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Labatt beer tasters have a tough job

By Aonghus Kealy
Sun Media

You're at work. You're led to one of 10 cubicles where you will have to sample three glasses of beers.

You'll have to taste them, then opine. And "mmmmmmm" and "whoo-yeah" won't do.
Tasting guru

Some of Labatt's 400 employees in London, Ont., are lucky, or unlucky, enough to have those duties.

Lucky because who wouldn't want to taste beer for a living.

Unlucky, perhaps, because talking about esters and aromas in front of a computer is enough to bore the hops out of many proud swillers.

But that's what the trained tasters must do at Labatt's innovation centre in London.

Even the innovation centre boss, InBev's Nancy More, gets in on the, er, fun.

"The first beer of the day is always the best," More beams. "I know I always prefer my first sample."

The beer could be from London, or flown in the night before from B.C. or Newfoundland.

It could be Blue, Blue Light, Keith's, Stella Artois, Sterling, OB, Bud ...

Gladys Ylimaki, the centre's tasting guru, says a question is posed to tasters, sometimes a simple one.

"Is there a difference between these two beers? Does that new malt have any impact on the overall flavour of the beer?"

Tasters comment on sweetness, bitterness, mouthfeel, balance, aftertaste and more.

Many factors have to be considered to ensure tasters aren't influenced.

Among them, the room has its own air system so no aromas enter the testing area. And three-digit codes are used on the samples instead of letter labels.

"Sample A is always better," Ylimaki says.

But you've got to train your palate to tell Labatt what you're tasting and sniffing to provide accurate data.

A base beer might have a high quantity of banana esters added so that tasters can remember that flavour. Ylimaki says Bud commonly has that ester.

The point is to later be able to identify it to find out if it's too high in other sample beers.

While liquid and gas analysis are also performed at the innovation centre to ensure the beer's 800 compounds are just right, Ylimaki, says you can't replace the tongue.

"Humans are all different. I give you a level of the same esther, and you might think it's strong, and it blows you away. But I might not pick it up at all."

(No word on how Klingons react to Labatt products.)

"And I might say it's banana, and you might say 'it smells like licorice to me,'" Ylimaki says. Then, the humans rate the characteristics as 0-9, with nine as strongest.

The untrained tongue, More says, is often unreliable. "For example, when beer gets old, it gets less bitter," More says. "But always, when you do consumer research, and give people old beer to taste, they will tell you it's more bitter than (a newer) one. It's not. We actually don't understand what they're trying to tell us."

So, how do you know a Labatt Blue tastes the same now as it did 10 years ago?

"That's a reeeeeeally good question," More says, adding changes in malt, mostly used out of Saskatchewan, are made every year, forcing Labatt's chemists and brewmaster to dance. "If there's been changes, they're subtle changes.

"But the unfortunate thing is that nobody has actually figured out how to keep beer for 10 years and find out."

There's a new challenge for the innovation centre. Good luck on that one, Labatt.

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