Fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) is the major conversion process used in oil refineries to produce valuable hydrocarbons from crude oil fractions. Because the demand for oil-based products is ever increasing, research has been ongoing to improve the performance of FCC catalyst particles, which are complex mixtures of zeolite and binder materials. Unfortunately, there is limited insight into the distribution and activity of individual zeolitic domains at different life stages. Here we introduce a staining method to visualize the structure of zeolite particulates and other FCC components. Brønsted acidity maps have been constructed at the single particle level from fluorescence microscopy images. By applying a statistical methodology to a series of catalysts deactivated via industrial protocols, a correlation is established between Brønsted acidity and cracking activity. The generally applicable method has clear potential for catalyst diagnostics, as it determines intra- and interparticle Brønsted acidity distributions for industrial FCC materials. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.