Beer tasters have tough work

Deschutes uses sensory panel to test flavor

By Megan Kehoe / The Bulletin

Published Jan 24, 2014 at 12:06AM

It’s Tuesday morning, and just like almost every other week day, Matt Henneous is drinking beer at work.

All kinds of beer, too. An IPA, a pale ale, a porter — they’re all part of a normal day for Henneous and two dozen other employees at Deschutes Brewery who serve on the brewery’s sensory analysis panel and get to taste test beer nearly every day at work.

But while it’s easy to think that these 25 employees have the best job in Bend, it may not be the dream job that you think it is.

“Sometimes it’s not always fun,” said Alicia Hicks, a quality assurance supervisor who is on the panel. “It can ruin drinking beer for you because you’re always trying to pick out those off flavors in other beer.”

While the participants, who all have jobs in various departments at the brewery, are being paid to be at work, the sensory training is considered an extracurricular part of their day, and they’re still expected to make up the time missed for the sensory analysis testing. And, in order to be able to identify off flavors, participants must become familiar with them through training, which means drinking a fair share of bad beer.

“The sensory analysis is more sensitive than any one piece of analytical equipment,” said Shawn Theriot, quality assurance manager with the brewery. “It’s an integral part.”

Since the brewery first established the sensory analysis program seven years ago, the program has grown to 25 participants. The employees meet four days a week to taste test samples of the brewery’s beer, and also meet once a week for palate training. Each of them go through three to nine months of training before becoming officially part of the program.

“It’s not just about looking for off flavors,” Theriot said. “It’s also about the attributes we want to be in the beer. Each brand has core attributes that we think define each brand, and we have a target associated with those.”

Program participants generally taste between six and nine samples of beer during each session, and are asked to judge each sample based on look and flavor on a sliding scale. The panel, which tastes beer from every single batch of Deschutes beer brewed, helps assure the beer is meeting quality control standards. The tasting also helps the company determine the beer’s shelf life by having the sensory panel taste a beer over the course of several months.

“It’s fun because it makes you realize that what you’re making isn’t this static thing that comes out the same way every time,” said Henneous.

Henneous, a brewer, has been part of the program for a year. He enjoys taste testing, but said there are also moments when it’s not so enjoyable. For example, last week during the training session, the panel was presented with an array of gluten-free beers from various breweries to expand their sensory knowledge.

Henneous said the session wasn’t his favorite, as he’s not sold yet on the quality of gluten-free beers.

“It was kind of awful,” Henneous said.

The panel will also often taste special project beers. For example, when the company is considering changing ingredients or suppliers, test batches of the beer will be brewed and given to the sensory analysis program to sample.

More recently, the sensory analysis team has started tasting beer from states the brewery has recently expanded sales into as a way to determine how the shipped beer is aging on the shelves.

While Theriot said the sensory analysis program is the brewery’s best tool to determine flavor quality, it also monitors its bottling and packaging through the use of a machine called the total package oxygen analyzer. On an hourly basis, bottles coming off of the packaging line are tested by this machine for oxygen levels. Too much oxygen in the bottle will lead to off flavors developing over time in the beer. If this is found by the analyzer, the line is shut down.

While other local breweries do not have the same comprehensive analysis program as Deschutes, the breweries have their own ways of conducting quality control. GoodLife Brewing Co.’s co-owner Ty Barnett said there is no industry-wide standard, but most breweries have a system in place. GoodLife has two main taste testers for its beer: its head brewer and its production manager. And, like Deschutes, some beer from each keg brewed is reserved for tasting purposes to determine that the batch has hit the mark in terms of flavor. Oxygen levels are also tested over time, and this method has led to the brewery’s determination of a 90-day best-by date for its beers.

Barnett said that as the brewery continues to grow, it may begin to implement a more formalized program of taste testing.

With Deschutes continuing to expand east across the country, and with the brewery’s production of 285,451 barrels of beer in 2013, the sensory analysis program is doing their best to keep up, said sensory panel coordinator Amanda Benson.

This may mean tacking on an additional day of taste testing and adding an additional panel of tasters in the future.

“Before we started seven years ago, the brewery didn’t have any sort of formal tasting program,” Benson said. “But now, the sensory panel is involved with almost everything.”

— Reporter; 541-383-0354, mkehoe@bendbulletin.com