What Does a Beer Sensory Scientist Do?

New Belgium’s Ali Schultz explains the science behind beer evaluation, how someone becomes a professional beer taster, and why standards are important for sensory studies.
JP Ervin

“Professional beer taster” might sound like a dream job title. However, Ali Schultz, sensory manager for New Belgium Brewing Company, emphasizes that it’s not all fun and games. Schultz is an expert in the field of sensory evaluation, which applies rigorous methods to recipe development and testing for quality.

As it turns out, evaluating beer is a complex process. And it isn’t as simple as drinking great beer. In fact, in the course of their work, assessors are routinely asked to consume stale products, taste for notes of contamination, and drink heavy cream to master beverage mouthfeel.

In interview with Standardization News, Schultz explained the science behind sensory evaluation and how experts are applying sensory methods to the beer industry. During the conversation, we spoke about how someone becomes a beer assessor and what kind of training is required to detect specific elements of a beer. We also talked about Schultz’s involvement with ASTM International as a member of the committee on sensory evaluation (E18), as well as the ways standards are strengthening the evaluation of beer.

For people who might not know, what is sensory evaluation?

Sensory science or sensory evaluation, as the name implies, involves using your senses. Sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing – all those things can be a part of a sensory evaluation. Which of those senses you use depends on the product you're evaluating. It’s a very scientific approach. It isn't just putting a product in front of someone and asking what they think. We are looking for specific things, whether we ask questions of consumers or trained panelists, to make sure that it's rigorously done. We have sample randomization, and we do a lot of training with our panelists. They are taught to recognize and scale specific attributes of a product, whether that be food, cars, lotions, or body care products. They are taught to be as much like a machine as possible, but using the human senses, which are often more sensitive and holistic than an instrument.

How does sensory science fit into the beer industry?

In quality assurance, we're using it to make sure the beer is consistent. We train our panelists on off-flavors for beer so we can identify a defect in a product that we don’t want our consumers to get. We also do work with R&D to make sure that there's variety in the brands and that the brand in production is what the brand manager had intended. Let’s say they wanted a flavor to be tropical, but it actually tastes more floral. We help them go back to the drawing board and figure out what is going on. I like to think we have our hands in all the pots at once, which is really fun.

Read More: Identifying PFAS and Other Contaminants in Water

New Belgium is a little bit different from other areas of sensory evaluation. As with a lot of breweries, we use our internal employees on panels. They already have another job. Their paycheck doesn't come from this, whereas a lot of companies are doing contract sensory work. Another outside company comes to them with a project, and they are often paying people, so it becomes their job. In the brewing industry, especially at a lot of smaller breweries where you don't have a lot of people, there's less of a screening protocol for assessors. We take who we can get and then train them up from there.

It's funny. People always say, "oh, it must be the best to drink beer all day." But we don't drink it. We evaluate it. Drinking beer may sound like fun, but our first panel starts at 9:15 a.m. and I don't let you have coffee beforehand. 

So how do you train someone to become an assessor? Are some people just naturally good at tasting beer?

What we have found is there are people that are good, people that will never be good, and people in the middle. They don't start off good, but we give them a year of attribute trainings. Our screening process takes a lot longer. Some people say they are bad at smelling, but we all are. As a human, you can smell well, but it's hard to put words to what you're smelling. That's the struggle with sensory science –because we don't talk about it in our daily lives. If I asked you how your breakfast was, you'd probably tell me what you had. You wouldn't say, “well, the smokiness of the bacon offset the creaminess of the eggs.” We're not used to thinking about our food in that manner. A lot of it is shifting the mindset of panelists. 

The beer industry has a lot of passionate people who value the culture and community. But it sounds like becoming an assessor is more complicated than simply loving beer.

Most of the people that work here drink beer and like beer. But we also have panelists that don't drink much. They obviously need to put the beer in their mouths as part of evaluation, but they don't go home and drink. They don't explore; they're not curious about other brands. But they still make fabulous tasters. You don't have to like the product. And to be honest, we evaluate every single brand we make. I don't love every beer we make or drink each one outside of work.  But it doesn't matter when I'm a panelist. I know what the flavor profile is supposed to be, and I'm certainly going to put that beer in my mouth and evaluate it because it's my job. For the panelists, too. They've agreed to do that as a panelist.

Is the situation different when it comes to consumer tasting?

On the consumer side, it’s very fun. We're fortunate enough to have a tap room here that we can use for consumer studies. Now, there are some assumptions we're making. It's not a great cross-section of society. It's people who are coming to the brewery.

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One interesting thing we’ve found is a big bias, where people say they will drink the beer regardless of how it tastes. During a shelf-life study with consumers, we were providing them with old beer to see at what point they start rejecting it. We’re going to publish a paper on this, because we had to look at the type of question we were asking. In the sensory industry, you typically ask "would you drink this all or would you dump it out?" But people got offended that we suggest they dump out their beer. One consumer even said "I don't like it, but I wouldn't leave it unfinished. That's un-American."

I thought that was hilarious. There's definitely a very different mindset about beer. We have people come into the brewery who are beer nerds. But there are others where their family members drag them here and they're not that into beer, but it can still be useful to get their perspective on things as well.

To what extent do you use the ordinary language of beer drinkers? Can I be an assessor using the terms and grading scales from to a site like RateBeer?

The language is very different. You sometimes read on the side of beer "pillowy flavor." We would never use that word in sensory science. Instead, we make panelists learn chemical names. For example, isoamyl acetate is a specific compound that smells like candy banana. We train our panelists to say isoamyl acetate instead of banana. A banana can smell like a lot of different things. It can smell green all the way up to that disgusting brown sludgy thing. By training the panelists to use precise vocabulary, I avoid confusion about what I mean. With our panelists, we are very insistent on the language they use and if there's confusion, we dive into that, break it apart, and give them chemicals or references. I make panelists drink heavy cream for mouthfeel attributes. They're unfazed by whatever we give them anymore because it's always weird.

With the consumer, I'd sometimes ask them to think of a wheat beer that has a lot of banana flavor. Some of them are like, "What's a wheat beer?" Consumers are all starting at different points. Some of them know more than me on certain brands. However, a lot of consumers struggle, such as with sour and bitter confusion. If they think a beer is too sour, we try to understand if it’s really too sour or they are confusing sour with bitterness. You must use very broad terms because consumers often just don’t know. Their perspective is awesome information for us to know in the first place because these are the people that are drinking our product. We want to make it accessible to them.

I’m guessing you don’t use a lot of “good” or “bad” descriptors in your studies.

I forbid my panelists to tell me if they like something or not. I just don't care if they like it. We never treat our panelists as consumers. Of course, they have opinions and want to share them. But they are so involved in the brewing industry, especially as panelists, they are our beer's worst critics. “You said it was Meyer lemon. Do you mean the peel or the juice?” That's the level of specificity we're getting with the panelists.

Crafting questions for consumers is very different. There is a 9-point hedonic scale, which goes from “dislike extremely” all the way to “like extremely.” If I asked you how your breakfast was, you might say, “I liked it.” That's a phrase that we’re going to use in a consumer study because it resonates. It's how consumers talk. If you get too science-y, consumers can be like, “I don't even know what you're saying.”

Given that U.S. craft brewing exploded in popularity during the last few decades, I’d imagine a lot of what you do is very cutting edge. How central is sensory science to the beer industry today? Has it become more common since you joined the field?

I will say the industry is very inconsistent. Sensory often gets put on the back burner. Some breweries don’t do a lot of sensory, or they aren’t doing it in the most rigorous way. They might be sampling 20 different samples, whereas we limit our samples in a panel to eight. You can’t evaluate that many samples without blowing out your palate. It isn't that breweries don't care, but they just don't have the time or the resources. I feel so fortunate. New Belgium has always been supportive of sensory science. We have eight or nine staff members between the two New Belgium breweries, Bells Brewing in Comstock, MI, and our site in Daleville, VA.

I do think the beer industry is getting more and more scientific, or at the very least, people are becoming aware that they need to do sensory. I see that continuing to grow and grow. It's hard if you are the only QA person at a brewery. You're doing chemical analysis like ABV. You certainly don't have time to go explore more about sensory. You need to care about the ABV a lot more, because the TTB [The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] is going to come down on you if it’s out of spec.

How do standards fit into the evaluation of beer? I know you reworked the standard guide for sensory evaluation of beverages containing alcohol (E1879). What led you to tackle that project?

One of the reasons I love ASTM so much is I'm hanging out with people that wrote the textbooks and papers that I reference. For this reason, I'm trying to contribute to ASTM where I can. The original standard stressed a lot of things you should watch out for related to safety and covering yourself from liability. The safety aspect is important. There are calculators in the document that I use at the brewery to make sure people aren’t overconsuming. That's why we tried to put out some guidelines of things you should be thinking about, like how much alcohol is a person drinking and whether they have other health conditions or medications that may interfere.

Learn More: ASTM International's Sensory Evaluation Committee (E18)

However, the old standard provided little guidance on how to actually evaluate a beer. The new standard makes it obvious that safety, whether of panelists or consumers, is important. But it isn’t just focused on that. There are other things to think about. How many samples should you have? What pallet cleanser do you need to use? There is a lot of weird information out there on what you should be drinking between samples.

The goal of E18 in general is to make standards that are applicable to everybody in the sensory community because we want to help. There are some very brilliant minds involved. And if we can capture that and distill it into a standard, then people don’t have to wander around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Well, I’m sure everyone is now wondering how to become a beer scientist. How did you enter the field?

In undergrad, I majored in chemistry and English, so I always used both sides of my brain. Then I went to grad school for food science at UC Davis. My research wasn't in sensory science, but I did take sensory science classes and my lab was connected to Charlie Bamforth, who is a giant in the brewing industry. I got to know one of his grad students. She graduated before me and came to work at New Belgium as the sensory manager. When I graduated a year later, I saw they had an opening and asked, “Hey, is New Belgium a cool place to work?”

A lot of it was that I just needed a job. But I came to really, really love it. It was because of the inclination I had to do both the science and the human aspect. It felt natural. I think it is uncommon for someone to start out with the goal of being a sensory scientist. Usually, you get into it from a sideways aspect and then realize it’s what you love to do. ∎

For more information about the committee on sensory evaluation (E18), or to join the group, please contact staff manager Scott Orthey.

Ali Schultz is sensory manager for New Belgium Brewing Company. After earning her M.S. in food science from the University of California, Davis, Schultz has been a part of New Belgium’s Sensory program since 2012, becoming the Sensory manager in 2019. During this time she has run true to brand and descriptive analysis panels and created a novel method of tracking panelist performance. She expanded the consumer studies program for quality assurance, research and development, and marketing across multiple brewing locations. Schultz now manages the sensory programs at all brewing locations by ensuring robust, actionable data is used to make top-quality products. As a brewing sensory expert, she has spoken at many brewing conferences, authored methods for both ASTM International and ASBC, and continues to research new methods and best practices.

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