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Tasting Notes: How to Define Your Sensory Process

New Belgium Brewing’s Lindsay Barr offers practical advice on putting effective sensory analysis to work for you.

Tom Wilmes May 11, 2016

Tasting Notes: How to Define Your Sensory Process Primary Image

It’s never too early to establish a sensory evaluation program, says Lindsay Barr, head sensory scientist at New ­Belgium Brewing.

“A lot of brewers assume that if they don’t have the ability to run the kind of robust statistical analysis that we run, then a formal sensory program is beyond their reach,” Barr says. “But you can do some flavor training. You can define your brands and determine whether something is true to brand. I would tell smaller breweries to start right away.”

The American Society of Brewing Chemists’ sensory subcommittee, of which Barr is chair, advises as much in a one-sheet guide it recently released. Titled “Grow Your Lab,” the document details various sensory tools a brewery should consider putting into place at various stages in its growth.

While the threshold the committee recommends for investing in equipment—such as an autoclave or pressure cooker, centrifuge, shaker table, and other lab amenities—begins at the 35,000-barrel annual production mark, the committee does have recommendations for smaller breweries: a refrigerator/cooler for storing samples, a hydrometer, oxygen meter, pH meter, and a microscope. And the committee advises that “at lower production volumes, many complex analytical tests can be outsourced to an external laboratory or test kits may be used in lieu of purchasing equipment.” At the very least, breweries should begin to use sensory training and descriptive analysis.

“We basically say that, right away, you should be tasting your raw materials and your beers,” Barr says. “You should be coming up with descriptions of your beers and also determining shelf life.”

While New Belgium employs one of the largest and most sophisticated analysis programs in the craft-beer industry, the mission of any sensory program remains the same: to maintain and improve the consistency and quality of beer throughout all stages of the production cycle.

With that in mind, here are a few ways that smaller breweries can get started with sensory analysis.

Calibrate your instruments.

Even with a lab’s worth of equipment at your disposal, the most important analysis tool remains the human senses when it comes to evaluating the appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and body of your beers.

That’s why New Belgium includes more than 100 volunteers from throughout all departments at its Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery in its sensory program. The brewery holds twice-a-week attribute training sessions in which panelists are exposed to various attributes that are spiked into the beers.

“These are flavors that present potential risks for us or indicate some kind of process anomaly or just flavors that we want to avoid,” Barr says. “Sometimes they’re flavors we do want, but we need to understand how to identify them and be consistent in the language that we use.” Panel leaders also detail the brewing process and where in the process you’re most likely to find various attributes or off-flavors.

Each individual’s performance is measured and tracked to gauge his/her attribute recognition level, any improvements, and whether (s)he is ready to sit on one of the brewery’s daily tasting panels. Advanced panelists also receive additional training in descriptive analysis and in-process beer evaluation.

“In sensory, our instruments are human beings, and calibrating a human being is quite a bit different from calibrating a machine,” Barr says. “You have to have very good personal skills. Luckily we have a really great, high-involvement culture at New Belgium where people take sensory very seriously.”

For smaller breweries, Barr advises pursuing as much flavor training as you can to begin to consistently identify and describe various flavor attributes. In addition, she recommends enlisting the people who are around you for help in evaluating beers—whether or not they’re employed by the brewery.

“If you have regular patrons who know your brands, give them a little bit of training and ask for their input,” Barr says. “Don’t ask for their opinion or whether they like it, however. Ask, ‘is this attribute true to this brand?’”

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Define your baselines.

New Belgium produced about thirty different brands last year, Barr says, many of which were new to the brewery. Sensory analysts needed to learn and define those brands very quickly in order to have a basis for comparing subsequent batches.

“Part of attribute training is the ability to identify and verbalize different attributes that are new to us,” Barr says. “We use our panelists to come up with the baseline descriptions for all of our beers. You can’t ask the true-to-brand questions if you don’t have a brand.”

Panelists begin by thoroughly describing the flavors in a beer as well as attributes such as mouthfeel, appearance, and aroma. These become the baseline description for that brand.

“We then revisit those descriptions regularly to make sure that they’re still legit and that we haven’t had any flavor drift,” in which the flavor profile might slowly shift over time, Barr says.

These baseline descriptions also inform the beer’s packaging and marketing, although often in somewhat more florid language.

“Whatever you see on bottles has been influenced in some way by sensory,” Barr says. “Although where we use terms such as litoral and terrainial, the marketing description might say ‘citrus peel’ or ‘floral, rose-like aroma.’”

Taste everything.

Since beer is an agricultural product, there’s bound to be some variation in its ingredients. New Belgium establishes baseline characteristics and conducts evaluations not only for all of its beers, but also for all of the raw materials that go into those beers—including water. This was especially helpful a few years ago when forest fires in the area affected the flavor profile of Fort Collins’s water supply. The brewery noticed that their water tasted slightly phenolic and worked with the city to help bring it back within spec.

“If we determine that there is something up in our mash water, we’ll stop and make sure that everything’s okay before we mash in again,” Barr says. “We’re just trying to push this potential upstream to understand the variation that we’re going to get in our raw materials and what adjustments we can make to account for it.”

In addition, brewers taste every time they transfer a batch from primary fermentation to maturation, from maturation to filtering, and again before the beer is transferred to a brite tank. A panel of ten tasters evaluates the beer before it’s cleared for packaging, and another ten evaluate it after it’s packaged. Only then does the beer appear on a daily tasting panel, which is the last step before shelf-life analysis and shipping.

“By the time [a beer] hits the consumer’s mouth, we will have tasted a representative sample of that beer at least fifty times,” Barr says.

It’s very rare that a beer makes it to a daily tasting panel with any off-flavors; rather “the panel primarily acts as a fine-tooth comb to alert us to any small shifts that might be happening to flavor in the process.”

Learn from your mistakes.

“Brewing is fermentation,” Barr says. “We know that we’re going to have some process variation, and we have a range of acceptable limits that account for that.”

When sensory analysis reveals an anomaly that falls outside of acceptable limits, or even a potentially anomalous batch, the sensory department works with the analytical and microbe departments to determine what’s causing an issue.

“We’re not afraid to dump beer, but it hurts,” Barr says. “We want to understand why something happened and do recon analysis to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Smaller brewers can keep detailed logs for each batch, including sensory notes, to help correlate when and where something might have gone wrong. Also don’t hesitate to enlist the help of fellow brewers or a lab to determine the root cause and, more importantly, how to prevent it from happening again.

Says Barr: “There are a lot of small ways that a brewery can do a lot through sensory analysis.”

Resources

The American Society of Brewing Chemists is a great resource for the latest in sensory methods and recommendations, as well as on many other technical aspects of brewing. In addition to numerous tools, publications, and events, the website features a Sensory Webinar Series for its members that includes information on how to select a panel, how to train and validate a panel, and other sensory-related topics.

The Siebel Institute offers a three-day continuing education course on Sensory Panel Management at its Chicago campus. Upcoming dates are July 11–13, 2016.

Dr. Bill Simpson leads a five-day course in Practical Beer Taster Training for brewery taste-panel leaders and beer-quality specialists at the Cicerone Certification Program Offices in Chicago.