An analyst who is trained to recognize these attributes and to accurately weigh their presence in a beer is invaluable to the beer industry. In the field of quality control, panels of trained tasters can monitor the consistency of a beer brand, advise on recipe modification or ingredient substitution, and help identify the source of flaws in a brewery’s beer.
At Genessee Brewing Co. in Rochester, NY, a tasting panel of between eight and a dozen people meets every work day to taste each of the brewery’s beers before it is released to the next stage of production. Every batch of beer is tasted half a dozen times by the “release panel.”
“We line up eight glasses, and pour samples from lighter to more intense flavor,” says brewing supervisor Jim McDermott. “We taste silently, make our own notes, then go from person to person and compare. If there’s an issue, we go into it a little more.”
McDermott stresses the importance of human taste perception: “Everything that comes to us is in spec―it analyzes fine. If you just looked at the numbers, you could release the stuff. But the final arbiter is human taste.”
The panel generally uses the flavor wheel to guide their comments, but sometimes the feedback isn’t specific to particular Meilgaard descriptors. “Someone might say ‘I think this beer is just brighter than that one.’ It’s a very relaxed process until something comes up that requires attention, then―whoosh―everybody narrows in.”
The brewery also convenes panels when a new beer is under development. Here, the process may start with the identification of a style the company wants to explorer. With a new Irish red lager, for example, McDermott already had experience and understood the accepted parameters of the style.
“After a pilot batch, that’ll be our first pass,” says McDermott, “then we’ll subject that to sensory panels: ‘we need more of this less of that.’”
“Every brewery has something like this. It might be more formal than what we do―if you read the sensory analysis literature, they want each person in a little cubicle away from other people―but the purpose is the same,” he continues. “It’s probably the most important thing we do. You can have differences that emerge during the tasting, and ultimately you may fail a beer that looks fine on paper.”
Tasting for the Consumer
Formal sensory analysis, the Beer Flavor Wheel, and blind panels are vital tools for industry quality control. Mastering their details can also be critical for trained beer judges who are ranking beers on their technical merits or advising brewers on how to improve their craft.
But the breakdown of beer flavor into diagnostic elements doesn’t express to the drinker the experience of consuming the beer. As rated by the Beer Flavor Wheel, a beer may score high on the spokes labeled ‘malty,’ ‘banana,’ and ‘walnut’―qualities that have different origins in the brewing process and which fall some distance from one another on the diagram. But if a beer reviewer writes that the beer evokes memories of “warm banana bread with nuts,” that phrase begins to describe the flavor from the beer drinker’s point of view.
At the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago, panels of tasters try to capture beer flavor in such a way that restaurants, servers and consumers will know what kind of experience a beer will deliver.
“We don’t try to break it down into components, then rate those components and add them all up,” says Jerald O’Kennard, director of the BTI. “We’re looking at the totality of the beer and answering the fundamental question, ‘OK, is this a good commercial example of this product, and how does it compare to the very best examples of this style?’”
The BTI panel tastes hundreds of beers every year., the panel drawn largely from the hospitality industry. Members of the panel all have an idea of how a world-class example of a given beer style would taste. The also have extensive vocabularies of flavor on the tips of their tongues.
Some rather florid tasting notes can come out of the panel’s efforts. Instead of the technical descriptors from the Flavor Wheel―where beers can be caprylic or husky, or smelling of phenylethanol―from the BTI, the beers are redolent of “chocolate-covered orange peel” or “multigrain toast and orange marmalade.”
For all the lush descriptions, O’Kennard is still cautious about the terms he uses. “I use descriptors very carefully, because if I start talking about roasted corn and cabbages, those words can suggest infection to brewers.”
Some sensations are hard to pin down. “‘Earthy’ is a default term,” he continues. “A lot of times, you don’t have anything more exact to say. It is an earthy experience: it’s minerally, it’s of the earth, it’s soil, it’s old grass―it’s a term you use for hop character. There are earthy hops and citrus hops as default terms. You put down ‘earthy’ and hope that translates.”
So we return to the challenge of communicating about one modality by resorting to another. There may be more precise ways to understand the biological underpinnings of flavor perception, the evolutionary pressures that have shaped our diets and food preferences, or the flexibility that culture builds upon in shaping our choices. But, face to face, when we want to express the pleasure of drinking a beer, we use words to talk about taste―and we struggle to describe the India pale ale that tastes like the aromas in florist’s shop.