Learning to Drink Beer Professionally

KPU’s sensory classes help brewing students perfect their palates

Sensory Lab – A set of hop and water triangle tests that brewing students use to evaluate the flavours of different beer ingredients. (Kristine Hui)

While drinking beer during a Monday morning class might sound like a bad idea, it’s just a normal part of the school day for students in KPU’s Brewing and Brewery Operations program.

Developing a well-informed palate is critical for future brewers so that they can make sure they are producing a consistently high-quality product. KPU instructor Alek Egi has the important task of teaching brewing students the science behind beer tasting in his class “Sensory Evaluation and Ingredients”.

“Sensory science is a young discipline, but it is developing very fast in all consumer industries and also in some service industries,” says Egi, who started his sensory learning 15 years ago while working at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg.

He spent one and a half years studying in Canada, the United States, and England in order to understand and utilize sensory evaluation, which would in turn also help his company develop their own tasting panel.

There are currently two sensory evaluation classes that are a part of the two-year Brewing program at KPU. In the first course, which is composed of a lecture and a lab component, students learn general sensory evaluation. Students learn about different sensory methodologies and how tasting panels are run in the lectures, and they are given samples of water or beer which are often spiked with flavour enhancers in the labs.

The class may then be asked to rate the samples for a particular attribute such as sweetness, or may be asked to determine which of the samples is odd-tasting. While it may be fairly easy for regular beer drinkers to identify sweet, salty, or sour tastes, only students will likely be able to identify common beer flavours such as diacetyl, ethyl butyrate, catty, or alkaline.

In the other sensory class, students will gain even deeper knowledge about beer tasting, including how to run consumer tests, analyze data, and submit samples to beer competitions.

“Really, in breweries … sensory [evaluation] should be done at every step starting from all the raw materials being purchased: malt, hops, and water,” says Egi. “On the day of the brew, you start with tasting your water, and every time you take a wort sample from any part of the process [you should be tasting].”

He also sees more and more small breweries in Vancouver implementing sensory panels, adding that, for those who are interested in the field, sensory in brewing can be a lucrative full-time career.

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