By James Furbush
Tucked behind a nondescript door in the middle of a massive taproom renovation construction project is a small lab that looks like something out of a high-school chemistry class. Only instead of bunsen burners the equipment here — a vertical laminar flow hood, for instance — is designed to measure the consistency and quality of craft beer.
For some reason I am nervous, acutely aware that despite being a frequent craft beer drinker who might be found to say something annoying, like “I’m really into mosaic hops right now” at a party, when push comes to shove my sense of smell is lacking and after thousands of NEIPAs my taste memory of them has blurred into one inseparable tropically pillow of a beer whether or not they have been double dry hopped, brewed with lactose and conditioned on frit, or have citra, motueka, galaxy, or whatever hops in them.
Trevor Bland, LHBCo.’s quality control manager, hands me a spreadsheet-like form and asks me to try the five beers lined up on the table one at a time. “Taste them and record any thing that seems off with the color, aroma, mouthfeel, and flavor,” he says gesturing to the beers before me.
Suddenly, I’m a teenager wondering why I didn’t study harder for the SATs. At Lord Hobo Brewing Company, Sensory Panels like this one are a nearly daily occurrence for the brewers and staff to not only maintain and improve the consistency of the beers throughout the brewing process, but also help inform how the beers will taste by the time they get to the consumer. And, oh by the way, educate those at the brewery to better tell when something is off or not worth putting into market. Beers, after all, are a complex living product that can change over time.
Making beer consistently at scale is no easy feat
For breweries one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how and when it strategically makes sense to invest in quality control initiatives because the equipment and people required to do that effectively are no small investment. The American Society of Brewing Chemists suggests breweries can ramp up their investments overtime as they grow their volume of barrels produced.
“Our lab is growing into a lab that breweries our size aspire to have,” says Bland. “The [vertical laminar flow hood] is a huge step in the development of our lab,” he said, going on to describe how the VLF decreases the chances of false positives when testing the beer for microbes. It also provides great control over the cleanliness of the testing environment.
“It gives us a sigh of relief when we are propagating our yeast,” Bland added, noting the VLF “reduces our chance of contamination.”
For example, for breweries that produce 35,000 barrels per year or more — of which, Lord Hobo Brewing Co. is one of — should invest in things like a hydrometer, autoclave, and other equipment. Smaller breweries might only have a microscope and refrigerator while larger breweries have things like grist sieves or foam meters, for example. Bland says Lord Hobo is currently ahead of the ASBC suggestions in terms of lab equipment and has no plans of slowing that investment.
“The bigger we grow as a brewery, the more risk is involved when it comes to quality,” says Bland, who came to Lord Hobo over a year ago from Red Hook Brewing in Portsmouth, NH. He says the Quality Control Team tests beers vigorously at 60, 90, 120, and 160 days to hone in on the “cut-off point when a specific beer is no longer a Hobo beer.”
Which is how I found myself in a laboratory tasting beers to determine whether or not they taste good or like the beers I’ve come to know and love. While I’m far from a beer tasting expert — my language to describe aromas and flavors and mouth feels is, ironically enough, not well honed as it should be — I was able to acquit myself nicely.
I figured out that the first beer was not the beer I was supposedly tasting based on its color and flavor (Bland placed a beer in the wrong packaging to gauge how well his panelists avoid the power of perception); two of the five samples tasted like they should even if the aftertaste seemed slightly … unmellow; and another two samples were beginning to lose their flavors where they lacked the slightly bitter bite of the hops after the initial sip.
While I went into the sensory panel hoping to pass the test as I’d been trained to do from a lifetime of an educational system imploring me to do so, the point of the Quality Control Team’s sensory panel test is not necessarily getting the answers right. There are no right answers.
The point is for a brewery to collect the necessary data in order to deliver the best possible tasting experience to customers, which requires humans to taste beer and do their best to explain how or why the sample beer is the same or different than the baseline so brewing and packaging processes can be tweaked and fixed.
Unless a brewery is selling directly to consumers then it stands to reason the beer brewed will go from brewery to distributor to retail before reaching the customer. It’s a lot of steps where things can potentially go wrong, says Bland. But, there also needs to be a commitment to continually improving quality before the beer leaves the brewery, Bland adds.
That means ensuring the canning line is optimized for fill heights and dissolved oxygen, which is why Lord Hobo invested in Krones canning line, for example. Another piece of equipment Lord Hobo recently invested in is a QTA from Eurofins — one of only a handful of breweries in the US to do so, according to the company. The QTA is essentially an alcolyzer that takes half the time to do its analysis, which ranges from the original gravity or sugars in the wort to the ABV, real degree of fermentation, final gravity, and bitterness in the finished product .
“It’s a really cool piece of technology that cuts analysis time down ten-fold, all with just a drop of beer,” says Bland.
For Bland and his team, it’s not about purchasing the fanciest equipment or checking a box, however. It means having a process for reviewing every tiny detail of the brewing process and operations and coming up with strategies to improve all of it.
“These challenges won’t be overcome in a day but by building a culture to stay ahead of the curve,” he adds, noting that the brewery has come a long way in just three years but there’s always more work to be done, especially to get to the level of older, more established breweries.
James Furbush is head of B2B marketing at Lord Hobo Brewing Co.