired this experiment. For this Irish Red, I’ll be making a 5.5-gallon batch. So I started by heating 7 gallons of water up and planned a mash at 154 degrees.
To the water, I added in some salt adjustments as I normally would to improve the flavor. Here’s the water profile I was aiming for.
Then I added the grains. Huge shout out to Northern Brewer for supplying all the brew day ingredients used in this video. If you’re looking for a wide variety of ingredients and supplies, be sure to check them out.
The grain bill consisted of 78% Maris Otter, a strong base malt perfect for a UK-inspired beer. 10% Red X, the first ingredient that will aid in our journey towards red beer, but more on that in a minute. And 10% Rye Malt for an added punch of bready maltiness to really beef up the flavor of this brew.
Now, if you’re keeping track, that’s only about 98% of the grain bill. This was my near fatal mistake on brew day, I forgot a crucial component that gives red ales their distinctive color- some sort of roasted malt.
I initially planned to add 2% of roasted barley, which at this low amount doesn’t add much black color, but it adds a slight red hue. If you’ve ever brewed a lighter style and held it up to light, you can see that it does have a slight redness to it.
The Red X does add some level of red color, but not as much as you’d expect. Several of my fellow YouTubers have brewed with 100% Red X before, and while it does produce a red ale at 100, they stated that it’s not the best tasting beer. So I didn’t want to overdo it.
After mashing for about 45 minutes, I took a sample and realized, ‘Whoa, we’re way off on color.’ I continued on to the boil and began to brainstorm some ideas on how I could get to the right SRM range.
The first idea that came to mind was to cold steep the missing roasted barley grains.
Roasted grains are really used for their color contribution, although technically they also add some roasted flavor. So, by cold steeping the crushed grains for 30 minutes to an hour, you can extract an intense black wart without the harsh burnt flavors.
While I let the grain steep, I added in the one and only hop addition, one ounce of challenger for a 30-minute boil. This should give me about 21 IBUs. Challenger is a great multi-purpose UK hop that, to me, brings a spice and slight floral note to the beer.
For an Irish red ale, you really don’t want anything too in your face. Malt flavor is the cornerstone of this beer. Towards the end of the boil, I decided to add in the cold steep black wart in the hopes it would drastically change the color. Unfortunately, I wasn’t seeing the results I was looking for.
While it did deepen the color from a pale yellow to a gold, it was by no means red, despite it being the same amount as I initially planned to use. Something about cold steeping versus the hot mash.
Steeping it didn’t pull the same level of color, so for the time being, I just moved on and took the original gravity reading. I got 1.050 and here, you can really see the color is not right. Then, I chilled the wort down, added it into a fermenter, and then added the yeast WLP004 Irish Ale yeast.
Of course, I did end up making a starter just to ensure we got off to a great start. I let it ferment at 67°F for one week while I planned my next steps to get this beer ready.
After some research, I was reminded of a nifty ingredient called Caramunich.
Caramunich is basically condensed black beer. They use a vacuum to condense the beer for a thick, rich color contribution. And since it’s a finished beer product, there are no fermentable sugars in it, it just adds color. So, really, you could add Caramunich at any stage if you need a boost in SRM.
According to what I read, each one of these 10-milliliter syringes can change five gallons of beer by one SRM, which is nice. But keep in mind, this is not the most cost-efficient way to darken your beer. It does come with a price tag much higher than the handful of roasted grains used in the mash.
After a week in the fermenter, I took a final gravity reading and got 1.015, which means this beer is done and comes in at 4.6% ABV. We officially have beer, so I went ahead and transferred it into a keg. I wanted to see how the color looked once it cleared up a bit, just in case anything changed during fermentation.
And while it was a tad darker, it still wasn’t the red I hoped for. So, I whipped out the cinnamon and added it right into the keg. Even by just using 10 milliliters, I saw a big change.
So I decided to add more, in the end, 30 milliliters total until I finally felt like I achieved the goal of making a red ale. But before I talk about my final thoughts, let’s say I didn’t hit my color at this point. What else can I do? Well, the unpopular choice would be to add red food coloring, but that feels a bit like cheating.
Other red foods could also work if you wanted to keep it natural, such as a hibiscus tincture or even using beets in some way, which could add a strong color impact. But just be aware, those will both come with flavor additions as well. You could also keep trying to add cold-steeped roasted grains.
Just boil the wort before adding it in so you don’t add any wild bacteria or yeast, and it may start back up fermentation slightly, so just keep that in mind.
And here’s the final beer: a nice, bright red color, and quite clear as well, which really lets the color shine through. We got there eventually, even if it took some ingenuity to get there. The aroma is layered with a rich, malty flavor and a slight sweet floral note coming through, thanks to the Challenger hop.
This is extremely crushable, an easy sipper that reminds me of other classic UK styles that focus on mouth character and a balanced bitterness, which is a great break from the high-intensity IPAs that are so popular these days.
That’s really what an ale like this should be focused on, but the fact that the word “red” is thrown in there is just an added challenge.
And even more so if you forget a crucial ingredient. That right there is a major lesson of the day for me: double-check that ingredient list so I don’t have to jump through hoops like this again. But hey, at least I learned something out of it, and hopefully you too got some ideas to help you course-correct next time you’re in a bind.
If you do anything else to adjust the color in your beer, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know your tricks in the comments or reach out to me on Instagram at “thebrusho” or on the discord server. Thanks so much for watching, and happy brewing!
Lead marketer, brewer, dad, and husband. Pretty much an all-round awesome guy.