A new approach to sensory quality control
Today, sensory evaluation of the brewing process is an essential quality management tool, as the human senses are much more powerful than any analysis tool. Drinkability, for example, as an overall sensory image of the appeal to drink more, has a huge influence on how well different types of beer sell. Measurement devices alone simply cannot grasp this success factor.
A new approach to sensory evaluation in the brewing industry
Sensory evaluation provides results in near real-time and can be conducted practically anywhere at any time. Furthermore, it can provide precise answers to an almost unlimited number of specific questions: Does a pilsner taste exactly as described on the label? Does a lager stay fresh for the full six months up to the sell-by date? How do fermentation temperature changes affect the clove flavor of a wheat beer? Sensory evaluation can even improve the general quality awareness of the entire workforce across all departments.
Everyone has different “tastes”
Everyone’s sensory tools are as unique as their fingerprints. And that depends on current physical condition, experiences, training level, expectations, and other emotional factors. Given that “tastes” may indeed differ, disagreeable results often lead to mistrust in the sensory analysis (the wrong glass, the wrong tasting temperature, the beer being too fresh or too old, the taster group was too small, etc.).
Confidence in sensory evaluation is so far lacking
As a consequence, the results are not taken seriously, none of the findings from the sensory test results are incorporated, and no operational improvements are implemented. If any operational changes are actually made, then their impact no longer undergoes sensory evaluation or verification. Sensory evaluation isn’t trusted because it isn’t conducted with sufficient scientific precision. Only a handful of breweries have their own in-house sensory philosophy, which is adapted to the company DNA, its distribution channels and its product range. The following questions are simply not asked often enough: “Should our different beer types have distinct sensory profiles? Should our beers be unique and clearly recognizable to our customers regarding their residual sweetness and how hoppy or malty they are?”
Tasting sessions are unfortunately often just used as a fun team-building exercise on a Friday afternoon, to start off the weekend early with a nice drink or two.
Expensive and unsustainable
Sadly, to date, sensory quality management remains one of the most expensive methods of analysis there is. Surprised? Here’s a sample calculation: To achieve a statistically reliable result, at least from a methodological viewpoint, the taster group in any sensory test should comprise at least five to seven trained individuals.
In practice, employees are often chosen who are flexible in terms of time and can regularly take part in the sensory group meetings as independently of the current beer manufacturing routine as possible. In addition to managers from Production, Bottling and Quality Assurance, senior executives from Sales and Marketing, and also the owner, often attend in person.
This can be time consuming as well. For example, a tasting of a sample of every bottled beer from a production week or a comparative tasting of the company’s own beers and those of its competitors, combined with a short training session and a closing discussion of results, can, together with all the preparatory and follow-up work, take an hour. Over the year, that can add up to several tens of thousands of euros in staff costs. On top of that, there is the permanent need for training. We are bombarded daily with countless sensory impressions and can only develop a proper sensitivity for specific beer flavor profiles if we receive continuous training and do refresher courses. In practice, the sensory expert team composition changes due to vacation, sick leave or staff turnover.
Regular training for the panel? Even more expensive!
For sensory courses to actually work in the long term, they would need to be provided several times a year and on an ad-hoc basis for any major changes to the tasting panel composition. However, that would quickly become really time-consuming and expensive.
The dilemma, of this approach being rather aimless, time-consuming and cost-intensive, leads to many companies scarcely using sensory evaluation as an important quality assurance tool. The following concept therefore describes an approach for firmly establishing sensory evaluation within a company.
Train the trainer
Other beer cultures give much greater importance to the sensory evaluation of beers during product development processes and the daily brewing routine. This is also true for all auxiliary agents that come into contact with beer, the finished product as well as the packaging. For example, the US-based Boston Beer Company employs Annette Fritsch as Senior Director of Product Development and Sensory. Firestone Walker has Craig Thomas as a Sensory Research Analyst. Karl Arnberg works at Allagash Brewing Company as a Sensory Program Manager. And international Lambic brewers employ blenders who, like Lauren Limbach from the New Belgium Brewing Company, work specifically in the wooden-barrel aging cellar.
Sensory expertise should therefore be directly within the company to make sure that the various different sensory tasks can be conducted efficiently and in a way that rules out any quality issues. This would ensure that there can be no doubt whatsoever regarding the sensory results.
Internal specialists pool sensory expertise
The quality of the skills involved is evident when problems are detected. For example, this can take the form of traces of DMS or diacetyl, and the specific tips on how to remedy them that can be suggested. The professional sensory analyst is the trainer for all in-house training courses; is acquainted with all relevant test procedures, forms and evaluation tools; prepares all tastings; finds the right staff members and can cost-effectively purchase, produce and use beer off-flavor concentrations themselves. Their sensory impressions are translated into understandable beer language and striking images, and the beers are presented and showcased at a beer sommelier level. The expert knows not only the exact sensory and analytical profile of the most important national and international beer styles, but also the desirable and undesirable aromas of the auxiliary agents used, such as carbon dioxide, sterile air, filter aids or disinfectants.
From September 2022, vocational training tailored specifically to the brewing industry will be available for these internal experts. This will make all external training courses subsequently redundant in the future. The certified brewery sensory analyst training covers eight part-time modules, with a total of 185 teaching units. It takes around six months to complete, partly online at any time from the comfort of the student’s workplace (for more info, visit www.bierkulturhaus.com).
Utilizing the numerous experts
In addition to the costs of flavor capsules and sensory evaluation courses, as described, the staff costs are considerable. In small companies, the problem often starts with a lack of qualified employees in house. Moreover, a tasting panel comprising a company’s own employees may be subject to various quality defects, as follows:
Mutual influence: When individuals from various hierarchies within the company meet, it isn’t always possible to ensure a culture that supports open and honest discussion. If anonymizing individuals’ views isn’t possible or desirable, then the validity of their statements in quality-related tests will suffer.
Prior knowledge creates expectations: A master brewer who has just changed the hops formula will develop a different sensitivity for the impression of bitterness as compared to a Sales employee who is against pronounced bitterness due to regarding it as negatively impacting sales.
Familiar sensory profile: An individual will recognize the company’s own beers as compared to competitors’ beers. This is because they will have become accustomed to having consumed them on a daily basis. People have both a taste memory and an olfactory memory, and they associate impressions with emotions and memories. This makes an objective evaluation practically impossible.
To discover whether beers are very popular or preferred on the market, it’s best to also consult the market. For example, these might be individuals who, thanks to their sensory skills, can assess beers properly but don’t have any close ties to the brewery. Across all German-speaking countries, there are now thousands of people who have some basic sensory knowledge: certified beer sommeliers, beer sommeliers, beer ambassadors, beer keepers etc.
These individuals, often real beer nerds, are truly passionate about beer tasting. They enjoy doing it in their spare time, and will often even do it for free. Digital beer tastings have even become commonplace, with beer samples being shipped professionally and in a timely manner. We should therefore utilize the beer sommelier movement for one or two sensory analyses. The website of the Association of Certified Beer Sommeliers has a search function that details all of the certified beer sommeliers in the region, and it can be used to contact them easily.
Sensory quality management should be purposefully developed to deal with specific issues. Sensory issues can arise all across a brewery. To obtain reliable analysis results, several details must be accounted for when conducting sensory tests, and their organization requires a high level of expertise. The new certified brewery sensory analyst training closes this market gap. A tasting team could comprise beer experts with beer sommelier expertise, who could then conduct this task more objectively, more in line with the market and more cost-effectively than the company’s own employees.
Would you like to find out about current trends on the beverage market and exchange professional information? Then we invite you to take part in the next drinktec, which will be held in Munich from September 12 to 16, 2022.
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