You Gotta Taste It to Believe It

Leinenkugel’s quality control program creates sensory experts, blemish-free beer

Eric Christenson

John Hensley and Jess Antonia, Leinenkugel's
John Hensley and Jess Antonia, Leinenkugel's

You have four beers in front of you. They all look the same, some even smell and taste very similar. But do you think you could pinpoint even the subtlest blemish or defect? Maybe something’s a little off, but you can’t tell exactly what. What if you had to categorize it into one of 36 different flavor profiles – maybe it smells like cardboard, or banana, or maybe even your grandma’s basement? Then could you rate the power of that flavor on a scale of one to 10?

"We like to think we're the keepers of the Leinie flavor." – John Hensley, Assistant Brew Master, Leinenkugel's

The thing is, you actually could with the right training, and that’s exactly what each member of the sensory panel has learned to do at the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. in Chippewa Falls. The brewery has over 60 full-time employees, and 19 of them are trained taste-testers on the prowl for even the slightest and most subdued defects that might be present (sulfur, metallic, oxidized, lightstruck or “skunky,” etc.)

With a brewing operation as huge as Leinenkugel’s, the beers must be strictly and consistently great, so you need a master at the helm of quality control. That’s Sensory Specialist Jess Antonia, an expert in identifying and analyzing flavors. Every tank of beer gets taste-tested twice a day at different stages in the brewing process by members of the taste panel for irregularities, then Antonia does deeper microbiological analysis in the lab.

“We go through lots of training to teach the panelists. It’s months of training. They have to pass lots of blind taste tests,” she said. “It’s a lot of time and dedication from employees from all over. We have finance people, (Leinie) Lodge people, management …  and they have to keep their training up.”

Having skilled taste-testers is wholly tantamount to the extensive lab work that’s done as well. Even the lab can miss some things that human senses won’t. After all, the beer is eventually going to end up in the hands of people, so it’s important that they get what they’re expecting. There are three arms to the quality control piece – analytical, sensory, and microbiological – and Assistant Brewmaster John Hensley said all three must be in harmony for the beer to be deemed acceptable.

“Analytically, two beers can look virtually the same, same alcohol, same bitterness, but one might have components you can’t pick up with a machine,” Hensley said. “Your nose, your mouth, it’s one of the most sensitive instruments there is, so the sensory piece is a huge part of the overall quality program.”

To put it simply, imperfections can arise at any point in the brewing process. And so if a defect is found, taste-testers are trained to figure out what part of the cycle made it that way. Hensley said it can sometimes be challenging to Sherlock Holmes his way to a solution, but future batches of beer are all the better for it.

“The desirable characteristics, that’s all natural to the brewing process, whether it’s from yeast or from the natural materials we’re using. The defects also come from the same.” Hensley said. “Really by looking at what the defect is, we can look at what step in the process caused it and then go try to fix it.”

This is a relatively new program that Antonia headed up starting three years ago. Previously, only the head brewmaster would taste everything, but now with an entire crew of trained sensory panelists, the safety net is growing.

So when you’re in the grocery store picking up a case of Leinie’s, it’s a near impossibility that that beer will taste any different than the flavors you love. And it’s because of the teamwork, dedication, and expertise of this Chippewa Falls crew.

“We like to think we’re the keepers of the Leinie flavor,” Hensley said. “You gotta be careful though; learning to taste beer, it’s a slippery slope. Before I got into brewing and knowing what was a bad beer, every beer was a good beer. Once you start learning, you start to realize maybe there’s not a lot of good beer out there.”