OSU expert tasters seek source of bitterness in beer


CORVALLIS - Beer manufacturers who want to achieve just the right touch of "beer bite" in each swallow of the popular brew are finding help from Oregon State University. Later this summer, a trained panel of experts will sip beer for science as part of a long-term research project.

The latest phase of the research project is to define the sensory properties of hops to beer manufacturers. For consumers, that information could mean better beer.

"They're looking to evaluate the quality of bitterness contributed by different parts of the hop," said Cindy Lederer, a senior research assistant with OSU's Sensory Science testing laboratory.

The scientifically-controlled study is one of several on-going long-range tasting projects under way at the testing lab, where beverage, food and cosmetics manufacturers have relied on OSU's testing data for the past 40 years to help them develop products that will find favor with the consumer.

To accomplish this, the Sensory Testing Lab employs panels of both consumer and professional experts. They sniff, sip, taste, sample, and otherwise analyze food, beverages and cosmetic.

A national beer manufacturer has commissioned the latest hop-bitterness study as part of an ongoing 15-year research project. Its latest goal is to determine which naturally-occurring compounds cause the bitterness in beer. Earlier hop-related research under the same grant analyzed hop fragrance.

As beer connoisseurs know, hops give beer its satisfying bite. But too much of that "bite" causes an unpleasant pucker-mouth reaction, while not enough leaves it bland. But if you think beer tasting is the kind of research any beer lover would enjoy, consider what the scientific method does to the experience of sampling beer:

Between eight and 12 volunteers first must learn the vocabulary of beer tasting, which goes far beyond "tastes great" and "less filling."

Professional brewers discuss the various nuances of beer according to a recognized vocabulary of industry beer-testing terms. For example, expert tasters might describe the dozens of desirable qualities in beer as "malty," "fruity," or "earthy." Undesirable characteristics include "alkaline," "salty" or even "tom cat spray."

For this study, the expert panel will taste one-ounce samples of beer for bitterness. After sampling a beer that is a "level 6" of bitterness, the volunteers must be able to agree that various blind samples of beer are either more or less bitter than the standard.

All of this is done for an hour at a time, with only a few one-ounce samples being tasted at precisely measured intervals, said Lederer. Translation: No one leaves the testing lab with a beer buzz.

Once the tasters have completed their task, the data will be turned back to the beer manufacturer late in the year. Unlike some manufacturers, whose beer brewing secrets are closely guarded, the results of these tests will be published in a research journal for the American Society of Brewing Chemists.

The hoped-for results of these taste tests: Better beer, with just the right touch of bitter.