Longform

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

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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."

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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?"

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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.

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