“Cold drinkability.” That’s what a friend used to say while popping the cap off an ice-cold bottle of beer. And, without a doubt, the beer was ice cold, clear and perfectly golden with just enough foam. On a hot summer night, nothing was better than cold drinkability.
These days, even on a hot summer night, beer has become so much more than cold drinkability. From fruit beers to IPAs to porters – and everything in between and beyond – beer can be a full sensory experience.
A sensory panel group evaluates Old Aggie Lager. Everyone really knew, beforehand, that it could hold a candle to NMSU's Pistol Pete's 1888 Ale.
With an opportunity to sit on a sensory panel, this beer drinker was going to delve into the knitty-gritty of how beer sensory evaluations enable those cucumber kölsches and coffee stouts to make the grade.
I’m relatively new to New Mexico State University, meeting people through the stories I tell for the NMSU Foundation and Alumni Association. In May, I had the fortune of meeting, and subsequently working with, David Rockstraw, department head for NMSU Chemicals and Materials Engineering (CHME). He invited me to participate on the panel alongside CHME alumni and faculty, believing it would be a good way for me to meet people important to NMSU, while learning about the newest minor in his area, Brewery Engineering – affectionately known as NMSBrew. Considering my newbie status at NMSU, and certainly not discounting my love of cold drinkability and my very brief past history of home-brewing, I jumped at the chance.
To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect, other than I’d probably get to hang out with a bunch of Aggie alumni and sample great beer over casual conversation. For the most part, that was true. I was in a room with a bunch of great Aggies, but the beer sampling was not like what you’re currently imagining. We didn’t have four or five beer glasses in front of us, and we didn’t sit around and drink and chat about what we liked, or didn’t like, about each sample.
Our sensory panel, getting started by logging in to the mobile app.
In the hour and 20 minutes we had together, we’d taste only two beers and spend less time chatting each other up and more time concentrating on details most of us never think about when opening up a can of Tecate.
Among the 10 of us in the Jett Hall conference room was Dr. Rockstraw and CHME alumni Ken Dixon ’78, Frank Seidel ’82 and Carlos Wendler ’01. NMSU Dean of Engineering Lakshmi Reddi sat in, as did Tiffany Acosta from NMSU Marketing and Communications. And NMSU Brewery Engineering professors Catherine (Catie) Brewer and Stephen Taylor offered the educational component to the experience.
College of Engineering Dean Lakshmi Reddi watches professor Stephen Taylor pour the first round.
Yes, Catie’s last name is Brewer, which did not go unnoticed by any of us. “Your last name is Brewer?” Ken Dixon quietly asked, clearly smiling. “That’s perfect.”
New Belgium Brewing Company’s sensory expert Lindsay Barr was the special guest. Ms. Barr is also the co-founder of DraughtLab, the handy app and software package we were required to use to describe the beer we were sampling. It is the same app and software package used by NMSBrew in its curriculum.
Our sampling session was run by Dr. Brewer, and we began by learning about our new app and how we’d be using it to describe sensory perceptions of our beer samples. Turns out, sensory evaluation isn’t quite as simple as “cold, clear and perfectly golden with just enough foam.”
Each of us were given a miniature weizen glass (the beer glass that is hour-glass shaped) filled with a rose-colored beer. We were taught to hold our 2 oz. glasses in a way that would allow us to see the full color of the beer while not transferring the heat from our hands into the glass, prematurely warming the beer.
Carlos Wendler '01 matches the color of the beer.
Using parameters provided in DraughtLab, we began our evaluation with the appearance of the beer, describing the following things: color, haze and foam color and “lacing” (which is how the foam sits on along the side of the glass after you swirl the beer – without actually swirling it out of the glass). Holding our glasses to the light, this seemed pretty standard stuff, and all 10 of us agreed on what we were looking at.
Next, we were asked to describe the beer’s aroma. This is where things went awry. Not bad awry, just inexperienced-sensory-panelists awry. Describing a beer’s aroma is a lot more complicated than just holding it to your nose and describing it as hoppy or caramelly.
To accurately get a good sniff of beer for evaluation, you need to 1.) make sure you don’t eat a whole bunch of grilled onions right before you decide to taste beer – I’m speaking on behalf of someone else here, and 2.) have a pretty keen sense of smell, because within the app’s aroma profile options, there are roughly 225 selections from which to choose.
Frank Seidel '82 breathes in the beer's aroma.
We all grabbed our little glasses and carefully swirled the beer around to release its aroma – like you would with wine. After multiple swirls and sniffs, we began to try to pick out the nuances of what we were breathing in. It probably goes without saying, but trying to hone in on five aroma profiles out of more than 200 options is not an easy task.
We were, as expected, all over the place with our aroma profile submissions – from earthy to fruity to herbaceous. Some of us sensed citrus notes, some mushroom notes, some woody notes. In the discussion that followed after sniffing our beer, we learned that most of us will have a unique take on an aroma, ruling out the possibility of an absolute aromatic description. And, we learned that with the proper sensory training, enough descriptive overlapping will occur in sensory evaluations to offer a usable, accurate aromatic description within the app.
Ken Dixon '78 logs in his perceptions.
Why is that important, you ask? The app and its accompanying software provide consistent details for brewers. With properly trained sensory experts, breweries like New Belgium can perfect flavor profiles. From an educational perspective, NMSBrew students can use it to analyze beer, re-create what they taste and eventually migrate those profiles into a repertoire of recipes. It’s something to think about the next time you venture out to a microbrewery to try a few of their unique varieties, or when you visit for Homecoming – NMSBrew plans to open its brewery to alumni that weekend. (Don’t worry, there’s a way to learn more about that at the end of this story.)
It was now fully 45 minutes into our session and finally, we were instructed to do what most of us signed up to do: taste the beer. I, personally, was thankful to have learned how to hold my glass because the beer was still nicely chilled. But, like with the aroma profiling, there was more to it than just taking a sip: we had to hold our noses while we drank.
Dean Reddi holds his nose to taste the beer.
I’m not sure how many of you hold your nose while drinking anything, but it is not especially enjoyable. By doing so, however, we were able to omit input from our nasal receptors so as to pay attention to basic chemical interaction on the taste buds, identifying things like sweet, salty, sour and bitter. We were also able to describe the mouthfeel of the beer – thin body, low carbonation, mouth-watering.
At this point, none of us had actually taken a true, everyday-Joe kind of sip to enjoy what was in that glass, and most of us still had at least half a glass left. I feel pretty good about speaking for the group when I say we were all both relieved and happy to receive instructions from Dr. Brewer to just simply “drink up.”
“It’s much easier to enjoy the beer without knowing any of this,” teased Dean Reddi. “It really wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.”
Ok, he was kidding about the last part. It was fun, but not in the same way it’s fun to grab a few beers on a hot summer night. You could say it was a lot like the kind of fun you have learning about something new – something that enhances a thing you already enjoy.
Holding the glass so as not to allow the transfer of heat from your hand.
As we neared the end of the session, Dr. Brewer offered us one more sample: The Widow Maker.
Brewed this past spring by students in the NMSBrew program, this beer packed a whopping 10-12% ABV (alcohol by volume – most beer averages around 4.5 – 5%). Considering it was mid-afternoon, I was quite grateful for the 2 oz. glass. And, since we were running out of time, rather than using our app to evaluate this brew, we asked Ms. Barr to do the honors. She rattled off a description of the color, aroma, taste and mouthfeel that reflected her vast experience, sounding almost app-generated. We all smiled and commended her on her acute sensory perception. Then we took our own sips.
As much as I wanted to incorporate some of the science I just learned to evaluate this beer, I was just too mentally wiped out from the first sample. But, for those of you who are curious, the Widow Maker was a good, albeit strong, mahogany beer – caramelly with a nice brown foam.
And, it had excellent drinkability.
- To learn more about NMSU’s brewery engineering minor, visit: chme.nmsu.edu/NMSBrew/
- The initial beer in our sample was New Belgium Brewing Company’s Mural, with limited availability in the Southwest. NMSBrew’s Widow Maker is not available for purchase.
- CoEng alumni… get ready! This homecoming, NMSBrew plans to serve brews it will enter into the November American Institute of Chemical Engineers Beer Brewing Competition, giving you the chance to evaluate them prior to competition. Last year, these NMSBrew varieties placed second in the nation in the dark beer category. Limited spots are available, so please visit the link below to reserve your spot!