Every Friday at 2 PM the Sharp’s flavour panel convenes.
During my career I have been privileged enough to be on a broad range of taste panels. Most have consisted of the Brewers and anyone else who wants to have a free beer, standing in a sample room clutching pints of beer to top of their beer guts, saying things like “yes, uh huh and oh I agree” in response to the Head Brewer’s comments while edging ever closer to the back of his trousers. In the biggest brewery (factory) I worked at it was like all other aspects of working life; tense, political and competitive. The panel was designed to detect ‘off flavours’. As what we were tasting were PPLs (premium packaged lagers) any form of taste could be considered to be an off flavour. Hop, fruit or malt notes would not be welcome to the target consumer who had only purchased the bottle to go with his/her outfit. The winner of the flavour panel game was quickest to spout a list of chemicals like dimethylsulphide, 2,2,4 trimethyl furanone, vicinal diketone, trans-2-nonenal, 2-[2-[bis(carboxymethyl)amino]ethyl-(carboxymethyl)amino]ethanoic acid *(1)......... Win enough games and you would get a gold-edged high vis jacket and a key to the executive washroom.
Early flavour panels at Sharp’s were made up of Sales Team Members, the Head Brewer and the Accountant. After a couple of weeks of adhering to good practice the panels evolved into the opportunity to gossip and to wind up the Head Brewer to the point where the veins on his neck touched his pint glass.
In 2004 this changed when we sought the guidance of flavour evaluation specialist the excellent Dr Debbie Parker and a volunteer panel was recruited, screened and trained. People on brewery tours always greet the concept of taking part in a flavour panel with mirth and assume that I am inundated with volunteer alcoholics who turn up and down several pints of each batch before going to sleep on the malt sacks. In truth flavour panel selection is very sober affair with unsuccessful applicants not only finding out they can’t join the panel but also that there is something wrong with their sense of smell and taste. Taste isn’t like sight where something is either visible or not. Taste is very complicated and involves thresholds and flavour receptor specificities (sorry). Most humans assume that they can taste everything that everyone else can but most human tasting capabilities are either average or below.
So why do I love my flavour panel? I love them because they turn up every week, because they are honest, because they have excellent taste buds, because after 5 years of tasting the beer they know it like the back of their hands but mostly because they have the character and integrity to disagree with me when they need to!
The panel is made up of a 50/50 mix of ladies and men with ages ranging from late 20s to 50s all of whom have tasting and flavour articulating capabilities well above average (none of them as good as the Head Brewer!). Tasting is carried out and recorded independently before opinion is discussed and consensus reached. I say consensus but often this means agreement to disagree. Although the panelists all have an excellent palate there is variation in how each palate perceives the flavour of the same beer. The results of the panel are reconciled with the details of the brew and used to guide and refine how we make beer. Normally this is about maintaining the status quo but when new season’s hops and malt are introduced they are used to attain consistency in the context of change.
I’m sure that like me everyone reading this who enjoys a pint or two of Sharp’s beer now loves Philippa, Lynn, Jax, Debbie, John, Cliff, Steve, Les, Rod, Ian, Tris and Alan too.
*(1)chemists will have spotted my hilarious EDTA joke.