“Beer quality is a marathon, not a sprint.”
I’ve heard this phrase a million times in my career. But what does it actually mean? To me, it represents the idea that quality is never finished. It’s a continuous aspect of brewing, and it demands to be addressed daily.
Some attributes of brewing are quantitative—gravity, pH, IBUs, SRM, ABV, and so on. These are all numbers that can give you a tangible idea of how your beer is doing. They can tell you if you’re seeing changes in your malt and hops or if you’re missing your final gravities.
However, something that is more subjective—but just as important—is sensory testing.
The Diversity of the Senses
Beer sensory is a nuanced art that differs from person to person. Studies have shown that women and men tend to have differing sensory experiences, but the variance goes much further than that. Scientists have been able to tap into the genetics of our taste buds, and what they’ve found suggests that every individual has a totally unique sensory experience. So, it stands to reason that a brewery that is working to develop its sensory program should strive for a diverse pool of tasters.
However, that may be putting the cart before the horse. You want participants, but what do you do once you have them? What tests are you going to run? Which beer should you use? This can seem daunting if you’ve never developed a sensory panel before. Luckily, you can tailor your panel to fit your brewery’s needs.
With that in mind, here are some tips to get your sensory panel up and running—and to keep your participants coming back to learn more.
You will, of course, need some sort of glassware from which to taste your beer. Standard pint glasses can suffice in a pinch, but smaller tasting glasses are preferred for a couple of reasons. First, appropriately sized glasses will help prevent panelists from drinking more than necessary during the training (and if the Great American Beer Festival has taught us anything, it’s that it’s very possible to over-indulge on one-ounce pours). Also, smaller glasses will help you to distribute your sample without running out. If you’re preparing off-flavor spikes, tasting glasses also will allow you to serve a greater number of panelists without needing to prepare additional spiked pitchers.
Next, you’ll want to make up some worksheets for your tasting. Having physical copies for your panel members will give them the opportunity to take notes, and they will make your life easier when you enter data from the session. Placemats for your tasting glassware are a nice touch but not necessary. If you do use placemats, laminating them will allow you to reuse them over and over again. Just wipe off any spilt beer once your session is complete.
You’ll also need to decide on a location, and this is important. You’ll want to avoid any sensory distractions, including smells, sights, and sounds. You don’t want to host your panel near the kitchen or in the beer hall, where customers might walk by and ask what you’re doing. Find a neutral, quiet place to help your panel better focus on the task at hand.
Finally, you need some beer. This will depend on the type of tasting you’re doing, but low-ABV and low-IBU beers are preferred, especially when it comes to using sensory spikes. Light lagers can provide a good base for your off-flavors to stand out, and they will also help prevent palate fatigue in your tasters.
You’ve got your space, your supplies, and your beer. Now, who do you invite to this party? The simple answer: everyone.
No matter the size of your brewery, your sensory panel will likely experience schedule conflicts and turnover as people get busy. Be sure to invite new employees as they come on board and reevaluate your panel every six months or so to see if anyone else is interested in joining. You never know—the quiet guy in accounting might be super-sensitive to diacetyl, or someone from your marketing team could have experience with describing beers.
To help with turnover, it’s important to keep your panel members engaged and coming back. Beer sensory involves practice, and each training will build off the lessons that you taught in the previous session. However, it can get old when you’re tasting aged or off-flavored beer every week. Showing members their own tasting data can be a useful tool to promote engagement. Seeing for themselves how they’ve improved over time can give them some incentive to keep coming back. You’ll also want to take a break and mix things up with some fun sessions every once in a while. Have a pizza party or organize a bottle share.
While your panel members are likely participating because they want to refine their palates and learn more about beer, their presence also is helping you. You’re training people who will be an asset when you need another opinion on a beer that might have off-flavors. These will also be the people who can taste your beer out in the market and report back on what they find. Maybe they’ll find a tap that isn’t quite true to brand, or they might find that an account is really happy with a particular beer. Make sure they know how much you appreciate their time and dedication to the panel.
Figuring out the Schedule
Scheduling a time to host your panel can be difficult when you’re trying to juggle production schedules and shifts. Whatever time you choose, it’s unlikely to work for everyone. The goal will be to find a time and day of the week or month that works consistently for most of the employees who are interested in joining. Times that work well tend to be mid-morning, somewhere between coffee and lunch, and mid-afternoon, somewhere between lunch and shift beers. Pick a time that allows panelists to give their palate at least an hour of rest from eating and drinking before the training session.
How often should you host your panel? The best answer is whatever works for your brewery’s schedule. That could mean offering daily tastings to panelists and then having a formal training session with them at the end of the week. Or, if your employees are only able to fit it in once a month, go with that. The important thing is having something regular and scheduled, so that people can plan for it.
It’s equally important that you, as the organizer, stick to this schedule. It can be easy to take a week or two off during the busy season, but showing that you’re committed to prioritizing the panel will encourage panelists to make it their priority, too.
Tests and Training
There are a few different types of tests that you can use to evaluate your panel members and your beers. To start, you’ll want to make sure that your participants are familiar with your brands before throwing other factors into the mix. This can be done by encouraging daily tastings and asking employees to record the sensory attributes that they pick up on in fresh versions of your beer.
Once you’ve established a baseline, it’s time to start spiking the beers. You can buy flavor kits from Aroxa or Siebel, but there are a number of off-flavor options you can do on the cheap—also known as grocery-store spikes (Figure 1). These are a great way to introduce your panelists to how these off-flavors taste in beer before graduating to more expensive spike options. When performing the initial training on off-flavors, you’ll want to dose these heavily to make sure your panel can get a feel for the worst-case scenarios.
Once the tasters have had a couple of exposures to each off-flavor, a lower dosing rate combined with a triangle test (Figure 2) is a good training method. A triangle test involves setting up three samples—two are the same, and one is different. The purpose is to see whether the taster can identify which glass is different and which off-flavor is present. You can lower the spiking rate here to provide more of a challenge. Triangle tests also can be useful for true-to-brand concerns in a production setting. It takes away some of the bias that might come from just handing someone a sample and asking what’s wrong with it.
To test panelists on their sensitivity for a particular flavor, you can use a threshold test (Figure 3). This involves setting up separate triangle tests where the spike increases in intensity. The objective is to see whether tasters can identify which glass is spiked in each triangle test. This can be done in sets of three, where the first triangle test is below human threshold, the second is right at threshold, and the last triangle test is spiked above threshold. This is especially useful for scoping out who is sensitive to diacetyl, so they can help with forced diacetyl tastings during fermentation.
After you have some of these tests under your belt, feel free to get creative. You can hold a session where you showcase how a certain hop varietal comes through in different brands. Another training can involve finding different versions of a particular style out in the market, to better understand style parameters. If you’re ever in doubt about what to do next, ask you panelists whether there are any off-flavors, ingredients, or styles on which they’d like to focus. In the meantime, they’ll be gaining more valuable tasting experiences.
Just Start It Up
It may seem like an intimidating task, but starting up your sensory panel can be very manageable with the right tools and enthusiasm.
One of the most challenging steps is simply getting your members on board and making that leap to actually start. Once you do—and your panelists keep coming back—you’ll have the momentum to continue and build upon what you’ve taught in the previous session.
Keep it balanced between fun and educational, and you’ll have a successful sensory panel that employees will want to return to time after time.