Avery Brewing's got good taste — and the science to back it up

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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."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes