If you have any preconceptions about Genesee and the Genny Light your parents drank, set them aside. Genesee Brewing Company, the venerable Rochester brewery that has been rolling out barrels of beer since 1878, has started serving up heavy-hitters like an Imperial Black IPA in their recently-opened Genesee Brew House overlooking High Falls.
Sean Coughlin is one of Genesee’s more than five hundred employees, but his position with Genesee––Beer Liaison––is unique in that it brings together tradition and innovation. Coughlin plays a key role in assuring that Genesee Cream Ale reaches its legions of loyal fans tasting as it should. But he has also been known to convince the occasional Cream Ale-drinking Brew House visitor to taste beers like Genesee’s Apple Brandy Barrel-Aged Altbier. (You read that right. The pilot brewery that keeps the Brew House supplied also has a Salted Caramel Chocolate Porter coming your way soon.)
Given his background in music education, it’s not surprising that Coughlin managed to create a niche for himself involving training staff and leading tours for the public. Before moving to Rochester with his wife who is pursuing a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music, Coughlin taught at middle school, high school, and at the collegiate level. Owing to the number of Eastman grads in the region, though, it was difficult to find a job teaching music in Rochester. Explains Coughlin, “My second passion after music is beer, so it made sense to look for something in that field. When we moved to Rochester, it was shortly before Genesee opened up its Brew House, so the timing couldn’t have been better.”
Coughlin is also an accomplished beer judge, and it is in this capacity that I met him this past summer while judging at the New York State Fair homebrew competition in Syracuse. We judged a flight of porters together, but I didn’t manage to get his contact information in the shuffle at the end of the day. In one of those happy twists of fate, I got the judging sheets back from a Kölsch-style beer that I had entered in the competition, and noticed that Sean was one of the two judges who had evaluated my beer.
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A Tempest in a Tankard: So you have what sounds like a dream job. You get to work, and by nine in the morning you’ve got a beer in front of you. Tell us more about what you do on a day-to-day basis with Genesee.
Sean Coughlin: I certainly have a dream job. The biggest perk is that my day is completely encompassed by talking about beer––so it’s never a dull day on the job. I am responsible for the beer education of the entire staff at the Genesee Brew House, managing our online store, giving tours, training employees, cleaning draft lines, participating in a daily taste panel, and pouring at off-site events.
TT: Genesee has a long history and loyal following. How is Genesee trying to position itself vis-à-vis “craft beer”? Is it trying to develop new beers that would appeal to the craft beer enthusiast?
Genesee has actually been at the forefront of the “craft” movement. Genesee began brewing the Dundee line of craft beers in 1994 with the introduction of Honey Brown Lager, a gold medal winner at the 2004 World Beer Cup. The line has expanded significantly since 1994 and now includes twelve offerings besides Honey Brown Lager. With the opening of the Genesee Brew House in September 2012, we have been brewing craft beers on our 20-barrel pilot system. People who walk in the door expecting Genny Cream Ale will sometimes end up leaving with a growler of Imperial Black IPA.
We have a huge craft beer community in Rochester, but everyone still supports local breweries like Genesee, even if Genny Light might not be their first choice. The craft community recognizes the quality of our pilot brewery beer and is excited about what we’re doing. No one would have anticipated Genesee putting Altbier in an apple brandy barrel a few years ago, but now people are excited to see what we’re going to come up with next. It’s been exciting to see the diversity of people who come through the door––craft beer geeks and Cream Ale diehards all have a place at our bar.
TT: I’m interested in hearing more about how quality control works at a brewery like Genesee––in particular, how the brewery divides up tasks between those who perform analyses in the lab, and those (like you) who rely on your senses. At what stages in the brewing process do you taste the beer?
SC: We’re fortunate to have a state-of-the-art lab and a great staff made up of specialists like chemists and microbiologists. If we want to know the exact levels of diacetyl in our beer, we can run it through a gas chromatograph and find out. However, there’s no substitute for the human senses. After everything has undergone thorough analysis, it is sent to the taste panel for further evaluation. Sometimes we will put product into a “Difference from Control” or a “Triangle Test.” Triangle tests are particularly helpful––two items serve as the control, and one is different. It could be spiked with an off-flavor, or it could be the same beer with different hops or a different base malt.
During the taste panel, we taste everything from brewing water to finished bottled product. Along the way we might taste the same beer that is both pasteurized and unpasteurized, carbonated and uncarbonated, or filtered and unfiltered. Carbonation, mouthfeel, trueness to style: all of these are taken into consideration.
TT: How many other breweries that you know of have dedicated tasting panels for quality control?
SC: Any brewery worth its salt is taking the time to conduct a regular tasting panel. Gordon Strong (president of the Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP) says that whenever brewers ask him how to improve their brewing, he tells them to become a beer judge. This is great advice––having high standards for your beer is the best thing you can do to improve the quality of it.
TT: On a related note, how much actual smelling and tasting do you do over the course of a given day or week? How much of what you do involves training your senses, either by drinking beer or through the use of sensory calibration kits?
SC: Thanks for this great question! If you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s extremely important to constantly use your senses outside of the workplace too. It’s especially important with regard to aroma, where sensory memories help us to pinpoint exactly what we are smelling. I’m constantly thinking about aromas and flavors, whether pleasant or unpleasant. One of the best pieces of advice I could give any brewer or beer drinker would be to get out to a coffee roaster and do a coffee cupping (tasting), or to visit a few wineries. Try new kinds of food. Try cooking old favorite recipes with different spices.
The use of sensory calibration kits is important––especially trying things in different concentrations so you can figure out what you’re sensitive to and what you may have trouble identifying. For example, I’m extremely sensitive to acetaldehyde (“apple/cider,” sometimes indicative of incomplete fermentation) and can smell it from a mile away, but have a hard time picking up on dimethyl sulfide (“cooked corn/cabbage,” a common by-product of fermentation with lager yeasts). I’m a big fan of practical hands on experience––and that means drinking beer! Commercial beer is helpful, but drinking homebrew offers a better chance to become acquainted with off-flavors. It’s thankfully rare that you’ll end up finding flaws like caprylic acid (a goat-like or sweaty character) in a commercial beer, but it pops up every now and then in homebrew.
TT: You’re also a homebrewer, and a decorated one at that. How long have you been brewing? How important do you think a knowledge of the brewing process is for what you do on a day-to-day basis with Genesee?
SC: I’ve been a homebrewer for only about three years but have made a lot of batches in that time and have learned lots along the way. We have a few other homebrewers who work at our brewpub so it’s always fun bouncing ideas off of one another and offering constructive criticism. I also have the pleasure of working daily with our head brewer, Dean Jones. Dean has racked up quite a few medals from the GABF and World Beer Cup over the years and has more than twenty-three years of experience. I’ve learned a ton from him–– he is a phenomenal troubleshooter with the best palate of anyone I know.
Knowledge of the brewing process is very important for what I do, even though I don’t brew at work. We probably offer more tours than any brewery in the world I know of––seven days a week, every hour on the hour. Sometimes people are content to hear the basics and sometimes you might get a chemist on the tour that wants to know everything there is to know about ferulic acid rests. Having some street cred, even if it’s just as a homebrewer, makes it possible to elevate things to the next level. People can walk away having learned something new, which always results in greater appreciation for the next beer they drink.
SC: The Cicerone & BJCP programs are both doing incredible things to improve the culture of beer around the world, but in different ways. The Cicerone program is directed at people that work in the beer industry––servers, bartenders, sales reps, and the like––and covers a wide variety of topics. Two things that make the program unique are draft system maintenance, and beer and food pairings. The BJCP program is directed more at homebrewers and focuses more on sensory evaluation and feedback/troubleshooting regarding how to improve the beer in question.
Working in a restaurant, the Cicerone program is a bit more relevant to my job. It is mandatory for anyone who touches beer at our brewpub to pass the first of three levels of certification in the Cicerone program. It’s really important that our employees are able to have a meaningful conversation with our customers about beer. When someone asks about our IPA, we want them to get a better response than “It’s really hoppy.” Also, we often offer specials where we will recommend a particular beer with the item and, most importantly, explain in detail why the pairing works.
The BJCP certification and judging experience has certainly been helpful from a sensory standpoint. It is very difficult to pick up subtleties like carbonation levels or the substitution of Hallertau Hersbrucker for Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops. BJCP certification really trains you to concentrate while you’re assessing a beer, and that is more difficult than it sounds.
TT: What aspects of your job do you find most enjoyable? Does it ever become monotonous doing quality control on the same beers day-in and day-out?
SC: The favorite part of my job is hosting monthly guided tastings for our staff. I’ll generally focus on a particular category––for example, dark lagers. After discussing the history of the style and the ingredients used, I’ll pour world-class examples and have everyone write down their perceptions. It’s always interesting to see how different people interpret the same beer.
Quality control can seem monotonous at times, but then you remember how important the job is. Sending out an inferior product could bankrupt your brewery in a flash. Being the last line of defense before your product hits the shelves is not a matter to be taken lightly.
TT: I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks your line of work is appealing. What can beer enthusiasts do to prepare themselves for the kind of work you do?
SC: For anyone looking to get into the field, the industry looks favorably on anyone with Certified Cicerone credentials, which is the second of the three Cicerone levels. Getting certified as a BJCP judge certainly can’t hurt, nor can homebrewing experience.
I’d also recommend the Morten C. Meilgaard textbook, Sensory Evaluation Techniques. For those who want a more practical approach, every issue of Zymurgy (available from the American Homebrewer’s Association) has a “Commercial Calibration” section, where four distinguished beer judges fill out score sheets for commercial beers. This is a great way to develop sensory vocabulary. It’s easy for all of us to taste a beer. What’s not so easy is putting into words what we just tasted.
Even better, bring in some beer and sit with a brewer (or homebrewer) and discuss. Offer to evaluate their latest batch. Have them do the same for you.
TT: What kind of advice would you give to craft beer drinkers who want to get the most out of their tasting sessions?
SC: Fill out a BJCP scoresheet for the beer you’re drinking while comparing it to the style guidelines for that particular beer. This forces you to really concentrate on the beer you’re drinking, and can even result in you being able to enjoy it more! It can also be eye-opening to do a blind tasting. You might be surprised at which ones you liked the most/least when you don’t have the pre-conception of a particular brand going into it.
TT: So you’ve been sampling Genesee beers all day long. When you get home, do you reach for the malt or the hops? Or is beer the last thing you’d like to drink?
SC: My favorite beer is one I’ve never tried before. It keeps me on my toes and helps me to continue developing my palate. That said, sometimes it’s really nice to go home at the end of the day and just enjoy a nice big glass of water. Odds and Ends
Sean Coughlin took Best of Show at the New York State Fair where we judged together this past summer. He took gold with his Abbey Cat, a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, besting two-hundred seventy-eight other entries. He also took third place in the Light Lager category with a Munich Helles. If you stop by the Brew House in Rochester, be sure to congratulate him.
The Genesee Brew House is located at 25 Cataract St., Rochester, NY, 14605. Opening hours are: Monday to Wednesday, 11am-9pm; Thursday to Saturday, 11am-10pm; and Sunday from noon to 9pm.
The Brew House was established in 2012 in a building that was once part of the original Genesee Brewery over a hundred years ago. The multi-purpose facility is now home to a brewpub, a gift shop, and a pilot brewery that you can tour seven days a week.
With the exception of the Cicerone and BJCP logos and the cover of the November/December 2014 edition of Zymurgy, all images from www.geneseebeer.com.
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© 2014 F.D. Hofer, Sean Coughlin, and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.