FORT COLLINS, CO
Training the Palate: A Pub Crawl with Lauren Woods Salazar of New Belgium Brewing
INTERVIEWED NOVEMBER 9, 2016
VIA PUB CRAWL - CHICAGO, IL
For someone whose middle name is 'Woods,' it seems that it was just destiny that Lauren Woods Salazar fell into the beer role that she did. 'Fell' probably isn't the correct term, more like 'climbed into' or 'discovered'. That's because, since beginning at New Belgium Brewing in 1997 as a part-time assistant, Lauren has only continued to move up, into roles that didn't even exist prior. Imbibe's '2016 Beer Person of the Year', told the magazine, “Every single job I’ve had at New Belgium didn’t exist. I don’t actually have a business card.”
We'd come to learn that although she's currently listed as the Wood Cellar Director, that title is in flux. One thing she will be quick to tell you she is not, a brewer. Rather, Lauren holds the very distinct and specific task of acting as NBB's 'blender.' It's as this, that she finds herself between taste and flavor panels, as part of her implemented Sensory Program, and ruling the foeder forest at the Fort Collins brewery. It's no exaggeration to say that Lauren Salazar just might have the most trained palate in all of craft beer. So, when we were given the chance to join her and the team on a Chicago pub crawl–during her time in town for, of course, FoBAB–we were sure not to pass it up...
We've heard you describe yourself as a 'terrible brewer.' Why is that?
The reason I say that is because a lot of times people will call me a brewer, as a title. I've never actually done that. It's never been a job title of mine. I'm toying with recipe creation and all that, but I've never actually been a brewer. I've helped on brews, I've hombrewed with friends, I can understand a recipe and understand what ingredient goes in and for how long. But, I literally do everything except the actual brewing. I laugh and say I'm a terrible brewer, because when people call me that it's just not the real thing. A blender is definitely a different thing, in that, even though I do write the recipe with the brewer, my job really lies after the base beer comes to the cellar (the base sour beer, called 'Oscar').
So, once it hits the cellar, that's where you really step in.
That's when I can really take on the responsibility and direction of the actual beer. Over the years–because I was the Sensory Specialist and I ran all the sensory program–I think a lot of people understand I can take a beer and tell you if there's anything right and wrong, based on what it's supposed to be. I can pinpoint what went wrong, and where it went wrong in the process, if it did. I think that understanding of the fermentation cycle and what comes out of it makes it so that people trust me–if I'm going to optimize a recipe, or change a recipe, or just understanding the overall process. That's definitely why it's ok that I'm everything but a brewer.
You mentioned the sensory studies. Was that something that came from your time at UC Davis or were you doing that before?
Well, I took over running the taste panel at New Belgium. But because I wasn't a good science major back in school, I definitely needed better understanding of the statistical method and understanding how to repress biases and things like that. The sensory class I took was its very first time being offered at UC Davis. We were called in to actually audit the entire class, meaning we took it for an entire year's worth of coursework. But we basically read all of the texts and all that, and we would edit them for the course. It was a pretty fun thing, in that it didn't exist before that–and it was online. So it was a really fantastic time to take that class. A lot of times you'll take a class, leave, and realize you didn't really get anything out of it. This was the opposite. We could actually specify really what we needed to be better scientists–specifically in regards to sensory. So I was in the only person in Fort Collins that was attempting to really try to flesh out a full sensory program, and not just run a tasting panel.
When was it that you took this class?
That was in 1999. I wrote and ran the Sensory Panel Management course at Siebel Institute until this year. I taught that class, all about implementing a sensory program in your brewery. That didn't really exist either, so that was kind of fun to be able to turn around and help apply this to breweries. People who start tasting panels within their brewery aren't 'sensory scientists.' That's not why they got into brewing. They're either the brewer, microbiologist, or quality assurance. They had no intention on learning statistical method and how it applies to sensory. We keep it super no-nonsense, "This is what we know, and you start here." That was a big help for me.
Between you starting at NBB in 1997 and taking the sensory course, you must've then noticed a lot of practices needing improvement at the brewery. How difficult was it for you to implement these new procedures and testing?
I think the thing I run into the most when I'm talking to people about starting a flavor panel is that there are three big problems. One is the budget. They think they just need a tasting panel. It's wildly expensive. It's absolutely, startlingly, expensive because you're not only having to buy spikes that are standard and safe to run–and there's the training. A lot of people don't understand it takes about a year to start a panel, to be able to really truly be able to use the data. And it's not just, "Let's start asking people questions–that's wrong, and this is the right answer." You can really do some serious damage to your product by running statistics, or believing that someone knows what Diacetyl is, when you haven't validated that. You could be on a wild goose chase–changing your processes back and forth without even knowing it. Secondly, you need people. You need people to come off the line, out of the brewhouse, down from finance and accounting... Then, you need everyone's time–their commitment and motivation. Then you're a company really believing in quality.
We know, locally, how easy it is to mishandle quality control. We heard about an issue at Boulevard in KC, just this week.
The thing about New Belgium we had going for us at the beginning was when I decided I wanted to start a flavor panel. I went to our CEO Kim Jordan, and put a budget in front of her. I said this is the amount of money I'll need, the amount of people I'll need... And, I'm going to need you to write an email to all the managers that says, "A taste panel is important, the flavor panel is important, quality is important. You will let your guys come take part–it's not a smoke break, it's not their lunch. They can spend their time and energy with it." She did it, and everyone kind of fell into it. Everyone understood you can't half-ass quality. We've been putting our money where our mouth is since the beginning. I think it's extraordinary when people say they want to run a taste panel but they just can't get people to come. You can't have that at your brewery.
Can you talk about the 'foeder forest' in Fort Collins? We've heard that you name them, even. What happens when one is acting temperamental?
I can tell you I haven't dumped beer in about a decade. We just had a problem where we couldn't get one of the foeders full fast enough. We had a production shutdown, the chiller went down–we just didn't have the equipment to actually fill it. It took two days to finally fill it. Because of that problem, the foedor became rancid with acetobacter. I knew that foeder really well, her name is "Cherry Go Lightly." She definitely takes a little bit longer to do whatever it is she feels like doing. I had to drain it, rinse it, scrape it, then reinoculate with a different foeder's bugs. So basically it was a 10-12 year-old foeder that was very established. Then all of a sudden, I'm starting all over. I named it that name for a reason, and now I'm trying to figure out who and what it was now.
A new personality?
Yea, we're only a year in with it now. I don't usually name foeders until they already have an 'identity.'. For the others, sometimes they kinda get sluggish. They might go too fast, they might go too slow. But the most important thing is when they're trying to tell me that they need something. Either they're too hot, or they're too cold, they're hungry, they're very full, they're ready to make beer, they're not enjoying the climate, it's too dry, it's moist... And so those're all the things you just need to understand. You taste the barrel–know what was and what should be. You go to the barrel with an expectation, and if it doesn't match up, you have to understand why. You assign a cause and have to be able to correct that, or else it's just like a baby crying. You can't understand it. You've gotta figure it out.
You've been quoted saying that, "Like a kid with a Crayola box, just because I have 64 crayons does not mean I have to use them all." How do you practice restraint with blending–what's your approach when you first go in?
In the past year, I spend all of my time understanding the actual chemical makeup of the foeders. We take an extreme deep dive into organic acids, breaking out about seven organic acids. We're looking into even more than just is our PH 3.4, is our acid 1.5? But what's making up that profile. Because it's not just how sour a foeder is, but do you find that sour profile pleasant? So for me, understanding the barrels–sensory-wise–and then overlaying that on top of chemical analysis and having a very specific idea of what I find pleasant, correct, and true to blend. And when to utilize. There's too soon and there's too late. I'm trying to demystify what my blends are becoming.
Is there a brewery that you really admire for their sours? What's something you keep at home?
For sours, I'm in contact with so many brewers. And we're really great at sending each other bottles. I definitely try to keep Rare Barrel [whose name was inspired by a lost 'rare' barrel, PH-1, from Lauren's collection] and a couple Side Project beers around. I'm lucky enough to live right down the street from Andy Parker at Avery. That makes me incredibly happy. As far as the beer that I buy: stouts. And, it's Old Rasputin. New Belgium doesn't make a stout year-round–I think just to mess with me. Sours and stouts are my thing. I'll just walk across the street and grab a 4-pack. I can't really get through a Sunday without at least one imperial stout.
If you never took the part time job at New Belgium back in '97, what would the brewery be like today?
The reason why New Belgium is so great is because of the people who work there. From the beginning up until yesterday, there's a really specific reason why everyone has joined us. They want to be a part of something. They want to contribute. I think even if it wasn't me who was doing it, it would have been somebody.
What do you want your legacy at NBB to be?
In the very beginning, you'd just look around and think, "What's not getting done?" You'd just put your name on five things and do this, this, and this. You'd just really throw yourself into it. So–I would say, the sensory program. I've had such a spark and passion for it, I just didn't know how to stop. I'm just trying to make it perfect. Of course 'perfect' doesn't exist. But, the sensory program, of all the things I've done–even though I love the wood cellar, and I love my foeders more than most humans–that's the thing I'm most proud of.
It sounds like you might be a perfectionist.
I'm definitely that type. I have to go in every day and read my mantra. It basically says, "Chill the fuck out." I try. Not everybody likes to be driven. I go into work not trying to push anything or anyone as far as I might want to push myself. I find that people enjoy me a little more then.
Where are you looking forward to visit, while you're in town for FoBAB?
I always imbibe way too much. One time I had five dinner reservations in Chicago, which was way too much. I'm really excited to try Milk Room, at the Chicago Athletic Association. I've had a reservation for about 7 months.
Photography by Nick Costa.
A big thanks to Lauren Salazar, and New Belgium Brewing, for having us along on the Chicago pub crawl of "Lauren's favorite spots." And if you are headed to FoBAB, be sure to keep an eye out for NBB's beers this year–including La Terroir, which won Bronze in 2015 in the Wild Ale category.