When Melissa Antone was getting her education at the University of Delaware, she was already in the brewing industry, working as a bartender at a local brewpub. She didn't see much of a future in it, though.
"The only place for me to go was into restaurant management, and I didn't get a degree in biology to do that," Antone said.
So she packed her bags and moved to Colorado, where she found work at another brewery. But after a short stint behind the tap handles, her new employers at Avery Brewing moved her into the lab, where she's brought her background in microbiology to bear as the company's sensory scientist, setting up advanced tasting panels that help brewers quantify the flavor, scent, and even color of their beer more accurately than ever before.
In the last year, Antone, 28, has overseen Avery's tasting facilities as they moved from a Boulder warehouse to a state-of-the-art test kitchen equipped with high-tech tasting aids like a spectrophotometer, which helps to measure a beer's bitterness by shining a laser through it. A cellometer, initially designed to count red blood cells, now helps Avery's brewers and biologists monitor yeast populations. While less cutting-edge accessories are still welcome, too, of course—no tasting would be complete without a couple soda crackers to cleanse the palate—Antone's lab is one of many where the centuries old craft of professional beer-tasting is getting a twenty-first century update.
Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of professional tasters and sensory analysts like Antone make sure what you eat and drink tastes the way it should. But becoming a pro takes years of training that never really ends—and can cost the ability to just kick back and enjoy a brew.*****
Beer is one of humanity's oldest recipes, with texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia revealing recipes for a cold one dating back to the Bronze Age. And for as long as it has been around, beer has been serious business. Ale was a staple of many early agricultural diets, so much so that the Code of Hammurabi designates execution by drowning as a suitable punishment for a bartender found pouring drinks short.
Since beer has been a key component of the civilized diet for so long, it's perhaps no surprise that brewers have a storied history of quality control as well. In medieval England, communities appointed professional tasters, known as ale-conners, who had the responsibility of ensuring that local beers were on the up and up.
"We utilize the human palate as a lab tool"
Today's tasting sessions are extensions of traditional techniques for quality control, which make sure batches of beer haven't been tainted or spoiled in production. While quality control techniques still have their place—making sure a batch of skunked beer doesn't make it to market remains paramount—the new frontier is sensory analysis, which represents a much more versatile suite of capabilities.
"We utilize the human palate as a lab tool," Antone told me. "We're training people to identify specific flavors, which we can then use to measure our beer's consistency over a period of time."
Avery is hardly alone in performing these kinds of advanced taste tests on their brews. The company Avery works with, UK-based Cara Technologies, helps train tasters around the world, for small breweries like Avery and giants including SABMiller, which employs thousands of tasters around the world, going so far as to hold a competition to determine an annual Taster of the Year. Bill Simpson, founder and CEO of Cara Technologies, describes the competition as "the Olympics of beer tasting."
"Tasters in this competition are coming as close to perfection as you could imagine," Simpson said. "That's even though the test is beyond the level of difficulty we could have imagined 10 years ago."
Identifying flavors can be tricky, because so much goes into them. In a sip of beer, the bitterness of hops may activate some taste buds, while the sweetness of the malt triggers others. But flavor is a lot more than just taste, according to Antone, whether it's a complex microbrew meant to be savored or something from a can you'll be crushing against your head later.
"Flavor is a combination of taste and aroma and mouthfeel," she said. "You're mixing compounds and those are in the air that goes into your nose and your nasal receptors as well. There's a lot of interplay between these different senses that goes into a flavor."
Employing sensory analysis techniques allows brewers to try out new recipes, or tweaks to existing one, and get feedback as quantifiable data, instead of subjective opinions. Instead of a slightly buttery aspect in their beer, for example, brewers can understand that they're dealing with hints of the compound diacetyl. Minor modifications can be made to the malt and hop content of existing brews to see if the most discerning drinkers can tell the difference, and if they can, whether that's a good or bad thing. And any imperfections can be identified and traced back to their source so the problem that caused them can be fixed.
Training up tasters who know what's in a beer, and how to express their findings, takes time and training, and that means tasting a lot of unpleasant flavors. To help train professional palates, Cara Technologies crafts refined versions of these often subtle contaminants—convenient capsules full of chemicals that taste like dirt, baby vomit, and worse—that are used to spike beers that tasters consume, so they can pick the flavor out of a lineup in the future.
The flavors Cara Technologies will help you put into beers (and other beverages) reads like a list of bad college pranks. The Beer Off-Flavours Kit includes a dozen different chemical compounds that can make a beverage taste funky, like the rotten egg of hydrogen sulphide, as well as butyric acid (baby vomit), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), and methianol (which has a comparatively merciful taste akin to mashed potatoes).
The Beer Taints kit goes a step further, introducing flavors like sodium bicarbonate, akin to laundry detergent, and p-methane-8-thiol-3one, a mouthful of a name for a compound that smells like cat piss. Identifying all these flavors is key to modern sensory analysis, said Bill Simpson.
"In the past, if you could say that a beer smelled of banana, you'd be doing well," he told me. "But all that means is that it contains one or more compounds that are also contained in a banana. But humans can smell specific flavor chemicals, like isoamyl acetate, which is reminiscent of banana and found in some wheat and lager beers."
When Antone started the sensory analysis program at Avery in 2013, she tapped Simpson to lead a week of grueling eight hour trainings for her and 16 other department heads who are still the point people for taste testing at Avery. But sensory analysis relies on panels of several people, who can compensate for one another's blind spots and discuss the flavors of a given draft.
"As awesome as it sounds to drink beer all day for a living, drinking beer from 10 am on is grueling work"
This team effort helps Antone develop a lexicon of tasting terminology to ensure that all her tasters are reading from the same playbook and using recognized terms to describe the same flavors. These large sample sizes and tightly regulated descriptions help to ensure that sensory analysis panels are gathering high quality data to pass along to brewers. But that means Antone is always recruiting and training new tasters for her panels. Brewers, accountants, administrative assistants, forklift drivers—if you have a good sense of taste and work for Avery Brewing, Antone is going to get you on a panel, which means you'll be honing your skills with her regularly.
"Just like any other lab tool, our tasters' palates need constant calibration," Antone told me. "I train our staff once a week, and the people who show up to regular tasting panels twice a month."*****
At a typical training session at Avery, folks step into one of several private booths in the sensory prep room, where they're handed a glass of water to cleanse their palate and a small glass of beer, typically something light and crisp like a pilsner. Sometimes the beer has been spiked with a flavor provided by Cara Technologies, which they have to identify. Other times, they'll be asked to rank a selection of flavors from sweetest to least sweet. If this sounds like a great way to take the fun out of drinking a beer, well, it pretty much is.
"As awesome as it sounds to drink beer all day for a living, drinking beer from 10 am on is grueling work," Antone admitted. That's why she always keeps a supply of candy or fresh fruit along as a motivator to keep tasters coming back. And of course, the beer samples are small, so no one is getting soused on the clock.
All that training is, of course, just to keep sharp for the real taste tests. Antone's lab runs three to four tasting panels in an average week. The makeup of the panel depends on what questions are being asked.
"For some tests, we need a very well trained panel who can use the lexicon we've developed to really pick apart a beer," Antone said. "In other cases, its better to use individuals that aren't super well trained, because that correlates better with the general public. A panel with people who haven't had a lot of training is a great way to strip away biases that others might bring to a tasting."
All this training and testing, though, means it can be hard for professional tasters and sensory analysts like Antone to leave work at the office. The heightened awareness of tastes and smells is something they carry with them all the time. Ezio Messina, head of the central laboratory for SABMiller's Italian brand Birra Peroni and 2014 Taster of the Year, told me the advanced techniques and constant training that go into being a professional taster can take some of the shine off of having a pint with friends.
"Very often outside of work I realize that my approach to beer is too professional, even when not expressly required," Messina said. "This takes away the tranquility of drinking in a carefree way."
As for Antone, she's constantly identifying odors and flavors associated with beer, like the esters that also occur in fruit, as well as other, less savory aromas, like trans-2-nonenal.
"Trans-2-nonenal is created by oxidation of malt compounds in beer," she said. "It's a papery aroma that smells and tastes like an old library book. It's also found in septic and porta potty cleaners. I have definitely caught myself in a porta potty sniffing and thinking 'Do I smell trans-2-nonenal right now?'"