Avery Brewing's got good taste — and the science to back it up
The first beer sample tastes like SpaghettiOs. Which is bad — but not as horrid as the one that smells like sweaty socks. Or the one that has not-so-subtle notes of baby vomit — an aroma that comes from butyric acid, which can form if bacteria infect the beer during a brew.
This last sample may be the most difficult for the eight Avery Brewing employees who are gathered in the company's barrel-aging room this morning to learn about off flavors and aromas from microbiologist and Avery sensory expert Melissa Antone.
"I hate beer now," jokes one of the students, holding the glass up — but away from his nose — and tentatively sniffing the air in between. "I'm quitting."
"It can be a rough way to start the day," says another. "My palate is destroyed. It's gone."
But hopefully not forgotten.
The samplers, who range from a packaging specialist to tap-room workers to a chemist, are being trained to recognize when — and why — a beer doesn't taste the way it should. Understanding this will help them explain the same thing to Avery's customers, further their own education in craft beer and assist Avery, already one of the most respected breweries in the country, in keeping its standards high. The training is part of a major new sensory initiative at the Boulder brewery, a component of its overall quality-assurance program. It's also an ambitious effort, rare at a beer maker of Avery's relatively small size. (The company produces about 50,000 barrels of beer per year — but still doesn't crack the list of the five largest breweries in Colorado.)
Over the past year, however, Avery's owner, Adam Avery, has spent tens of thousands of dollars to train his staff, buy software and supplies, and create a lab that supports this initiative. Over the next two years, he'll earmark even more to bring the program up to the same standards as those at craft breweries ten times Avery's size, such as New Belgium and Sierra Nevada.
"Making beer is easy. But making great beer and making it consistently is tough," Adam says. "But that is why I am in this. That is the only reason. I want to try to attain perfection, or as near to perfection as we can. It freaks people out when I say this, but we need to be emulating the huge breweries, the big three. You might not think much of their beer from a qualitative standpoint, but with their exactness, they are the best breweries in the world."
The effort intensified in January, when Avery spent $15,000 to bring in Bill Simpson, a world-renowned beverage-quality specialist in the United Kingdom who has been helping train palates, including those employed by the big three. Simpson spent a week in Boulder, schooling fifteen Avery department heads on flavor profiles and flaws.
In September, Antone, who was promoted to her current position last December, converted a former break room into a sensory lab where these fifteen department heads now regularly sample beers blindly and write down notes about what they are tasting. The goal is to marry that human component to the scientific data that scientists in Avery's quality-assurance lab already collect with their high-tech instruments — and to use all of that feedback to brew consistent, delicious beer, day after day after day.
If Avery can focus on quality and consistency — and help all of the other small breweries that are just getting started do something similar — the effort will ensure that craft beer continues to gain market share and continues to convert drinkers of those mass-produced beers.
And at Avery, that means employees need to recognize what baby vomit smells like.
Of course, not all of the beers that Antone has lined up in the barrel room and spiked with various flavor compounds are that rotten. Some merely taste like library books or buttered popcorn. And some of these "off" flavors and aromas would go well in certain beers — certain other beers. A taste of cloves, for instance, which can be the result of phenols created by yeast, is "wonderful in German wheat beers," she says. "But if you're tasting it in our IPA, then we have a major problem."
Oddly, not everyone can detect the nuances of baby vomit.
"If you ever own your own brewery, don't taste alone. There's the possibility that you are genetically blind to some of these," Antone advises. "That's why a panel is so much more powerful than an individual. But if you are blind to one, don't blame yourself. Blame your parents."
Adam Avery can blame his dad for encouraging his interest in beer.
"The summer that I put together the business plan for the brewery, I had taken the LSATs and been accepted to law school at the University of Denver," says Adam, 47, who was raised in Illinois and attended Regis University.
But his passions lay elsewhere — in rock climbing and in homebrewing. So when two friends who'd already gone to law school warned Adam that the legal profession might not be the right choice for him, he came up with another career path. "I talked to my dad and to another guy, and $90,000 later, we were in business," Adam remembers. That was in 1993, and twenty years later, Avery is still located in the same office park where it was founded — and still makes two of the three beers that Adam originally created: Ellie's Brown Ale and Out of Bounds Stout. (A third, Redpoint Amber Ale, is no longer in production.)
Avery didn't make a profit for the first ten years, growing slowly, if at all, but Adam planted the seeds for his success — and reputation — early by delving into some big, bold beer styles that most breweries weren't touching at the time, including its barley wine, Hog Heaven; its Belgian quadrupel, the Reverend; and Salvation, a Belgian golden ale.
Over the past five years, Avery has become best known for these specialty, barrel-aged and high-alcohol beers — creations that attract a cult following not just in Colorado, but with beer lovers across the country, who scour liquor stores and bars for brews like Maharaja, a double IPA that is both powerful and intricately delicate; Mephistopheles, an imperial stout that weighs in at around 16 percent ABV; and the Barrel Series of super-limited, one-off sour and wild ales.
And the company's growth — from twenty employees in 2010 to 91 today — has allowed it to plan for a new, $27 million, 68,000-square-foot campus in north Boulder. The project, which was announced in 2011, has been delayed by financial and bureaucratic factors, but it is now on track to break ground by the end of the year and could open in late 2014 or early 2015.
But specialty beers account for just a small percentage of Avery's output. The vast majority is its lineup of year-round "core" beers — two of which, White Rascal and Avery IPA, make up a whopping 60 percent of the brewery's annual production.
They're not Avery's sexiest beers, but that doesn't matter: Every Avery batch has to be perfect — or close to it — every time. If the batch doesn't have certain characteristics, what the brewery calls "specifications," then it doesn't leave the building. In 2012, Avery dumped 7 percent of all the beer it made because it didn't taste the way the brewery wanted it to taste, says Avery national marketing director Darin McGregor.
Determining whether the beer meets the specifications is a job that falls to Rob Christiansen. He heads up the quality-assurance department, which has a $300,000-plus annual budget and includes five people in addition to Christiansen: two biologists, a chemist, Antone and a yeast specialist and propagator. It's a huge staff for a brewery of Avery's size.
A molecular biologist by training, Christiansen has been at Avery for nearly eight years, and he cares a lot about the way his beer tastes and looks. He once found a shelf full of Avery anniversary beers going back seven years in a liquor store in Houston. Most were beers that weren't supposed to be aged. So he bought them all and dumped them. "That's just not how you want people to be experiencing your beer," he says.
Last year, Avery's brain trust started talking more and more about introducing a sensory panel to complement the technology they were already using. Technology like a cellometer, which counts the yeast cells and measures their health; a spectrophotometer, which uses light absorption to test for chemicals that produce off flavors, not to mention the bitterness of hops; and other meters that test for whether oxygen or CO2 has dissolved into the beer.
"But sensory panels are very expensive to set up," Christiansen says. There's the cost of the training and taking people out of their normal jobs to do the tasting, as well as purchasing the necessary supplies, like the flavor capsules that Antone drops into pitchers of beer during her sessions. "But we were always talking about it and about what we would be able to do when we had one," he continues, "and so finally we felt like it was ridiculous to wait any longer."
The sensory lab has now become one of the most important tools in the quality-assurance program. "You can have a whole bunch of things in a lab that tell you what's in the beer, but if it doesn't taste good, none of those things matter," Christiansen says. "That's where sensory comes in. That's the human part of the equation."
The former break room in Avery's dry-storage area, where it keeps specialty malts, bottles, labels and other supplies, is divided by a wall. On one side, Antone keeps a refrigerator with a variety of Avery and non-Avery beers along with the sensory kits and other equipment. On the other are three divided cubbies, each equipped with a seat, a pen and a flavor chart. In between are three tiny doors that Antone can open in order to slide beers through to the other side.
It may not look like much, but today is the debut of this room — Avery's new sensory lab — and Antone is excited. "We've been working on it for a while," she says. "We are trying to get the guys to taste these beers in as controlled a setting as possible."
A biology major at the University of Delaware, Antone got her start in the beer industry as a bar manager for Iron Hill Brewery, where she worked for five years. She moved to Boulder in 2011 with the goal of going to veterinary school and took a job working in the tap room at Avery. But in December of that year, a biology job opened up in the quality-assurance lab. Antone asked for it and was hired. "And that was it," she says. "I love this stuff. When I go to a beer festival, I always ask people, what's the worst beer you've had here — because that's the one I want to try."
A few months later, Antone, who is 26, was asked to lead the creation of the sensory department, and she now spends three days a week running it and two days in the lab.
On her sensory days, she asks some of the fifteen trained tasters to come in for twenty minutes. Each is asked to analyze a couple of beers by appearance, color, aroma, taste, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression. And they're expected to be specific, identifying the flaw they are tasting right down to the chemical compound. As in, that beer tastes like pumpkin guts, so it must have acetaldehyde in it, a chemical that can come from dying yeast. Or, this beer smells like pickles, which could come from the acetic acid in a bacteria called acetobacter.
Today the tasters are being tested on two styles — though they don't know what Antone is looking for. The first test is to ensure that this year's first batch of Old Jubilation, a winter seasonal, meets the brewery's specs. The second is to be certain that two recent batches of IPA are "true-to-brand," meaning that the tasters recognize them as Avery's. To make sure the tasters are on point, Antone has spiked a third batch of IPA with dimethyl sulfide, or DMS, and added it to the tasting.
"I try to throw them off so they never know what to expect when they sit down," Antone says, adding that the brain can be tricked by a lot of factors, including something as simple as the level that the cups are filled to as well as comments from other tasters in the room.
Antone designed her sensory lab based on others she has seen, specifically the one that New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins has been running since 1999 — and which has become a model for other craft breweries all over the country. That program was created by Lauren Salazar, who only recently handed over control of the lab to two full-time sensory specialists so she could take on some other responsibilities at the brewery. "We opened up the books and let [Antone] see exactly what we do," Salazar says.
New Belgium's program includes 85 trained tasters across all of its departments, each of whom spends fifteen minutes in the sensory lab at least twice a week. Altogether, about thirty people come to a tasting panel every day; they help the brewery to do shelf-life studies, to evaluate new beers and to check every single batch that New Belgium brews. (Avery is not yet at this point, but Antone hopes to get there by the time the new facility is finished.)
The New Belgium tasters record their notes in a software program that analyzes whether the beers are measuring up and, if not, identifies where they fail. "You can point right to the problem and say, oh, that yeast was pitched too early or the mash was boiled too long," Salazar explains. The process, which is all done blindly, takes the emotion and the ego out of brewing, and also removes any guilt over financial consequences if a batch of beer has to be dumped. It also ensures that any flaws are discovered — and not just the ones that a particular brewer, even the head brewer, is attuned to. "That way, our brewmaster, Peter Bouckaert, is just one point of data among thirty," she says. "He just becomes one dot that comes up on the graph."
In order to remain on the tasting panel, New Belgium employees have to show up a certain number of times and be repeatedly validated on dozens of flavor attributes, since (as Antone points out in her classes) not everyone can taste every flavor characteristic.
"If you don't get tested on an attribute, how do you know if you can taste it? It's like being colorblind. Unless someone tells you that your clothes don't match, you don't know," Salazar says. "No one person is a great taster. It takes a panel to make that evaluation."
Well, almost no one.
Bill Simpson has trained thousands of palates all over the world. He trained Salazar back in 1999 and Antone in 2013. In between, he's taught thousands of other brewery employees, especially those at the multinational beer makers and the larger U.S. craft brewers.
"I took his class and it changed my life. I will never forget it," Salazar says. "I train the same way he did. He is a really inspirational leader."
Simpson, the executive director at Cara Technology Limited, arrived in Boulder last January because Avery "wanted to become more professional about their tasting program," he explains. "They wanted to gain a lot of skill within the brewery and then be able to gradually spread that throughout the rest of the company."
Over the next week, they covered 29 flavors in 25 sessions — usually starting at mid-day so the students could get some of their regular jobs done first. "It sounds like a lot of fun, but it's demanding, and once they start to concentrate, you can hear a pin drop," Simpson says.
They concentrated, and learned. By the end of the week, Avery's fifteen tasters had correctly identified flavors 90 percent of the time, with the top score at 96 percent and the lowest at 87. "That's remarkable," Simpson says. "In other groups, that low score would have been the top."
In another remarkable feat, all of the tasters were consistently able to correctly identify a beer that wasn't Avery's, even when Simpson mixed two of them together.
"If there is someone at a company who is very dominant and who always knows what is right, then no one else has any accountability," Simpson notes. But Avery is very different. "Usually only one in five people have the aptitude to train at a high level, but all of the people who came in were comfortably within that group. They blasted away the one-in-five part, and I think that is because their recruitment polices are very much based in beer culture. If you're not interested in beer, they are saying, then why are you even coming to work for us?"
It's a culture that comes from the top.
From the beginning, Adam Avery has focused on pushing the boundaries of beer, brewing the beer he likes to drink — which makes for a wide and varied lineup — and making flavor and quality his priorities.
Is it more difficult to brew so many beers? "Yes, but it's fun," he says. "There are more moving parts and more opportunities to fuck up. You have to be on your game every single day, but that's what makes it so fun. We've created a culture here where we are not just a factory producing one style of beer all the time. It keeps people excited."
Adam knows what he likes when he tastes it — at the moment, he's got a lot of duganA IPA and Old Jubilation in his own fridge — but he isn't on the sensory panel.
"As far as detecting flavors and defects, I've been doing it a long time and I'm pretty good at it. Luckily for us, we have people who are much better tasters and smellers," he says. "That's why we took fifteen people out of their roles at the brewery for a week and trained them. It's the best money we've spent. I don't think anyone in the country is spending the kind of money that we are on it, based on the cost per size. I've never seen a 50,000-barrel brewery that has five, six full-time employees in quality assurance and the kind of equipment we have. Our lab runs our brewery, and I think that's what sets us apart."
But Avery is lucky to have that kind of money, he adds: "Unfortunately, for a lot of new and growing breweries, it would be money off the bottom line."
And that's one of the biggest dangers facing the craft-brewing industry. "All the old-school farts, our biggest concern is quality," Adam says. "A lot of people are reticent to talk about it because we don't want to look like assholes or 'the establishment.' But we need to talk about it, and we aren't acting like the establishment, because we want to help everyone else. If someone has an issue, we can help them find out what that issue is — same with New Belgium and a lot of others. They are opening their labs to these new guys because we all have been through it. We all made bad beers. You can't start a brewery on $90,000 and say you made perfect beer every time.
"Everything is going so well for the craft industry now," he adds. "We are an established industry that has seen phenomenal, steady, viable growth for the past ten years. And our plan is to help as many breweries as possible make great beer, because it is to all of our advantage."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.