Heady Discovery

Sensory science helps microbrewery

Under the rosy glow of deep-red lights, a panel of tasters swirl, sniff and sip mystery beers from dark-red glasses. On rating sheets, they note hints of lemon, straw, tea, smoke, malt, soy, sulfide, even dirty sweat socks. The palate and the patience to parse these subtleties are qualities revered by craft brewers who, after all, rely on a discerning public to appreciate — and buy — their products.

But for some consumers, all this careful swirling and mouth swishing is for naught. That’s because marketing can be at least as important as masterful brewing in beer-drinkers’ choices, an OSU study found. Clever ad campaigns aimed at strategic niches can vault so-so beers to top-selling ranks, says Professor Tom Shellhammer, a fermentation scientist in the OSU Department of Food Science and Technology.

“Instead of finely adjusting the dials on flavor, aroma, foam and appearance, brewers might do as well or better by turning the levers to market their brand,” Shellhammer says.

The study was launched a few years ago when Widmer Brothers, Oregon’s biggest microbrewery, wanted a deeper understanding of the aromas and flavors favored by craft beer drinkers. So they hired an OSU team — master brewer Shellhammer, food sensory specialist Mina McDaniel and marketing professor Ulrich Orth of the College of Business — to investigate the qualities of its existing beers and several competing brands. They were also vetting a new Widmer brew still under development. The study was designed to overlay the likes and dislikes of regular beer drinkers on the judgments of trained tasters, a first for Widmer.

“OSU’s Sensory Science Laboratory allowed us to put actual consumer preferences together with technical taste attributes,” says Sebastian Pastore, Widmer’s vice president of brewing operations. “We were able to statistically link taste preferences of 300 consumers, whose demographics we specified, to the judgments of a trained panel of tasters. That was something we hadn’t done before.”

Besides discovering that some beers’ taste ratings failed to jibe with their popularity, the study turned up a strong consumer preference for a certain flavor array. Beers that rated high in “esters” — fruity compounds formed when acid reacts with alcohol — got the best marks from consumers. When mixed with malty and hoppy aromas and a bit of sweetness, estery beers were a hit with drinkers. On the flip side, certain other flavors bombed. Dimethyl sulfide (DMS), an organic compound containing sulfur, was a statistical loser among the consumers.

The OSU findings helped steer the crafting of Widmer’s new beer, both from a scientific and a marketing standpoint, according to Pastore. The result was Drop Top Amber Ale, a gold medalist at the 2004 Great American Beer Festival. Echoes of the OSU study show up on the Drop Top Web page in descriptors like “fruity aroma,” “honey malt” and a “touch of milk sugar.” And the marketing? The Drop Top bottle sports a wind-in-the-ears dog on a hip-and-breezy label. Promotional gear includes a dog collar with silver tags.

Drop Top hit the market like a greyhound hitting the racetrack.

“Widmer told us it was the most successful introduction of a new product they’d ever had,” Shellhammer reports.

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