How to design a beer sensory program (that actually generates results)

Sensory Tasting with Purpose

A sensory program is a massive component of quality assurance that has the honoured distinction of simultaneously sounding incredibly fun and horribly dry. The technical aspects can be menial, but putting in the legwork ahead of time to organize your goals can save you headaches further down the road once you have a mountain of data. Sure, lots of people write about the necessities of sensory training: what a triangle test is, what off-flavours you need to know, and what mouthfeel really means. But what I’m here to talk to you about is finding the ethos of your sensory program and designing a method of testing that can generate useful results without stress. 

A beer sensory program is an element of quality assurance alongside microbiological and chemical testing. Analyzing beers for their appearance, aroma, taste, and mouthfeel can tell you so much about the processes that a beer has undergone – where things have gone right, and where they’ve gone wrong. Just sensory testing alone can tell you information such as:

  • How consistent are your products?
  • Do your beers match the description you advertise?
  • Are process changes affecting your beers?
  • Are contaminants affecting your beers?
  • Do experimental beers showcase the flavours you desire?
  • What are customers experiencing when they crack a cold one?

 Not every brewery needs to answer all of these questions, but every brewery should consider at least a few of them. Finding what is most important to your brewery and prioritizing those questions can steer you towards the most effective form of sensory analysis.

Setting up a panel of trained sensory analysts can certainly involve work and takes time, staff, and energy. The benefits, though, are required by every department – brewing, cellaring, packaging, marketing, serving, sales – as every employee can benefit from the knowledge of the beers they produce. Consider the pay-off when a cellar-person flags a green beer with off-flavours that is remedied before it’s crashed, or a taproom server tasting a mislabeled keg and the batch is able to be corrected, or taste panel highlighting a subpar brew that can be blended with other batches. These proactive examples allow for corrective action to be taken, which then saves the beer from going down the drain or going to market and spoiling a brewery’s reputation. So let’s get ahead of any problems and start on solid foundations. 

Finding the Goals of Your Program

When deciding how to run a sensory program there’s a number of questions that can help you figure out your goals. The key is to then use those goals to design personnel training, taste panels, data collection, and action plans. Always tie back to what you wish to accomplish.

The first question to consider is: who is the audience you want to represent? 

Keisha and Jordan who come round for weekly trivia analyze a beer differently than BJCP judge #256 at the annual awards. If you want to understand how a regular customer experiences your beer, put yourself in their shoes and pay attention to consistency over nuanced flavour changes. This means setting up a tasting panel that can understand brand profiles and rate deviations from the norm. If you want award-winning one-off brews instead, try to focus on training personnel to generate elaborate descriptions of the beers that can translate to sales and correct category placement.

An important question to ask for every quality assurance procedure is: how will you act on results?

Running a test is good and fine, but without an action plan for when things go wrong it’s just a waste of time. Determine before things go wrong what the response options can entail. A problematic beer can be solved via waiting, blending, re-marketing, selling as-is, or dumping. Figuring out a response procedure with sensory data is two-fold: 

  1. You’ll need to know what to do when a batch fails
  2. You need to ask the questions that will flag these issues in the first place
So how do you determine when quality is compromised? 

This can take a number of forms, some qualitative and some quantitative. As with chemical and microbiological tests, sensory tests can also have numeric values that can be deemed in-spec, in-danger, or out-of-spec. For example, if you are evaluating using Trueness to Brand testing, you can mark numerical deviations in aspects such as clarity, hop aroma, and bitterness. These will then provide you with the data to indicate if a beer is far enough out of its brand specification that it should be highlighted as a concern. 

A quick and simple form of testing could even be a go/no-go test where participants simply mark beers as saleable or not. This is a great method for indicating whether in-process beers are showing signs of contamination or off-flavours. Further elaboration can be tacked onto these tests including using the vernacular used in brand and sales descriptions, which makes the testing more specific to the aspects you look for in each beer. 

Training & Personnel

In order to keep this sensory testing organized and on track, it is valuable to have someone on staff who takes on the role of the ‘Tasting Czar’. If run effectively this role doesn’t need to take up a large portion of the person’s time, but it is important that this person is knowledgeable about the products offered and they have excellent communication skills. Organizing the tests, motivating co-workers to partake, collating results, and communicating courses of action are all valuable tasks that the Tasting Czar must consider. Most importantly, finding someone who is motivated and enthusiastic about sensory training and testing is a necessity, as this person acts as the cheerleader for ensuring product quality through sensory testing.

As for the tasting crew: invite everybody! Great tasting panel members work in all aspects of the brewery, and it is beneficial to have sensory experts within each department. Allowing all employees to join and become trained will mean that some really shine in some aspects of sensory analysis, while others showcase other tasting strengths. Where some members are good at picking up certain compounds, for others it may not come as quickly or easily. While some of this skill can be trained there are also inherent aspects too. Biases and differing skill levels are a part of sensory testing, but with a sufficient number of participants, tracking members’ biases, and ongoing training these factors can all be taken into consideration when analyzing results.


Trueness to Brand (TTB)

One of the best tools for product sensory testing is the Trueness to Brand (TTB) test. Being ‘true to brand’ means that your beer looks, smells, tastes, and feels as it should. This encompasses analyzing the beer for faults, but it is also about ensuring that a brand has the sensory aspects in accordance to its brand profile. This brand profile is the anchor of what a beer should be, and is generated by qualitative descriptions of the beer. This is also a great training exercise to help panelists work on using vernacular and finding descriptors for nuanced flavour components. Allow panel members to arrive at their own sensory descriptions before sharing and discussing in order to promote self-reflection, and ensure a space that respects each other’s opinions and abilities.

For new and one-off brands, the profile ensures there is a through-line between the brewing process, sales descriptions, and the actual sensory perception. For ongoing brands this also ensures consistency from one batch to the next through the use of TTB testing. With TTB testing you are assessing the variance of a variety of sensory descriptors, and how close or far each of these descriptors are when a batch is compared to the brand profile. It is for this reason that panelists’ knowledge of the brand anchors is paramount for TTB testing to be effective. 

The sensory descriptors should be the main characteristics that you are interested in. Dependent upon your needs, the characteristics may be: 

  • General (ex. appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel) or,
  • Specific (ex. colour, clarity, hop aroma, spice flavour, sourness, body). 

Start with between 5 and 10 descriptors, otherwise panelists may not have enough time for the tasting or they may rush their answers and not pay close enough attention.

When rating these sensory descriptors I prefer to use a variance scale from -5 to +5. A 0 is perfectly to brand, and the further the variance the more the sample deviates from the anchor.

For example, a negative ranking in hop flavour means there is lower than normal intensity of hop flavour, whereas a positive ranking would indicate a higher than normal hop flavour. What is important is that the panelists are provided with descriptions and examples of what this scale entails, such as how a +1 is different from a +4. Train panelists on what a passing or failing version of each beer would be.

Finally, make sure to record and analyze your results. Check whether batches need to be flagged or further analyzed based on the test results. The Tasting Czar is the point person to make sure results are communicated out to the necessary parties. Data collection for easy reference can also be used to trace back recipe modifications, process issues, customer complaints, and overall brand consistency.


Continuation & Improvements

Consider, first, your own goals when it comes to enacting a sensory program at your brewery. What would you like to accomplish and how will you get there? As with adding any quality control program, you don’t need to start with everything all at once. Find what your most immediate needs are, start small, and get people enthused to work towards better quality beers. Building enthusiasm and support from the team is necessary for a long-lasting and fruitful sensory program.

Cost, time, and panelist availability are some of the biggest obstacles many breweries face when setting up sensory training. Conveniently, the cost is quite low, the timing can fit easily into just an hour a week, and joining is a great opportunity for increasing employee morale and skills. If there is trepidation you can always start with faster methods of testing such as the go/no-go test to ease into formal tasting. Separate the aspects of appearance, aroma, taste, and mouthfeel in order to introduce these overall elements of tasting and judging.

Be sure to also include new employees and continually train everyone involved so that the number of trained panelists available stays high. Sensory panel members must be invested in the product being made, open to continual learning, enthusiastic, and willing to improve.

All breweries can benefit from having a sensory program. What this means for you will be unique and requires some introspection. A sensory program needs to exist for a specific function right from the get-go. Find the ethos of your sensory program and dive right in, then as your brewery grows and evolves, so too can your sensory testing. The tests you choose to carry out, the extent of training, and the resources allotted for testing can adapt over time to match what your brewery needs. As your resources and expertise expand, so too should your program. The key is to build these foundations so that you can confidently make the best sensory program for your brewery.


Want to learn more about other QC measure you can be taking at your brewery?

We are now offering a hands-on practical course, titled 'Quality Control in the Brewery' on September 30th at our facility in Guelph! This course will involve morning presentations covering the basics of beer quality control and setting up a quality control (QC) lab. The discussion will focus on learning aseptic techniques and creating aseptic environments including brewery sampling, plating beer samples for QC analysis on various agar media, how to use a microscope and haemocytometer for cell counts, creating sampling plans, and using sensory analysis as part of a quality program.

Learn more or register here!

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