The Next Level

Psst: We’re going to let you in on a little secret about the craft beer you’re drinking. Odds are pretty good that it’s flawed. This is especially true if you’re drinking a ridiculously hopped double IPA, or a luscious Russian Imperial Stout. The flaws might not be noticeable, especially if the beer in question is moving out of the keg almost as quickly as it moved in, but they are in there, hidden by the overt flavors we love so much.

Every brewer stumbles across a bad batch at some point. All it takes is for some wild yeast to be in the right place at the right time. Wild yeast can impart a number of flavors ranging from funky to acidic. There are other things that end up in beer. Diacetyl is a compound that naturally occurs during fermentation, and the result is a buttery flavor. It’s actually one of the compounds that makes butter taste like it does. Yes, it’s also that magical component in a big, buttery chardonnay. Certain levels of diacetyl are acceptable in some beer styles, while other beers are too big to afford you an opportunity to detect the buttery notes. Since it’s not always an offensive flavor, you might not even mind if it’s there. Acetaldehyde is another compound that occurs naturally. It’s produced by plants and commonly found in cereal grains. It’s got a green apple characteristic, which is easy to miss if a beer is really hoppy.

Bubble gum, wet socks, and metal are other flavors that can emerge in beer, and since the culprits are often part of the brewing process, managing their impact can be hard. The first step, however, is detecting them.

Of course all brewers taste their beer, and it’s no secret that the brewers with more discerning palates are more successful than their less gifted counterparts. Even then, however, everybody has different sensitivities. Somebody who can pick up the slightest hint of a metallic flavor might be completely unaware of the buttery note of diacetyl. Also, since these flavors can actually become more intense over time, it’s important to have the ability to detect them at very low concentrations.

Wolf’s Ridge has taken on the ambitious of objective of assembling a nine member “Sensory Panel”. Everybody in the operation attains the first level of Cicerone (Beer Sommelier) training, but Cathy Szuter and Jenny Hauck are continuing the program. As they studied for their test on off flavors, they saw an opportunity to train a crackerjack team of quality assurance experts. So additional flavoring kits were ordered, and a rigorous program was implemented. Every Monday, while the restaurant is closed, the Sensory Panel meets, and several samples of beer are poured and fouled with a particular flavor. The beer is fouled at different concentrations, and three samples are tested per round. Maybe one is fouled, or maybe it’s two. The idea is to keep people on their toes. Beer is swirled, sniffed, and sipped. Water and crackers are employed to cleanse the palate.

The first phase of the program is to introduce those off flavors and tune each member’s palate to the offending flavor, then the concentrations are tweaked. Cathy and Jenny review the results and the panelists are scored. Beer is sampled at different stages of the process, to catch those flavors along the way.

“It’s a big step for a brewery our size,” Cathy admits, “but it fits with what we’re doing.”

Wolf’s Ridge is currently ramping up production, and that means quality assurance is key. A tiny hint of funk in a batch of beer at the brewery can turn into a disaster on the shelf. It’s nothing to worry about, to date nothing malevolent has been proven to survive in beer, but when the competition is thick, one bad batch can potentially turn thousands of customers away from your brand forever.

Co-owner/patriarch Alan Szuter credits the success of the restaurant with making such an advanced program possible, “The brewery is basically breaking even, and this program costs money. We’re paying these people to come in and do this. The brewery alone couldn’t support it.”

Brewmaster Chris Davison, who has been around the block a few times, acknowledges this is a step you usually don’t find until you get to some of the larger, regional craft brewers. “It’s definitely something that can help us maintain consistency as we expand production,” he said of the panel.

With a delicate Cream Ale positioned as one of their more marketable beers, dialing in the QA program to detect the slightest of flaws is critically important. Like lagers, cream ales just don’t leave much margin for error.

A night on the panel is a no-nonsense affair. The samples of beer are quietly examined, no insight is shared, and the results are submitted for evaluation. It’s serious business. In addition to teaching the panel to detect the flavor du jour, a random flavor is added to catch the panel by surprise.

Going forward, Wolf’s Ridge sees an opportunity to open this program up to the public, which not only helps them get a return on the investment into the program, but it helps educate the consumer. It’s actually quite courageous because the first beer your customers are going to scrutinize with their newly developed sense of imperfection is your own beer. The staff at Wolf’s Ridge, however, feels that their commitment to this panel will ensure that they have nothing to hide. It is, however, a game changing development in the local beer scene.

We’re at a stage right now where our brewers need to evolve. Everybody’s established a flagship or two, and now the key is making sure that flagship beer is dialed in batch after batch, after batch. The increased competition means that the public isn’t going to be as forgiving as they were seven years ago. Wolf’s Ridge has come a long way in a short period of time. They’ve overcome some growing pains to find themselves with an impressive portfolio of beers that will do well on the open market. The Sensory Panel will ensure that they don’t sacrifice quality for growth.