Why We Taste: What does it take to be a professional beer taster?

Welcome back! In our second installment of Why We Taste, we’re diving deep into the world of sensory, this time learning about what it takes to be a professional beer taster. (Missed our first post? Check it out here!). Each week, our sensory panelists evaluate our beers to make sure they are true-to-brand. Spoiler alert: there’s a whole lot of training involved.

Read on for our interview with Jules, sensory specialist here at Ninkasi:

Let’s start at the top: what does a sensory panel look like?
Our sensory panel is used for multiple functions: to profile beers and to determine if beers are true-to-brand. If the purpose of the test is for quality control of a product we’re already making, the questions we’re usually trying to answer is if the beer is true-to-brand, if it’s meeting its target profile, and if there are any defects with the beer. The panelists are trained on potential defects and on the target profile of each of the products—how each beer should taste, look and smell. They have a mental reference for that profile and are always evaluating against it, determining if the sample in front of them aligns.

In other cases, if we want to make a small process change or use a different supplier for an ingredient, for example, we might run a difference test to make sure that whatever small change we’re making wouldn’t be detectable flavor-wise in the beer.

Can you break down what quality control looks like in a sensory lab?
On the quality control side, we’re normally testing if each beer is “true-to-brand”, meaning that it tastes the way that brand usually tastes and that it’s free of any defects. Aside from designing, running, and reporting out on these types of tests, I spend a fair amount of time keeping track of any process exceptions that happen during beer production. This includes documenting anything out-of-the-ordinary, from raw ingredients, the brewing process, fermentation, conditioning, transfers between vessels, and packaging. This allows me to anticipate if there could be any impacts on flavor down the line in the finished beer if anything unusual does happen, and also so that we can learn from anomalies and try to improve our processes over time.

So how does one become a “professional beer drinker?” What’s the training for a panelist?
We have broad categories we decided are important to cover in sensory panel training. The first is what the purpose of the sensory panel is, what it means to be a panelist, the mindset you should try to maintain, and the kind of pitfalls that can occur that you want to try to avoid. A lot of it is a psychological mindset; you want to avoid bias and come in with no preconceived notions. Also, it’s stressed that the individual panelist don’t really matter, it’s the collective opinion that matters and the statistics of a group that are useful. In a rough tasting when trying to make really broad-stroke decisions about something, you can get individual responses to get a general gauge, but if you want a real objective response to a test you’re running, you need group data to be able to achieve that. Each individual panelist’s evaluation is only usable in terms of objective data in the context of the whole.

The panel is also trained in sensory evaluation techniques – learning the order of operations in sample evaluation and what they should be doing to evaluate a sample. Then we have them practice these techniques every time they evaluate a sample: judge the appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and aftertaste, and then the overall experience. There are a number of specific techniques that they learn. They also learn how to combat sample fatigue and adaptation so that they’re able to give the best evaluation of each sample that they’re given each time.

Another very important part of training is having an agreed upon lexicon. We have different categories of flavors and aromas that we use to describe beers, and panelists learn how to describe and understand our beers within this context. In order to understand the panel data later, it’s important that when two people say the same thing, they mean the same thing. Or if two people say different things they are actually saying something different, not saying the same thing with different words.

We train a little bit on the beer making process and the raw ingredients that go into beer as well. Especially if they’re trying to describe beers later, it helps a lot if panelists have some sense of where those flavors and aromas are coming from and how they can be affected by the process and what ingredients are going into the beer.

We also train in off-flavor detection. This is important for detecting potential defects in any of our products and in making sure we’re able to notice them and not just pass them through the door. We then do threshold testing on the panel. People have different sensitivities to different flavor compounds, so it’s important to test where each panelist’s sensitivities lie. That way we have a better understanding of what it means if a panelist says they’re getting an off flavor or not getting something. We can also calculate a group threshold so we have a sense of where our panel as a whole is able to detect something.

One of the most important parts of training is understanding what our brands taste like, having a clear definition of the attributes and target intensities for each one, and training our panel on what that definition is. When they are given a sample, they are able to answer yes or no that it is true-to-brand.

And you put together the curriculum and lead all the training, impressive! What excites you most about the program?
It’s really exciting for me to see the program be at a place where we’re actively using our panel as a tool to make good, objective decisions about our beers. We design and run tests around three main purposes – quality control on beers that we already produce, process changes and improvements and whether they are affecting the beers, and developing new products – and it’s exciting to see the program generating usable data to help inform all three areas. It’s also really exciting to see the panelists grow and learn over time individually, as well as to see the panel’s responses as a group become tighter and more cohesive.


About the Author

When you need to know the nitty-gritty nerdy side of beer, Joe has your back. As Ninkasi’s Analytical Quality Specialist, Joe makes sure our beers are just as our customers expect each and every time. On Fridays, you’ll find him around the brewery sporting the latest trends in Hawaiian shirts. Any day of the week (especially during MLS season), you’ll find him watching a game with a Helles Belles in-hand. “

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