The hiss of carbonation followed by that satisfying crack as you push the tab all the way in. You slowly pour the contents of the can down the side of your glass, gradually straightening it as you go to get the perfect foam formation. You hold up your glass and take a good look. Sensory is one of the most important, and often most enjoyable, parts of a quality program. In fact, it made my list for “Top 5 Ways for a Nano Brewer to Get Started in Quality Control” found at: https://byo.com/article/top-5-ways-for-a-nano-brewer-to-get-started-in-quality-control/
Whether it’s employees, friends, or just you, incorporating a sensory program into your routine helps ensure consistency, can be a powerful aid in troubleshooting, and sets you up for success with every batch of beer made.
There are many reasons to start a sensory program, but what do you want to get out of your sensory program? For brewers who are always making new styles, consistency isn’t a big concern. Brewers who are still dialing in a new recipe want change . . . they want a better beer. Then there are brewers who have a few beers they make over and over with a strong customer following. Customers who expect that beer to taste the same (or very similar) every time.
These three brewers aren’t looking for the same things but they can all benefit from a sensory program. Depending on the end goal they might ask themselves different questions each time they evaluate a beer, or choose and scale characteristics in a unique way for their specific needs.
As your brewery and your sensory program grow and evolve, it may change over time. What works for you now might not work in the future. As your resources and expertise expand, so too should your program.
Most of you will be judging your beer on whether it is true-to-brand or not. Does it taste how you, as the brewer and/or owner, decided it should taste?
Even if it’s a one off, you had some inclination of what you were expecting the finished beer to taste like. Does the final version deliver? If not, why not? Maybe you were experimenting with a new yeast strain. Take notes and use this information should you choose to use that same yeast in another beer. Did the change in mash temperature create a noticeable difference in body? Every batch is like a mini experiment. Learn from each batch you brew.
Your description should include notes on appearance, clarity, head retention, and color. Describe the aroma, including the intensity. What flavors come through as you take a sip? How does the beer feel in your mouth? Describe the body, mouthfeel, carbonation level, and finish. What’s the overall impression of the beer? Are there any unique characteristics you want your panelists to pay particular attention to?
Taste the beer alongside ingredients to see what comes through and what doesn’t. Taste the beer throughout the process to see how it changes.
If you’re having trouble coming up with a description, try tasting your beers next to other commercial examples of that style. I find it easier to pick out characteristics if I’m comparing two different things. Check out the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines for a description of what the style is supposed to taste like. Use this as a guide but remember, you’re looking for true-to-brand, not necessarily true-to-style. Your stout may have a unique characteristic not true-to-style but it’s part of your brand and something your customers come to love and expect. Follow along with a score sheet that walks you through the different categories and includes brief descriptions of common off-flavors.
Off-flavor detection is a valuable piece of a well-developed sensory program. All brewers face unintended flavor mishaps. To fix or prevent an off-flavor, you first need to identify it. To identify off-flavors, you need to train your palate and practice using examples. Learn what flavors you are good at picking out, and what ones you need help with. Some people are blind to certain flavors, such as diacetyl, meaning they can’t taste it. Once you know what you’re tasting, you can hopefully troubleshoot where that flavor came from and how to prevent it in your next batch of beer. For a list of common off-flavors, causes, and prevention tips, check out this article: https://byo.com/article/avoiding-off-flavors/
Every time you release a beer into the market, ask yourself what someone drinking that beer for the first time would think. With all the great beer out there, some people won’t give your brewery a second chance if they detect something off about your beer.
What characteristics are you hoping to get out of your beer? Did you want a lingering bitterness to your double IPA or were you hoping for a soft finish? Did those spicy, fruity aromas you were looking for in your new Belgian come out as expected? The flavors you are trying to promote can be just as important as the flavors you are trying to avoid.
Rating your beer
Now that you have your description, how are you going to rate your beer? When first starting out it might make sense to have a more detailed evaluation form and once everyone becomes accustomed to what the beer should taste like, you can move on to a simplified version such as a pass/fail system or reduce the number of characteristics you’re looking at. Go through your description and pick out some of the main characteristics you are interested in. Try to keep this between 5–10 different characteristics, such as appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. If you have too many characteristics it might take panelists too long or they may rush through and not pay close attention to each option.
When rating intensity levels, use a 1–5 or a 1–10 point scale. Keep in mind you’ll need to train panelists on what a hop intensity of 3 is by using examples of your true-to-brand beer or other commercial examples. Different individuals may have different interpretations of what a score of 3 out of 5 is.
Another format is a -5 to +5 scale. You’ll need to decide and provide examples of what each of your beers should score. Using this scale, a lower than normal hop aroma might be a negative rating and an exceptional example a positive score.
A similar rating system is an A, B, and C scale where a rating of B may be neutral and what the beer is supposed to taste like, but a great example gets and A and a less than ideal version gets a C. Your beers might pass a true-to-brand test while still having some variation. Train on what a passing or failing version of each beer would be.
One of the easiest rating systems is simply pass/fail. This can be for different characteristics such as aroma and appearance, or a quick overall interpretation. A beer that’s a little hazier than ideal may fail for appearance but you don’t think it’s something customers would notice so it still gets an overall pass. I like this system because it’s quick and easy. You’re less likely to get stuck overthinking if it should be a 5 or a 6 when either way it’s passing.
Include a section for notes. Sometimes you can tell something isn’t quite right but aren’t sure how to describe it. Do your best and put that in the notes section. If you know what the flaw is or how to fix it, put that here. Keep in mind you’re evaluating beer on how close it fits your style description. You’re not looking for preference here. You can certainly make notes of preference and maybe update your recipe based on feedback from others but if your IPA is coming across as piney instead of the usual citrus character, think about how it matches the brand instead of your preference. Go back to your notes from brew day and fermentation and see what might have happened.
You don’t need a complicated recording system to get started. You can make a free Google form using your phone. Hit “submit” and results automatically populate a Google sheet for later interpretation and review. Alternatively, paper ballots and a spreadsheet or binder keep results organized. Once your brewery and your sensory program outgrow those methods look to software programs designed for brewing sensory, such as DraughtLab.
Even if you’re the only one evaluating your beer it’s important to record results. Have a standard way of evaluating your beer before release. You might not notice a beer drifting in one direction until you look at data over time and notice an upward or downward trend. A month from now you’re not going to remember that was the batch you accidentally dry hopped with Cascade instead of Mosaic®. Compare brewing notes with sensory notes.
Getting others involved
If you want more involvement, look to your customers, local homebrew club, or get friends and family involved. Exchange beer for feedback. If they’re not on your payroll it will be harder to train and get reliable, consistent feedback. Keep this in mind as you make your evaluation forms and review data.
Jesse Cronin of Lucy & Howe Brewing (a nano in Jericho, Vermont) warns brewers to watch out for the beer echo chamber, “It’s hard to evaluate critically and a lot of people in your immediate circle, close friends or family, often can’t do it. Buy some spikes — try to go in with a couple of people and maybe make a class out of it. If you can create your own sensory panel of critical drinkers, you’re going to be in a good spot.”
As Jesse mentioned, off-flavor spike kits are a great way to put a name to a flavor. It can be hard to identify an off-flavor based on description alone but once you’ve tasted an example of it you know for sure. Start by spiking a light lager then the next time around try it in one of your beers. Some flavors will present differently based on the beer. The more you practice, the easier it will be.
While off-flavor kits are extremely valuable, they can also be expensive and are usually developed to use with 8–10 people. Get a group together to cut down on costs. Sharing vocabulary and past experiences helps solidify descriptions with flavors. First allow everyone to experience the spikes on their own without talking, to come up with their own descriptions. We are easily influenced by what others say and someone else’s comment may affect our judgment. After everyone has had a chance to try the beer on their own and write down comments, a discussion can follow.
Tight on budget? Start out at the grocery store. Try imitation butter for diacetyl, vinegar for acetic acid bacteria infection, a struck match for sulfitic compounds, or a teabag for astringency (sucking on a teabag is a great tool for this). Store some cans warm for a few weeks and compare to something fresh. Note how the beer changes as it ages.
Keep a beer library. Every time you package a beer, store a six-pack or two and taste one every so often. See how long your beers actually last. Most distributors want a minimum of 120 days for a beer’s shelf life. Does one style hold up better than another? A library is also handy when responding to customer feedback.
To train on true-to-brand, add some water to a beer or blend it with another and see if anyone can pick out the doctored sample. Taste your beer next to another commercial example blind, and see if you can pick which is which. It’s probably harder than you think. Which one do you like better? Why? How can your beer be improved? What is it lacking in? How can you make changes to your recipe or process to get it where you want it?
I love performing a triangle test when trying to identify differences in a beer. In a triangle test, participants have three samples of beer in front of them. Two are the same and one is different. They need to identify which sample is different from the other two. Switch up the order for all participants, just make sure you write down the answers so you don’t forget!
Know your weaknesses. As Lillian MacNamara of Freak Folk Bier in Burlington, Vermont explains when her and partner Ryan Miller are evaluating beers for release, “Our palates and sensitivities are different. He’s more attuned to diacetyl for example, while I’m more sensitive to sulfur.”
Both MacNamara and Cronin stress the importance of tasting beers throughout fermentation and after packaging. Many fermentation problems become apparent within the first few days of fermentation and the sooner you find a problem the quicker you can react. MacNamara, who brews with mixed cultures, says “We have to taste each beer many times throughout the process to know when the beer is ready to package, and do the same all over again after packaging, as the refermentation in the bottle awakens the demons again. The great part is opening a bottle after months of it tasting terrible to finally taste it beautifully clean.”
Cronin adds, “Sample frequently. Get used to how the beer should taste at all points in the process. Wort tastes different than fermenting beer, which tastes different from conditioning beer, which tastes different than it will out of the can . . . but if you can get used to how each of those steps present you can usually notice when things are on (or off) track.”
Putting it all together
Unfortunately it’s not enough just to collect this data. You need to use it. This could be as simple as making sure your beers remain true-to-brand. Have a formalized system for evaluating beer before it enters the marketplace. If you make any process or recipe changes, run it by your sensory team and see if the change is noticeable. Look for trends; if you notice an uptick in failing aroma scores, investigate what happened.
Brewing is a wonderful mix of art and science. Consistently deliver flavorful products and you’ll keep your customers happy.