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.