This week I am very excited to talk about color, concentration, and hue. Particularly what causes them, where they come from, and what they mean in relation to your food and beverages.
The science of color has come up recently in social media, in particular reference to a very confusing dress, as well as recent studies on the visualization of the color blue versus the color green. Both of these references bring up very good questions regarding how we see and recognize color, as well as how it causes certain foods or beverages to take on their respective tones and shades.
Color is a property possessed by a subject which causes a reaction in the human eye based on the reflection and emission of light. Complex as the concept has shown to be, human children learn to categorize colors as one of our first measurable skills, despite the fact that studies have shown not all colors appear the same way to all people. The physical specifications and categories of color are defined by how they interact with cone cells in the retina, as well as where the material being defined falls on the emission spectra, reflection, and light absorption scales. All colors fall within the visible light spectrum of electromagnetic radiation waves.
There are three primary colors recognized in the science world: red, green, and blue. These colors are recognized as primary, because they are the colors that our receptor cones recognize. The colors that we see and identify are based on the amount of each color receptor activated. All other colors exist as a blend of electromagnetic information received from the three primary color receptors. This process also allows for the presences of hues, like a red wine with blue hues or yellow apple with green hues.
Four pigments are responsible for the colors of our foods: chlorophylls, carotenoids, flavonoids, and betalains. Chlorophylls are responsible for the green colors found in leafy, green vegetables. Carotenoids provide a red, yellow, or pink tone to vegetables, fruits, and some animals, like shrimp. Flavonoids are comprised of the greatest variety of compounds, and are also responsible for the wide variety of colors found in our fruits and vegetables. They are thought to have many health benefits and are the motivation for “eating the rainbow” as well as linked to the potential health benefits of red wine. The final group, betalains, are responsible for red to violet and yellow to orange hues found in flowers and fungi.
Concentration, in relation to food and beverages, refers to the intensity of the color, or the density of the pigmentation. Scientifically, this is usually caused by a specific compound in the product which is known to present as a certain color, like flavonoids in red wine. A concentrated color does not correlate to a concentrated flavor or concentrated health benefits, or anything of the sort; however, depending on the compound causing the color, it can be a benefit.
In wine, you have two broad classifications of color: white wine and red wine. These two categories are broken down in to multiple categories of their own. White wine is classified as: straw, yellow, gold, or amber/brown. Red wine is classified as purple, ruby red, garnet, orange, or brown. Personally, I find these classifications to be very limiting. Even in the known wine world there are also roses, orange wine, and vinho verde whose name, meaning green wine, implies both a green color and the greenness of under ripe grapes. Obviously, once we step away from wine and into the food world, the option for color descriptors increases exponentially, but I find that when I am trying to describe the color of a wine by the WSET guidelines I often feel restrained. (Perhaps that is because I am a writer)
Both Hue and Concentration are limited in descriptors, but in their case it makes more sense. Hue is categorized by silver, green, orange, and blue, while concentration is categorized by pale, medium, and deep. Personally I can’t think of any other descriptors that would truly work for these categories like I can for color; even in the food world. Concentration can also be effected by the processing of the product. With wine, vinegar, and beer any oak contact can have a hand in deepening the concentration of the color, both at bottling and down the line, because the oak contributes coloring agents to the product.
It’s amazing to me how intensely all of the WSET qualifiers work together to define what we see, and inform us of the world around us. It is certainly hard to ascertain how a food or beverage will taste just by looking at it, but I do find it interesting that, of all the sight qualifiers, I find color is the one able to provide the most insight into what I am about to ingest. Before I continue I issue this caveat, color isn’t everything. In my line of work, I have heard plenty of people refuse to taste a wine because “pink (or white) wine is always sweet,” or “red wine is always bitter,” but I have tasted plenty of dry, herbaceous whites and plenty of sweet, fruity red wines in my lifetime to know this isn’t a fact.
With food we know that an apple should appear bright, and have a continuous, highly concentrated color, but color and hue can also help us distinguish between varietals. If you were looking for a Red Delicious apple, you would avoid anything with a yellow or green color, and would seek out the red apples who appear to have a blue hue. In order to determine ripeness, you would check to make sure that apples did not have any brown or green spots as this would mean they were either rotten or under ripe.
In beer, as opposed to wine, colorization can tell you a lot about the flavor of the product. If the color is a clear, light yellow, you can infer that the beer will probably be light bodied with either a bright hoppiness or perhaps more along the lines of a kolsh, which is citrusy and refreshing. If it is darker in concentration but still yellow you can infer that it will be closer to an IPA, which tends to have a higher intensity of yellow coloring because of the amount of hops used to make the product. If the coloring is red, you can assume it will be a red ale, however that won’t tell you a whole lot about the flavor because they vary so much stylistically. A medium brown beer might be an English style brown, perhaps with hints of nuttiness or hops. Finally, dark beers, especially those that look thick and brown with a fair amount of clean white foam on top, can usually be inferred to be heavier, creamier, and maltier; at least up front.
My final tip, for those who have any older wines at home, refers to the age of a wine, which we will talk more about next week. Occasionally, the color and hue of a wine can give you hints as to the quality or freshness of a wine. If the wine is bright, and has a blue, silver or green hue, and colors that lean towards the beginning of the list, generally the wine will still be young or at least not past its peak. If the wine is dull or hazy, brown in color or orange in hue. This can mean that the wine has reached or past its peak. I do always recommend to still taste the wine, however. In some situation a wine can appear to be aged, either because of skin contact or oak fermentation, and be perfectly ready to drink. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on a treat!
I hope this information was informative and helpful! As always comment below with any questions or feedback!
Later this week I will show you some examples of colors in foods and describe how those differences either do or do not extend to their flavor! (Hint: things may get spicy!)