National Museum of American History - Colorimeter
The many shades of beer are achieved by the brewer’s use of different amounts and varieties of malt in the brewing process. Pale lager, Pilsener, amber ale, bock, porter, stout, and imperial stout are just some of the different types of beer that can be distinguished by both taste and color. Standardizing the color of beer was one way brewers in the late 19th century sought to ensure the quality of their products and the colorimeter, keyed to the Lovibond scale, was an instrument that helped them achieve that goal.
This colorimeter was used for comparing the color of beer samples to a standard range of colors for malt beverages. Its scallop-edged, metal wheel houses sixteen tinted panes of glass, ranging from very pale amber to dark brown. A clear pane of glass is positioned in the center of the wheel, beneath which protrudes a small metal shelf. The wheel is mounted to an iron rod that ends in a three-legged stand, providing stability to the top-heavy instrument. The instrument is 28” high, indicating it was used on top of a table or work surface. It would have been used with a light as well, to ensure the correct match between the sample and the various tinted panes.
The brewmaster would place a sample of beer in a clear glass container on the instrument’s shelf. By turning the wheel, the operator would match the color of the sample with one of the tinted panes of glass. Each of the colors in the wheel represents a standard measurement called “Degrees Lovibond” or “˚L,” a scale developed by Joseph Williams Lovibond, a British brewer. The colors are numbered and correspond to different beers, from pale lager (L 2) to imperial stout (L40+). In 1885, Lovibond established a company, the Tintometer Ltd., to manufacture his colorimeter, called the Lovibond Comparator. This instrument is not an official Lovibond model—there are no manufacturer’s marks and the instrument shows signs of custom welding. But according to the donor, it was used in an American brewery, possibly in Baltimore, beginning in the late 19th century and likely into the early years of the 20th century.
The Standard Reference Method (SRM) has largely replaced the Lovibond scale, with the SRM showing results that are approximately equal to the Degrees Lovibond.
This colorimeter is part of a large collection of brewing material donated to the museum in 1967 by former brewmaster Walter Voigt, of Ruxton, Maryland, near Baltimore. Voigt’s collection consists of objects and archival materials reflecting the history of brewing in the mid-Atlantic region between 1870 and the beginnings of consolidation and large-scale, industrial production in the 1960s. His correspondence reveals an interest in preserving the history of brewing in America before brewmasters were “replaced by chemical engineers and highly trained chemists in modern laboratories.” Voigt’s papers are housed in the museum’s Archives Center, Collection #ACNMAH 1195, “Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, 1935-1967.”
Currently not on view
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center