Homebrew Beer Too Dark? (Fixes for Extract & All-Grain Brewers)

Unless you are intentionally brewing a dark beer, there are several factors that can darken the color. The type of roast and preparation temperature influence the Maillard Reaction, which results in the color of your beer. Malts roasted at higher temperatures result in darker, maltier beers. Added moisture, as in wet roasting, further contributes to a darker result. When using an extract, liquid malt extract generally results in darker beer, as compared to dry malt extract.  

To brew a lighter beer, choose a lightly roasted malt. Make sure that fermentation is complete, then allow enough time for the yeast to settle. You may choose to implement cold-crashing or gelatin filtering to expedite the process. When using an extract, choose dry malt extract for a lighter resulting color. Keep a controlled, steady temperature throughout your brewing process. 

The color of your beer does not necessarily indicate off-flavors in the result. In some cases, oxidation or incomplete fermentation contribute to both off-color and flavor. However, your beer should retain the desired flavor profile if brewed properly, based on the malt used. 

Why is my homebrew always so dark?

There are several reasons that can cause a dark homebrew, including the malt type, roast, and boiling temperature. Before delving into the details, let’s talk about dark beer in general. 

Not all beers are light in color. Dark beers are often brewed intentionally for their full, toasty flavors.

For the history buffs:

The northern Chinese province of Henan is considered to be one of the earliest sources of dark beers. Archeologists discovered 9,000-year-old clay pots with remnants of fermented rice, honey, and fruits. Halfway across the world, dark beers were brewed in several European medieval monasteries. For instance, the Weltenburg Monastery in Kelheim, Bavaria, continues to produce dark beer since 1050.

Back to the present:

Malt is the primary component that determines the color of your beer. Simply put, the darker the malt, the darker the resulting beer. The color of malt is contingent on the temperature and duration of kilning.

Like bread in a toaster.  

The palette of dark beer varies from deep yellow-red to black-brown. Specific color tints can be measured by the Lovibond scale (L), a system developed in the late 1800s by Joseph Lovibond.

Dark colors are commonly the result of equally dark malts, which are dried at higher temperatures. The temperature at which the soaked grain is dried has a direct impact on the dark or roasted aroma of your beer. Temperatures over 100 degrees Celsius create a roasting effect, resulting in a darker malt.

The higher the temperature, the more intense the resulting (dark) beer. 

Why is extract beer too dark?

Liquid malt extract (LME) is known to result in darker beer because it is concentrated. The wort is concentrated using an evaporator and a vacuum to remove moisture, causing the resulting wort to darken. On the flip side, the brewer saves time by skipping mashing and sparging, by which the extract is created. 

Homebrews created from extract often turn out darker than you may expect. Boiling the extract activates the Maillard Reaction, causing a reaction like caramelization. This reaction plays a prominent role in darkening your wort.  

The Maillard Reaction? Let’s reference our handy Oxford Companion to Beer:

“[The] Maillard Reaction is a type of non-enzymic browning that adds color and flavor to many types of processed food, including beer. The reaction is named after the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard (1878–1936).”

Oxford Companion to Beer

More on the Maillard Reaction 

The Maillard Reaction is more likely to occur at higher temperatures, low moisture levels, and alkaline conditions, such as during kilning. Maltsters manipulate different aspects of kilning to achieve combinations of color and flavor in malt, used later by brewers. Given that moisture enhances the Maillard reaction, wet roasting results in darker, maltier brews. Dry roasting tends to yield drier, toastier flavors with less sweetness.

The Maillard Reaction can also occur in the kettle, during mash or wort boiling. The resulting melanoidins, brown nitrogenous polymers, create darker tones in your beer.  

How can all-grain beer get too dark?

The method by which malt is toasted results in an array of flavors, from lightly roasted to black malt. These malts impart their color to your finished brew.  Some brewers add additional ingredients, such as cherries or dark rock candy. These ingredients can also contribute to the color of your resulting beer. 

Brown beers generally have an EBC of 80, characterized by a copper or dark-brown color. Additives can include caramel, chocolate, raisins or currants. For example, the Newcastle Brown Ale is a good example of a relatively simple, yet flavorful brown beer. Here, the malt consists of light malts mixed with dark malts, that add dark color and aroma.

Black beers have an EBC of over 80, characterized by a brown-black color. Beers turn opaque black at around 120 EBC, such as an Imperial Stout. The flavor profile contains distinct notes of dark chocolate, coffee, or blackened bread. 

If you did not intend to brew a dark beer, it may be an issue with oxidation or equipment.

Excess oxidation can turn your beer dark and add a stale taste. You can tell by the taste if this issue is the reason for your dark beer. Oxidation can occur during transfer to the secondary fermentation vessel or during packaging. Certain beer types are more susceptible to over-oxidation, such as the New England IPA, due to higher hops and proteins.

This issue may be as simple as old equipment, specifically the brewing kettle. For instance, a kettle with “hot spots” or burnt base can burn your wort, causing it to darken. 

Can you fix a batch of dark homebrew?

Your beer may appear darker because of suspended yeast or other particles. Different strains of yeast flocculate at different rates. For instance, London Ale III remains suspended for longer, even after fermentation is complete. 

Although suspended yeast often causes a “yeasty” flavor (see my post of “yeasty” off-flavors), it may contribute to a darker color of your beer. In this case, there are a few ways to help settle the sediment and lighten your beer. You can choose to mature the beer for longer. Other methods, such as “cold crashing” or gelatin filtering can expedite the precipitation process.

But, how do you keep it from happening next time?

How to stop extract beer from getting too dark

When using LME, pour the liquid into hot water while stirring, ensuring that it dissolves evenly. LME is thick, like molasses, so it does not dissolve well in cold or lukewarm water. If small clumps remain, they can stick to the bottom of your pot and caramelize or burn, thereby darkening your brew. 

In most cases, the Maillard Reaction is responsible for the dark color of your wort, especially when using malt extract. To stay the reaction, try adding your extract in the last ten minutes of boiling. This way, you limit the time that your wort darkens.

To avoid this issue, turn off the heat when stirring in the liquid extract. Continue stirring until there are no clumps or syrupy strands.

Dry extract generally results in lighter beer than liquid extract. For this reason, some brewers choose to do a partial mash with DME before adding LME. Boiling with LME can cause the beer to darken, while DME does not.

Be sure to use fresh extract, especially when liquid. Older LME, when stored improperly, is exposed to a longer period of warmth, which stimulates darkening. Be sure to check the date of expiration on your packet before using.  

Anecdotally, boiling at maximum volume (adding as little top-off water as possible) helps to keep the resulting beer light in color.

You might have to use two kettles to facilitate a full boil, but fellow brewers say that the extra work is worth the result. 

How to stop all-grain or partial mash beer from getting too dark

The easiest way to avoid a dark beer is to choose lightly roasted malts, intended for pilsner or lager. 

If your beer is over-oxidized, there is no way to reverse the effect. Not only will your beer be dark, it will have a stale or cardboard-like flavor. Aging the beer further will only make it worse.

Check that the base of your kettle is clean, without noticeable scorching. When mashing, be sure to use a functional thermometer to keep an even, proper temperature. Too high of a temperature can darken your wort. In the same vein, boiling your wort too vigorously can cause darkening. Boiling at higher temperatures stimulates the Maillard Reaction, so try to keep a controlled, gentle boil.

Concluding thoughts on dark beer

A proper dark beer is not so easy to create. It must have a dark color and a roasted, refined aroma, without scratchy tones. If you intend to create a dark beer, you need to carefully process your raw materials, paying attention to the temperature at each step. Nowadays, it is easy to find roasted malts for any palette.

For dark beer, some malts add fruity or sweet nuances, while others add coffee tones.

Remember, the color of your beer does not necessarily impact the flavor. A light beer may look appealing to some, but if done incorrectly, may still result in off-flavors. On the contrary, dark beers are not necessarily heavy or “bready.” Some types have a pleasant, full and fruity profile. With this in mind, choose the right malt or malt extract for the desired style of beer, rather than the color.