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Meghan earned her BS degree in Food Science from Michigan State University and an MS in Food Science and Technology from Oregon State University studying hop chemistry and sensory. Meghan has five years of experience managing the sensory program at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. covering both the Chico, CA, and Mills River, NC, breweries. Her group is involved with daily quality tastings and sensory evaluations that support research, innovation and new brand development. Meghan is an active member of the American Society of Brewing Chemists and Society of Sensory Professionals, and is passionate about sharing best practices along with being on the forefront of the latest developments in sensory and consumer research.
Meghan on LinkedIn
Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)
John: So, Meghan, welcome to the show.
Meghan: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.
John: Wonderful. Okay, Meghan, something we were talking about before the show is obviously how coronavirus is affecting sensory and you're in the brewing industry and you have your own challenges to kind of deal with there in the brewing industry. And something you're talking to me about, well, first off, as you know, Ali Schultz was on the show not too long ago. And, of course, you have many of the same challenges that she did. But one thing that you brought up that was kind of new for me to hear about was the hop selection. And I think it's really interesting. If you would kind of start by telling our listeners what is the hop selection and then what are some of the challenges that coronavirus caused for the hub selection process? And what kind of some of the new opportunities that you've seen come out of the adjustments that have been made?
Meghan: Oh, yes. There's been a lot of change within the sensory industry. Oh, sensory in general with coronavirus, a pandemic. Hop selection is a very unique thing to the brewing industry and something that been really involved with Sierra Nevada and my time before at Oregon State. Hops and Agriculture Product, the four main ingredients of beer are hops, water, malt and yeast. And so they really think them as like the spice of beer brings all of that different character and there's a lot of nuance to it. And that's why you've seen such popularity, at least in the craft brewing world of Ike and Hop forward beers. Brewers will actually evaluate this agriculture product by flying up to where the farms are in the Pacific Northwest. They'll meet with farmers themselves, look at their fields, their processing equipment, negotiate, picking windows. They're very involved to a degree that you don't see in the food industry and often meet with brokers and suppliers and select hops for that year's purchases. Yakima, Washington, was an early area where there was a lot of cases of covid. It is because it's such an agriculture based county. It was really, really rough. I'm happy to say that like case, the rate of cases are declining, but they've had cases in the thousands. So it's been decided across Spring Street that brewers are not busy at Pacific Northwest this year, perhaps selection. So planning ahead, hops selection begins as early as August, end of August for our celebration ale. They never dry the hop cones. But through September, it used to be that almost I don't know the numbers, but almost every larger or mid-sized brewer is going up to Yakima and that would be just so challenging, like a huge influx of people being on site. When also, they're worried about their labor and picking because there is a very narrow range that these hops are fresh and picked up. So instead, the suppliers and farmers are planning on sending lots and that the brewers cut to all of the brewery. So we're trying to think about the logistics of what that means, especially for a brewery besides the Sierra Nevada. That isn't it's not just even one variety. It's multiple varieties, like it's many different varieties each that have their own unique profile and just being able to meet those challenges.
John: So logistically, it's a hit. I mean, it's really interesting. First off, I would say that it's interesting that coronavirus has caused everything to get decentralized. And that's a theme that we definitely see. And to some extent, that's led to democratization. When I had Danielle Reed, when Danielle Reed was on the show, I got a chance to listen to her episode but we're talking about the fact that in sensory testing and in consumer testing more generally, there's always kind of this bias if you have a central location that you are testing the people who can come to that facility. Now, if you have the products being evaluated in people's homes almost exclusively because they either come and pick them up or you mail the products to their house. What happens is that you actually end up with a much more diverse testing population, right? Something similar seems to be happening with that hop selection now because things are being sent out. It's not simply the people who can go visit to Yakima County.
Meghan: Yeah Yakima. It's gross is 75% of hops in the United States. But it also Idaho and Washington or in Oregon. It will have a hop growing as well. But Yakima, is that the hub of it all? And if that is really true. So Sierra Nevada is fortunate that we have a selection team that goes up to the Pacific Northwest on normally years. But it is very limited. There is a cost associated with that. And you see that for other breweries, too. Some breweries will only send one, oftentimes it's the owner or the head brewer and maybe the team that works with those raw materials suppliers predominantly. I know for Sierra Nevada we've usually had a team of four to six. And when it's minimal, we want everyone trained. If it's a larger group and it's a transition year where we have like three trained and three in training. But we do see it this year as the opportunity where we could have more of the, like, analytical staff, the quality staff that assesses the analytics of hops, being able to project a selection, of course, discussing with the group. We need that the main trained tasters to study making us decisions. The purchasing of Hops yearly as an agricultural product can be in the thousands or millions of dollars, like there's a lot on the line. Other opportunity to have more people be exposed. And as we talked about, it can also be in a more data driven way because it has been kind of the art of selection, it is the the relationships in those pieces will be missing. But again, I think this year could be something where we build that basis. And there has been a trend. There's been some of the suppliers that have introduced sensory ballots that they're asking the brewers to fill out, trying to standardize how you're going through. It is a very fatiguing and challenging selection methods like to evaluate hops. Have you never seen raw hops there it's a like a plant cone and you break it apart and the inside has like this yellow resin, and that is the oils that the brewers are interested that bring all those flavors. But it's very sticky and you're rubbing it and looking at it and you get gunk all over your hands. It's a very difficult thing to evaluate. People who spend a lot of time with hops actually get sensitivities, too. As far as allergy only planned for the Hops selection trip, it's also like taking care of your selection team. Some people will need Benadryl. You need a bunch of unscented lotion like you've got to plan for it. So it's interesting thinking about it being on site at Sierra Nevada. I actually met with the group that will be that main team and talked about some of these. We might use our event space. We were like, it's messy and sticky. And we're like, we could put tables out and we're not having events right now. So we were actually talking and we're like, let's do all of our selection on the dance floor. We have this large wood floored area that we can get the right lights. We can get a monitor input data and look at the analytics. Because it kind of goes through a process. You want to start out without that bias of actually the group always starts out with what are you looking for this profile. So if you're looking at a cascade hop, we're interested in pine and citrus notes because we want really get that great fruit from it. We don't want to be overly sulfury, but if you have some sulfur, it could indicate fresh. And we have the experience of working with our suppliers to say this is what we're looking from it. And there's some like analytical measures like, well, we don't want to see, oh, hops with high seat counts or other things. And we can look at like the oil content and those so that the screens with analytics are important. But if the suppliers done their prescreening of what we're really just not going to accept, we will get in these brewer cuts, which are like little bales. And you break off a little bit, do that hop rub and that's where we'd like to align rather than using different forms or different attributes per some of the suppliers are brokers. We've been kind of developing our own and progressing on this path of doing it. And now, since we're going to be in our own location the whole time, we can have that consistency and look at that data as well as the analytical data after the fact. So we'll individually do assessments and then share our results, share any that our concerns, and then really come to that conclusion of which ones we would like to purchase.
John: This is really fascinating. So just kind of put this in a sensory context. It seems like it's not really like an acceptance preference situation. It's more like sensory profiling. Is that correct?
Meghan: Yes, it is. It is so unique, even in a sensory area, because it's not an acceptance. There can be things that you are rejecting, but it is really trying to meet a profile meeting a trueness, the type that is defined by the brewer. There is not even something that is universal. They often say like beauty is in the eye of the brewer because it's certain brewers will like certain things and others will like others. Interestingly, for our case study is the hop industry has been doing a Cascade Cup. This cascade is a parietal that has been around for a number of years. There's a lot of things that are put into it. And judges will evaluate cascade crop from different farms and it will go through this competition. Looking at the data by different judges. Judges are very replicable within themselves and it's quite across the board what people want. We talk about trueness, the type of a certain hop variety or the uniqueness of something new. So we do not want Sierra Nevada pale to change. So we want a very true to type cascade that we're purchasing. So that consistency of your later beer. But if we're looking at an experimental variety, something new to the market, there's some interesting profiles and interesting aromas in there. That could have added to that it actually is even breeding for more diversity in the hop crop.
John: Yes, it's fascinating. Okay. So a lot of questions to follow up on this. Okay, so one would be, so it's always interesting to think about, well, individual differences. Right? That's a big thing within sensory. You're going to have a whole bunch of people now evaluating the hops who may not normally evaluate the hops. They wouldn't go to the hop selection. Are you training people now at this point to get them ready for this? Are people able to come in because they're familiar with the product already? Are they gonna be able to make these evaluations? And then another question is, are there individual differences that you wouldn't want to train away? That you'd want like maybe people can perceive different things and you actually would like to know if different people are pursuing different things. What are your thoughts on preparing this larger group for the you know, this kind of in-house hop selection?
Meghan: I think that's a very good question. We do have a lexicon that we've been developing for hops. I don't think it'll just be an overall larger group. It will still be people that are tied to the process. They won't just be everyone come by and try, though, that would be interesting from. We'll do that on an educational side. But still, there's a lot of business decisions being made there. But it's true, again, to having the main team that is that experienced team that do have an understanding of what the different characters are attributes. We have training references. It is difficult, though, because even the training references that we'll use a flavor compounds what it smells like in that plant material is very different than what it is to the beer. And there's no direct translation in the brewing process either. So there is a green space that's hard for me just in sensor to be like. Here it is. Exactly. It just comes with time. And so that's why in our training teams in the past have been kind of trained and in training coaching that has happened. It is this year being the same dynamics just on a larger basis where you have the main group that are the trained taking more under their wing. And that's why when we talked about it initially, we're thinking of a small lab and having people go through at different times. We really think, again, that central time and space and focus on it being in a larger area, such as the big room would allow for the main team to still come to those decisions. But to additionally have that in training, filling out their ballots and learning from that group. Individual differences, another part of your question is important. And I think that's fortunate when there is hob selection taking place that we aren't sending one as a company, we are sending a larger team because you are getting different things and not just from a biased way. Like you said, very like perceived even physiological differences that you can get from having a diverse group.
John: Right. Because people are more sensitive for some notes than others. Yeah. Are you normally part of the group that goes up to Yakima?
Meghan: Yes, I have been. And it's one of my favorite parts. And it is this yearly thing that just is a very defining moment and this year will be different. But it was interesting to cause Sierra Nevada has so many people that have been with the company for a long time and doing, Ken Grossman, the owner and founder, has been doing hop selection for 40 years. Our raw material brewmasters has been doing it for a number of years. And as we were planning and all of us that were newer and we're like how we're going to make this work. This isn't the only year that Hop selection has been done remotely. In 2001, 9/11 really grounded everybody from air travel. And the same thing where everything was sent out. So selection will return when we can. But again, for everyone's safety and well-being, we'll have to deal with the logistics on our side to make sure that we have the crop for the following year.
John: Right. What's interesting there, because I see this with conferences, too, you know that a lot of conferences are going virtual right now. And I suspect that what's going to happen is as these virtual tools get ramped up, that there will probably always be a hybrid component that remains to conferences. Right? That, you know, we're going to learn new things now and learn how to do things remotely. And some aspect of that will be retained even, you know on that happy day when we're all able to travel again. And so do you think that something like that is likely to happen here, that there might be some aspect of decentralization that continues even once people are able to go back?
Meghan: I think so. And I think that's again, we're talking with the group they can find some opportunity in it, like, of course, standardizing our systems. As you said, standardizing our training or at least our process. There's been a lot of art to this, the selection process. But we have been living in this field of like putting data in, putting it in and having it because you are out in the fields or somewhere, making sure that you have something that you can input from a mobile device or a tablet. Having that data accessible to the group, just using technology effectively because there will be samples that come in outside of those time windows. This year we have to think about the quantity of samples that have to be done remotely. But hops are not just growing in the US. They're grown internationally. Well, you have Europe and Australia and will receive international shipments for selection as well. So those don't always warrant a trip for the cost. So there will be hybrid and I think a lot can learn. But there's with the right methods and resources set up that they can be cost effective and less of a hampering on the community itself. I know for of the hot brokers and suppliers, it is really busy to be full picking your plans and having everyone visit made to look at them. So there's both root and chips. But it also can it could be the opportunity of, yeah. Just again, coming down to timing and a little bit more data. And keep those relationships up, but have some sort of hybrid. So it's a famine.
John: And that's interesting. And I relieve some of the pressure on them to right if you have no time to see how many people coming. It seems like a win win. Honestly, it's weird how many things have actually, in a strange way, improved during this crisis. I mean, hopefully it doesn't last too much longer. But it is interesting to see what's going to come out of this.
Meghan: We're all adaptable and flexible. But it will be good to settle on what that new normal and those new learnings are.
John: Yeah. We'll see. I guess a lot depends on medicine. We don't really know how that's going to go until it happens. Yeah. So as far as the data driven side of this, then maybe I'm kind of curious how the, what is the evaluation process, so now you have your lexicon and someone will get the hops and break it open. Is it then at that point, like a descriptive panel or how does it happen that someone evaluates hops?
Meghan: It is so interesting. And again, I said that we're moving in a process of sharing what it is. But when I was doing a webinar on raw hop quality and was working with Victor who is the host of the time. Talking about all the different ways brewers actually evaluate and decide on what they're selecting. And that included discussion and consensus, hedonic scaling attributes scaling then tabulating math. I like to eliminate the lemons like start up but we don't want that one. They are like thumbs up, thumbs down. So a large range of it. And the flexibility, again, kind of comes from the art. It's not as prescribed as other things. It is a very fatiguing product, as I mentioned. So if you can come in and there's multiple things on the table and you can eliminate a couple and then you can go in and we're evaluating, we're doing it individually. Usually it's a combination of the attributes we're looking for. Again, kind of a trueness to type as what sierra Nevada is doing. This is what we want in our profile. This is what we are looking for. Or will it meet our needs? But in general, there's a lot of the quality of hops has really, I think, increased because of all these dynamics and relationships between brewers and growers. So even if it's like eliminate the lemons, it's maybe for that one brewer. But the next brewer could come in and that's exactly what they're looking for. So it's up front alignment on what you're looking for so you can be, again, repeatable as a judge is the most important, even if, again, coming back to that Cascade Cup. It was so fascinating to see how different judges actually write something because there's not a universal profile. It is an institutional knowledge within brewery to brewery.
John: That's very interesting. So then how is the data? How are the data recorded? Is there a recorder in everyone's hands are covered in oil. So what is that look like in practice?
Meghan: Yeah. So that's something again where I think will really systemize this year. Like I said, like it varied different places. Sometimes there was a method of input unforeseen about it. We bring our own forms and just use a paper and pencil and tabulate into a computer and kind of have one person doing that data entry after. But a couple of the suppliers are developing like Web based ones where you can input it. And again, that can be just like other areas. The sensory but more mess is as how can you do that and not get it all over everything. So oftentimes it will be and that's where it's not as rigorous as descriptive analysis, but there is a consensus part, but also wanting to get the data individually so that you do have more data that go off. So maybe all over the place because it's like you don't have a system. But usually hedonic and attribute scales that everyone is doing individually. I find it or think it's valuable to have the profile per variety that you have. Because again, you know what you're looking for and what you're not. And that really allows you to get the best data with that minimizing it. So in descriptive, you want to make sure you've covered all the attributes so that you can compare one to another. But again, if it's kind of a frequency count of this is what I'm looking for for hits for this profile, one variety compared to another your ballot methodology will look a bit different.
John: Interesting. We should have what smart speaker surveys, hands-free use Alexa to collect the data. Then you don't touch anything. That's something interesting. Yeah. I've talked to Becky Bleibaum about that sort of thing for great evaluations because you know that you're gonna have, there are already glasses that have Alexa, right? That's coming if it's not already out. And so at some point, you're gonna be able to do surveys with people's glasses or headphones talking to them and answering the question. It need to be a little bit more systematic, I think, in the questionnaire. Once that set, we can talk. That would be fun to think about. So, okay, we are actually, amazingly, almost out of time. You've been I mean, there's a lot more I'd like to talk to you about, but this has been fascinating. I did one last question about the context. Are you at all concerned the fact that the testing is going to be happening in different locations is going to influence the results? When you go to Yakima, is there a kind of a feeling of being there? That's a context that's hard to recreate, you know, in Chico, how is that? Is that in your mind?
Meghan: Yes, it is. And that is the downside of it. And again, like I said, everyone there would there would still be people traveling to Yakima if it wasn't for the concerns of the health and well-being of the pandemic being the case, because it's not just that the selection and that actual sensory evaluation is those relationships that's in the farms and meeting with the farmers and processors. And like I said, the quality of hops has really improved, I think, because of that dynamic that we're all working on it together. This is much more clear. This is what we're looking for. And again, all those little experiments that are taking place that the brewers or the panelists for themselves, but also for the farmers and growers and suppliers and brokers, that is going to be lacking in communication. But again, if the growers actually come up with more data driven ones, they can still share that. They will be sharing that with their suppliers. And again, a year where where getting things aligned, embracing technology for from the brewing side could be things that carry over. And then when you have a hybrid, you have something stronger in the end.
John: Right. That's definitely a team I see in a lot of areas. This has been fascinating, Megan. Thank you so much for taking time to be on the show today. If someone wants to follow up with you, how would they get in touch with you? Someone wants to apply to work at Sierra Nevada after hearing your very inspirational...
Meghan: Yeah. Always looking for great talent. And it's fun and dynamic. And you can contact me at LinkedIn, Meghan Peltz and I can provide the link to that as well.
John: Okay, we'll put that in a show notes. So I would like to wrap up with this advice for young sensory scientists. What advice do you have for someone who is just getting started? What should they be thinking about now or the next couple years?
Meghan: I think being involved as as I said, we've met through ASTM and the professional organizations such as SSP. And if it's brewing specifically ASBC, there's such a mentorship within sensory because they're excited about it. And just to reach out and know that, can have a conversation with John Ennis. And I'm just honored to be talking with you and the podcast, listening to past episodes is just having a conversation among sensory peers around table, even if we're apart. So my advice is to get involved, to just reach out and know that people are very receptive to that.
John: Wonderful. Okay, Meghan. Thank you so much and look forward to seeing you when we can finally start traveling again.
Meghan: Sounds great. Thank you.
John: Okay. That's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling a friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.
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