Sober and Sensory: Blog

Sober and sensory: a sensory taste test and scientific review of low/no alcohol beer brands

In the latest episode of our Lab Leaders podcast, we are joined by Dr. Debbie Parker, Head of Sensory at Walnut UNLIMITED.

What is sensory analysis?

Sensory analysis is the use of human senses to evaluate a product. From a consumer research perspective, this enables brands to go beyond the traditional approach of simply getting a feel for what consumers think about their offering. Instead, they can gain a more objective and detailed analysis of how people feel about their product.

The most common use of sensory analysis is with food and drink companies, who have a wide range of methods available to them, including:
● Simple descriptive tests looking at the appearance, smell and taste of a product.
● Using trained panels of tasters to delve deeper into characteristics like aroma, texture, mouthfeel, aftertaste and intensity.


How is sensory analysis used?

Many food and drink companies use sensory analysis to enhance and improve the quality of their products. Debbie explained that Walnut helps developmental chefs and recipe developers understand how actions like reducing sugar, salt, fat or alcohol content could impact the broader taste or scent. For example, lowering the sugar level may affect the texture as well as reduce the sweetness, as sugar also acts as a binding agent.

The most significant impact and insight gained from sensory analysis come from combining it with consumer research. It’s crucial to truly understand what people really think about a product and what makes them like or dislike it.


Putting sensory analysis to the taste test

At this point, Faye and Debbie began cracking open their selection of non-alcoholic beers. Debbie started by explaining that the primary method for creating alcohol-free beer was to brew a regular beer and remove the alcohol, such as by steaming it, passing through membranes or restricting fermentation.

However, these processes often result in not only removing the alcohol but also stripping out the flavour compounds. And that typically means the nice hoppy or fruity notes that make a good beer so appealing are also taken away.


Is there a right way to do sensory analysis?

To conduct sensory analysis on specific products, it’s first vital to remove any extraneous influences that might bias the person’s perception of the brand. As Debbie explains, humans are typically very open to influence, so there needs to be specific protocols around sensory analysis.

For example, it’s crucial to ensure all samples have the same circumstances when comparing different products. That means they all need to be served at the same temperature, in the same volume, and in the same glass or dish. These factors significantly impact how people perceive the look, feel, taste, and aroma of a product.


How do brewers use sensory analysis?

Moving back to the non-alcoholic beers that Faye and Debbie were now at least four-deep into, Debbie explained that sensory analysis is crucial to helping brewers develop new recipes. Consumer insight allows them to understand what consumers want, fill a gap in the market, target new people, and broaden their product portfolio. In other words, doing sensory analysis without acting on the results is a fruitless exercise.


What role does sensory analysis’ play in the craft beer boom?

Craft beers are booming in popularity as drinkers embrace new tastes and unique flavours. For example, Faye and Debbie sampled a non-alcoholic Doom Bar beer that’s brewed not to be too bitter but offers rich notes, multiple tones and layers. In fact, it was so tasty that Faye didn’t even realise there was no alcohol involved!

Sensory analysis plays a crucial role in developing new beers that excite drinkers. However, the challenge often comes for a small brewer that’s created a great beer but then gets picked up by a bigger brewer. This inevitably leads to the yeast behaving differently and producing a different spectrum of flavour compounds and fruity overtones.


Should a non-alcoholic beer reflect the original?

Throughout the tasting process, Faye was surprised by how much the non-alcoholic beers resembled the alcoholic version of the same product. As Debbie explained, there are two schools of thought on developing non-alcoholic products. Beers that people have a lot of experience with or were faithful to as brands, such as Budweiser and Heineken, may have a responsibility to customers to replicate the original flavour as closely as possible.

However, the non-alcoholic element of the product can give brands the freedom to create an entirely different style. And that’s where the use of sensory analysis enables food and drink manufacturers to understand what consumers want and the types of products they should be focusing on.

Discover the role that sensory analysis plays in shaping products by listening to Faye and Debbie’s tasting session in full here.