I recently participated in a couple of sensory analysis sessions with damn near every start up brewery in Chicago. The two sessions were organized by the awesome Brant Dubovick, former brewmaster at Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh and soon to be brewmaster at Dryhop Restaurant and Brewery right here in Chicago (opening early 2013, sooner if the fucking City of Chicago could get their shit together). My part in the event was to arrange for someone to conduct the sessions. As soon as Brant asked me if I knew someone, I knew exactly who to contact: Steve McKenna. I know Steve from my BJCP classes I took last year (never took the exam) and had been through his sensory analysis sessions from those classes. Steve is very involved in the BJCP program, not only as a national ranked judge, but as an exam grader, proctor, etc. He's also a chemist by trade with a very detailed understanding of beer off flavor components and their chemical and molecular structures. Pretty damn good guy to have to run a sensory analysis session, eh? I won't go into all the details of the sessions because Jessica Murphy already did an excellent job of that at her damn fine blog Girls Like Beer Too. Go check it out!
What I will do however is to reiterate something that Brant heard at a seminar at the Craft Beer Conference in San Diego this year. The speaker basically said that if quality isn't your first concern, you shouldn't be brewing beer for a living. Personally I think your first concern should be what to do with all that sweet, sweet craft beer money that just falls from the sky when you open a brewery. That's a joke. You don't make a lot of money. Anyway, these sessions represent the third time I've been through sensory analysis, the other two being the previously mentioned BJCP classes and brewing school at American Brewers Guild. I can tell you without reservation that these sessions have been extremely helpful in identifying both traditional beer flavors such as esters and phenols, and off flavors such as DMS, acetaldehyde, and others. I will not for a second tell you that I am an expert at detecting all of these flavors nor being able to correctly identify them, but it has definitely helped me evaluate my beers more critically and that is a good thing.
Over the years I've had so many homebrews (and even commercial brews) with off flavors in them, including my own. I recently had a craft beer from a highly respected brewery that was inundated with metallic flavor. The crazy thing is I didn't detect it right away until someone else mentioned it and then WHAM, my taste memory kicked in and there it was. I won't forget that flavor ever again.
So my whole point here is that if you are planning on starting a brewery or working in the brewing industry, regardless of whether you are going to be a brewer or salesman or marketing person, get those taste buds trained! It's absolutely crucial to know if you're fucking up 30 barrels of beer before you send it out to the market. And if you're trying to sell or market beer, you want to make damn sure your beers don't make a bad first impression. With all the competition out there, it would be folly to turn off a potential new customer with beer that has off flavor problems. The thing is, these problems are usually very easily solved, but they have to be recognized first!
FYI, you can order the Siebel Institute sensory analysis kits here. This is the same kit we used for these recent sessions and for the BJCP training sessions. They're not cheap, but they are immensely cheaper than losing customers because of some stupid fermentation or sanitation mistake, right? RIGHT? Buy the kit, split the cost with your homebrew friends, get a case of Bug Light (really), dose the Bud Light with the samples, and evaluate. It's easy to do and the pay off is incredible.
That's my preaching for the day.