Sensory Analysis With a Pro

Note: This piece about observing a master brewer of over three decades evaluate several beers is a spin-off of next week’s post. Earlier this summer, I took three “Mexican lagers” brewed by U.S. craft breweries to Mexico and separately interviewed three experts while they performed a sensory analysis of the beers.

Watching one of the men, Fernando Garza, work was a such a fascinating experience that I quickly realized it was worth an entire post. “Garza” did have one request: anonymity. Due to a previous extortion attempt on his family, he asked that I not take any photos of him, use his real name or the name of the brewery he worked for.

During his thirty-four years as a brewer at one of Mexico’s largest breweries, Garza traveled the world, sampling beers in countries from Canada to Brazil to Denmark and Russia. As a young engineer, he rose quickly to spend twenty-three years as the company’s corporate brewer overseeing brewing operations at all the company’s plants. His post-retirement activities since 2009 have included teaching brewing classes both online and site-based in Mexico and Chile.

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3 Mexican-style lagers

“I’m not a fast taster,” Fernando Garza says almost apologetically as four glasses are set on the table in front of him. He’s assured there’s no rush and thanked for his time.

“It’s what we brewers do,” he replies with a smile. “Even after all these years, I still love tastings.” With that, the brewer goes quiet and settles into the task at hand.

Watching Garza taste beer is akin to observing a religious man in deep meditation. Instead of working his fingers along prayer beads though, he repeatedly executes a series of actions, all with nearly reverent concentration. The only time he appears aware of his surroundings is when he turns toward the French doors that separate the room from a serene garden. Except for the soft hum of air-conditioning, the room is silent. Garza swirls the two fingers of straw-colored beer in a clear plastic cup, slowly at first, then more vigorously, to better detect the presence of aroma compounds. Garza holds the glass out at arm’s length and eye level. As seconds tick by, he studies the head and color. Finally, he jots a note, removes his eyeglasses, quickly swirls the glass, closes his eyes and buries his nose so deeply into the glass that the upper rim touches the bridge of his nose.

He inhales slowly, holds the breath briefly, then exhales. Another inhale follows. And another. The eyes open. The eyeglasses go on. Notes are rapidly scribbled. Again, he swirls, studies the liquid against the light, takes off the glasses and plunges his nose in the glass. Finally, after several more repetitions, he takes the first sip. With closed eyes, the man could be in profound communion with the universe, except for the mouth movements. He rolls his tongue around inside his closed mouth, moves his jaws side to side, parts his lips and slowly breathes in, then sits immobile for some seconds. Quickly, the eyes come open, the glasses go on, the pen flashes across the paper.

Thirty minutes later, after Garza has performed the ritual on three beers and produced a page and a half of notes in small, precise handwriting, he looks up like a man coming out of prayer. He gradually takes in the room around him, sips once from a glass of water and announces, “Bueno…” What follows is an amazing discourse.

Check back next week to learn which beers were sampled and what Fernando Garza and the other two men (one pictured below) had to say about them.

Albur Mexican lager interview

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