I’m hoping that this will be the first of a few posts about what I do for a living, but that all depends on feedback! Today I’m just gonna try to address people’s curiosity about what I do without giving away brewery secrets (I’m joking – as a lowly “sensory analyst” I’m privy to no inside knowledge whatsoever). The three most common questions I get asked after I tell someone that I’m a professional beer taster are – “How did you get a job like that?!”, “What do you do in there?” and “Do you get drunk?” You could probably tell a lot about a person just by the order in which they ask those questions, but let’s start at the beginning.
How did I get this job? The simple answer is luck. I answered an ad in the paper, which mentioned screenings for tasters, but remained vague about the details. I seem to recall hoping that it was for cake. Given the fact that, when presented with something sweet, I transform from a mild mannered twenty-something (at the time), into a ravenous fiend who treats moderation like Superman treats kryptonite, it’s probably best for my overall health (and belt) that it wasn’t. When I got to the venue, there were approximately 100-150 applicants there. What I soon learned was that only about 10% of the population have the taste buds for this kind of work, so the screening was a giant test to find only a handful of people. First, we were tested on the basic flavours in water – sweet, salty, sour and bitter (umami did not feature). Those of us who could differentiate between them were tested further, with more specific flavour compounds being introduced. For example, the trainer would spike water with something like isoamyl acetate (banana/pear flavour) to see who could identify it. This was done with a number of flavour compounds, first in water, then in beer (the complexity of which made it harder to detect). After two days of this, they had their 10%. Luckily enough, I was in that bracket. There followed a more detailed training period to get the newbies up to scratch, in which we were given steadily lower dosages of flavours in more complex beers. Overall, we were trained to recognise about sixty distinct flavours and aromas. Then we were ready to join the panel.
And this brings me onto the second question – what exactly do I do in there? It’s actually not that exciting. Drinking beer for money probably ranks highly on a lot of people’s “dream jobs” list, but like any job, it has its ups and its downs. I’ll get to the ups shortly, but the main downside is the hours. Due to the alcohol consumption, it will never be a full-time job. And this answers the question of whether or not I get drunk. If I worked office hours, drinking a range of beers from 9 ’til 5, it’s safe to say I’d either be in counselling by now or more likely dead. It’s a part-time job shared by a small group of tasters. Everyday a panel of eight people is selected from a group of twelve, so I don’t work a five day week. On the days that I do work, I start in the late morning and finish up early in the afternoon. I do swallow the beer, because it’s the only way of correctly assessing the level of alcohol, but I don’t drink enough to even approach drunkenness. In the past, there were occasional training days which required everyone to do a full day, 9 ’til 5. By lunchtime, people were getting giddy, which undoubtedly affected the accuracy of the panel’s feedback (I’ll go into more detail about training days in another article), so naturally such hours are not kept for the day-to-day tasting.
Without going into too much detail, the general make-up of my day is three sessions of tastings in a lab, which can involve between three to six samples of different lagers, ales, stouts, mixed drinks and non-alcoholic alternatives per session. Along with the other seven panellists, I score each sample from 0 – 10 on a range of flavours and aromas, which then creates a “fingerprint” or profile for each particular drink. Every taster has their own strengths (flavours they are sensitive to) and weaknesses (flavours they are either blind to or have difficulty detecting). The aim of the panel is to strike a balance. If I miss something, someone else will hopefully pick it up. The brewer then has more of an idea about how their product is balanced, and this is the main reason why a panel of human beings is used instead of computers. A chemical analysis cannot tell a brewer how the different aspects of their beer react to one another. For instance, there could be a taint present which a computer can detect (this doesn’t necessarily mean something nasty, just that one of the flavours is out of spec), but which remains imperceptible to the tongue because of the overall complexity of the beer.
Overall, I’d say my job is part quality control and part profiler. Sometimes a brewer wants to make sure there’s nothing wrong, sometimes they want the complete picture for a new experiment, and sometimes they want to see how their already profiled beer ages (I’ll go into more detail on ageing at a later date). I’ve been doing this for over seven years at this stage, and it’s opened my eyes to beer, and food in general. It’s safe to say that I’ve developed a miniature obsession with craft beer at this point, and tasting has given me a whole new appreciation for the artistry involved in balancing flavours. It has even gotten me interested in brewing my own stuff, which I hope to start before the end of the year. Watch this space.
- Greg Hulsman