• John Ennis

Ali Schultz - Silver Linings


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Since earning her master’s in food science from the University of California, Davis in 2012, Ali has been a part of New Belgium’s Sensory program and became the Sensory manager there in 2019. During this time she has run finished product and in process panels and trainings for quality assurance as well as implemented descriptive analysis and sour beer panels for product development. The system of training and panelist performance tracking she developed provides robust, actionable data to ensure only top-quality beer is produced. Most recently she has been expanding a consumer studies program for both quality assurance and marketing. As a brewing sensory expert, Ali has spoken at multiple brewing conferences,authored methods for both ASTM and ASBC, and continues to research new methods and best practices, keeping New Belgium at the forefront of sensory science.​


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Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: Ali, welcome to the show.


Ali: Thank you so much for having me.


John: Thank you for being on here. It's great. Alright, Ali so something we're talking about before we started recording here is that alcohol consumption is up in the United States, generally speaking, to this pandemic. And I think, you know, we're both fortunate to be working in areas where we're able to keep working during this whole crisis.


Ali: Definitely


John: Yeah. I mean, it's definitely a situation where we are very blessed. So the question I like to kind of start with is how is the crisis affecting both, you know, New Belgium more generally and then more specifically, you know, your work. How is your work changed over the course of this crisis?


Ali: Yeah, those are great questions. And there's kind of two sides to the coin for both of them. As you mentioned, you know, covid is kind of changed the brewing industry for the better in some respects because of the size of New Belgium. We are able to continue to sell a lot of beer in liquor stores, which, you know, if you're a smaller brewery and you're only relying on customers to come in, that can be a big problem for smaller breweries, which is unfortunate. But anyway, focusing more on New Belgium, we've really been able to continue to sell bottles and cans, even though kegs, which we typically sell to restaurants, are not selling very well right now. So the benefit of that is we continue to produce a lot of beer and we're really focusing on our core sets of brands. So that's a lot of beers like Fat Tire and then a lot of our voodoo series, which is Juicy Haze, IPA, Imperial. And so the benefit of that is that it's been quite simplified in sensory science in the sensory department, and that we're not really brewing that many beers. So it's very easy for the panelists to kind of get in the groove of analyzing only really a handful of brands. And we typically do only quality assurance at the brewery. And that's typically in the form of true to type evaluations. So the benefit is the panelists can really focus on a few brands. The downside of that is a lot of these are hoppy beers with higher alcohol. And so we are trying to, you know, release all of these beers because we want to taste them before we send them off. But we can only, you know, we can't serve eight IPA's to Panelist at 9 a.m. because one, they'll get really fatigued, and two, they end up kind of buzzed by the end of it which, you know, that's not good for many perspective. And so the other thing that we've really had to deal with is a lot of our co-workers are working from home. All of our panelists are working from home. So the only panelists we have are the ones that are considered essential personnel. Essentially, quality assurance and brewing are the people that we have. And so we only have about 13 panelists a week, and that's split into two shifts. So maybe seven panelists, a shift, which we're usually up to 20. So we've really had an interesting time. Looking at the data in a different way, because we have less panelist and really trying to use the sensory experience that we've gained over several years to still try and come to robust conclusions, even though we might not have the number of panelists that we really need to have.


John: Yeah, that's fascinating. And it kind of leads to a trend that I noticed, which is that a lot of times, you know, people are being forced to innovate right now. Come up with like consider like new ways of doing things. So what are some of the things that you've had to consider? I mean, I guess you can't do triple replicated tests, highly intoxicated beer. So, you know, what are some of the innovations that kind of the way the things you've considered as far as different things you're doing now that maybe you wouldn't have done pre-crisis or at least that you're considering doing?


Ali: Yeah, definitely. We haven't made too many changes in the midst of all of this. I'm just trying to keep our heads above water, I think. But as things have kind of fallen into the covid groove, as it were, this is something we've really started to think about is how can we do quality assurance not at the brewery? And that's a big question, because for that type of sensory research type one data if you will, like you need a lot of control, I need to know the beers at the right temperature. They have the right serving glasses. They're doing the proper evaluation. They're not distracted by kids or dogs or mosquitoes or whatever is out around in their house. And so, you know, quality assurance is all about this control. And how can I still have that control if I'm allowing people to evaluate beers not at the brewery, not in the panel booth areas. And so some things we've considered and this has been a discussion not just within New Belgium, but I've talked with Megan Pelts from Sierra Nevada and people from the Wolf Group and even MillerCoors, I believe that's where the other sensory scientist is from. And so they have done some of these things. They have sent beers home with people and utilizing, you know, sending the sensory glassware home with them and using software in a way to, you know, have discussions and trainings online with video chats. And so these are all things that we will need to consider doing. To your point of like, well, we're being kind of forced to innovate right now because right now our data isn't as robust as it needs to be. And it's been working in a pinch, hopefully things get back to normal but if we have a resurgence of this, say in the fall or, you know, in years to come. This is something that we need to be ready to face and not not slow down because we can't use the excuse of, "Oh, well, you know, it's a pandemic," like that's working right now, but that's not gonna work later on.


John: Right. At some point, yeah. We have to adjust to the kind of the new reality maybe. Yeah. So it is interesting. So something else you're talking about and that I think you know, is potentially helpful is to looking at historical data to help to get maybe some head start on the analysis that somebody think about what are some of the other things you and I are talking about how you're beginning now? Like, one of the things that struck me, I visited you last year and, to their listeners, Ali, it was very kind of reaction by myself, my family, out to New Belgium when I was in Denver for a conference. We spent a great day there. But, you know, you have great community engagement. I think you're really loved by the people there in Fort Collins. And I would imagine that it's been a difficult transition with the people not being able to come in. So what are some of the steps you're taking to stay engage with the community when maybe you don't have as many people visiting?


Ali: Yes, definitely. And that's more on that consumer studies side that we've been really developing over the last couple of years. And, you know, when we did consumer studies previously, we only relied on people coming to the brewery. It's kind of great. You have a, you know, you're making some assumptions with the people that are coming in, but you have a constant stream of people that are thrilled to have your product for free, as a matter of fact. And so making that switch to, so what we've kind of been working on with us, it's funny that this is something we were planning on doing this year anyway, but Covid has really bumped up the priority of this project is developing a consumer database that's based not only within the communities of Fort Collins and our brewery in Asheville that are more local that we could call on perhaps more frequently, but also maybe a broader network across the country. So if we want to really see beer in the East Coast, we can call on the people that live on the East Coast to provide us data that might be completely different than what it is on the West Coast, of course. And so we're really basing a lot of that to start off of the people that have signed up for our mailing list, because obviously they're eager. They're very enthusiastic. I think one of the issues that we have seen with that is, so far, when we've done some studies preliminary, it's been a lot of 65 year old white males, which there's definitely a place for them in consumer studies. But usually we're trying to target the voodoo character, which is like a little skeleton and he's all cool and whatever.


John: Oh, interesting.


Ali: We we're trying to market that more towards, like, you know, 21 to 35 year old. So we get a lot of feedback from people that aren't necessarily in our target demographic. And so trying to balance that and draw more of those that younger crowd into the community of consumers that we're trying to collect as well. But once we do that, it should be quite powerful to be able to not just rely on people coming in to the brewery for our consumer data.


John: Right. And that ultimately continues post pandemic and other kind of advance.


Ali: Definitely. Especially in regards to, in my bio that you talked about, we were doing consumer studies both for marketing research, which is kind of what I've been talking about up until this point. You know, we need a certain demographic, certain age group, certain beer drinking preferences, but also consumer studies from a quality perspective. And by that, I mean we want to set action standards within the brewery. So panel is picking up an off flavor. Does the consumer pick that up? Or are we potentially discarding beer that, you know, a highly trained panel wouldn't allow but your average consumer actually doesn't notice. And are we leaving money on the table with that. And so that can be another really powerful thing that maybe we don't need to have a specific consumer group for, that we could continue to use at the brewery.


John: Right. Very interesting. So let me ask you this kind of consumer behavior during this pandemic and maybe, you know, I would say I'm not sure how much data you have versus your own experience and just your own, you know, just your own subjective ideas about consumer behavior. But how do you think that consumers behavior with respect to beer is both changing now and is going to remain changed after the pandemic is over. I mean, will you talked a little bit about the fact that the new Belgium is focusing on some core, you're focused in core brands right now, right? And presumably people are, I mean, if you are gonna be drinking more of the core brands, what do you see happening as far as like, how will people be different after the pandemic is over with respected beer consumption?


Ali: It's such an interesting question. And of course, I wish I had that crystal ball. It will make it a lot easier. I can kind of see, I wonder if the consumers draw to core brands is something like they want something familiar, they want something they can kind of trust. The other thing we've seen a lot of uptick in is larger packs of beer. So we don't see six packs going as quickly as 12 packs and even some of the 15 packs, because, you know, if you're trying to stay at home, you're going to go to a liquor store and get the largest amount of beer that you can, you know. And I'm not sure much of how costs weighs into that. But you're looking for the bigger packs of beer is typically what we've seen with covid. And, especially at the beginning when people were just trying to cope with all the changes, I feel like there was some self medication going on with that. But as people have settled into it, I've had some friends and we have seen steady numbers of sales since covid began. But just, you know, anecdotally with friends, it's like I should really maybe cut back on what I'm drinking.


John: Oh, interesting.


Ali: Because I can't just keep, you know, having a couple beers every single night because that wasn't the way they lived before covid and they kind of want to get back to some sense of normalcy. And so I wonder how much that's being reflected in the broader community as well with that. And so it's so interesting because before covid, before we focused on the core brands, everybody wanted something new. It was what's the new thing? I mean, it's the whole idea of everybody's extent. Attention span is a lot shorter, be it with social media or beers in our case that they want something new and interesting all the time. And so I can maybe see that coming back after covid is over. But maybe also people might have fewer options, you know, some of the smaller brews that weren't able to make it due to nobody being able to come to their tap room. You might have less variety or less options in general. So I can kind of see it going both ways, which isn't really a concrete answer.


John: No, it's a lot of good ideas.


Ali: I thinks it's a pretty complicated situation.


John: Yeah. I see that by frication as well, you know, and also, as you know, I do a lot of these calls, talked to people, etc., that either people are retreating to what's comfortable and familiar or they're being forced to experiment because they can't get what they would normally get, right? And sometimes when people are experimenting, they're finding things they like. And so there could be some behavior that persists after the crisis. I hadn't thought about volume. That's a really interesting point. And the idea if you maybe familiar with Say's law from economics, which is the idea that supply creates demand, that if you've got something around, you'll tend to use it, right? Whether you're talking about, you know, you bought 15 pack of beer and now, well, why a lots of beer, right? Or the flip side, you know, if you don't have a lot of something, like when we had toilet paper shortage here, I was like literally counting my squares, if you all go to the bathroom I would give them one square because I knew that if he had a role, it was going to be like an issue. But yeah, so that is interesting that at some point you are going to say, hey, we can't keep this up because my wife and I have gotten into wine every night now. Right? Like, we joined a wine service. Now we've got the wine most of it and now I'm thinking, well, I don't drink the same wine night after night. So I'm going to get like multiple, you know, those like devices that pump air out of the wine so we can have a selection every night. And it's something I never I only used to drink once a week, and we are doing it every night.


Ali: Yeah. And that is a good point I think, too. I hadn't considered it that way. Or if you're drinking more you might want more variety. That makes a lot of sense. You know, so maybe you buy a couple 15 packs and you can alternate every other night.


John: Yes, it is interesting. Okay. Well, I guess we need more consumer research trend and that's where we'll have you back on the show in about six months. And we can see what updates you have.


Ali: Yeah


John: Okay, so let's talk a little bit more about, I mean, a few things that are interesting to me are kind of data collection. So right now, you all are still collecting data mainly at the brewery, on computers, is that right? Are you looking to move to more of an app based approach or how do you see things evolving, especially if you have to collect data in people's houses? How do you see that unfold?


Ali: Yes, definitely. So right now, we are sensory software is a bit old. We're working on upgrading it but for that reason, it is tied to the computers at the brewery. And when we have done consumer testing at the brewery, we don't bring them into the booth area. But we have just used a general survey software like Survey Monkey or Google Forms or something like that. And kind of those are miserable to use for sensory data collection. I mean, sampling randomization has to be done manually in terms of programming the survey to do that. And it's far too much work than it needs to be. And so that's one of the biggest things we want to do, is move over to a cloud based software or something that just allows people to be able to access it on their phones, which the service after we have does allow that. But like I said, there's issues with using a non-sensory based platform for data collection. So it'll be a huge change when we can start to use that software that people can use on their phones. And actually, I was listening to other podcasts where one of your guests had talked about reaching people through their smart speakers at their houses. And that just kind of blew my mind, I was like, oh, my gosh. I also thought it was kind of like, I'm pretty open with my information on like the Internet or whatever. But I know some people are very cautious about that being like, I don't want anybody speaking to me from my home. So I'm curious to see the balance between that. But I think the convenience of that's really gonna play a huge part of it. If I get to talk to you to fill out a survey or, you know, send something into me. That's got to be convenient for people, which is why people have smart speakers in the first place. Convenience.


John: Yeah. I mean, that is definitely exciting. The idea that someone go to the fridge, open a beer, at the moment they were gonna drink it anyway and then just tell their smart speaker, okay, let's do the survey and, you know, ask some questions right there at the natural moment of consumption. Now, where the consumer research done some of our sensory but it's still, I think, really exciting to go to collect the kind of data in real time. So that's good. Alright. So let's kind of talk about, you know, kind of what's next for you. ? You and I normally see each other regularly at ASTM, I guess so no travel over time. How has the brewing industry in general have been adapting? Are you all still having your meetings?


Ali: No, I mean, all of the normal conferences have been pushed back. I'm not sure to how far, I'll just kind of have to say how far goes but, like there was a sensory specific conference for the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) in Asheville, North Carolina, that was supposed to take place at the beginning of May, I think. No, it's beginning of April even. This is going to overlap with ASTM and they just canceled that. There hasn't been anything put on the books for that. So I think there's a lot of they did have the craft brewing conference that was all online instead of having it in person. So I think you're missing a lot of these, just like in in personal life. You're missing a lot of these social personal interactions which, you know, a Zoom call doesn't quite cut it even if you have everybody's face on a tiny square. So I think, in some ways it's been really nice, like for the craft brewing conference, they had all of the speakers that they would have had in person online, which they made those free. So people that might not have been able to attend the conference in person or couldn't afford to go or for whatever reason, they could have watched these online. So there does seem to be more information sharing. But I just anecdotally, I don't necessarily feel like the quality of data sharing is the same because it's harder to ask questions. It seems much more rigid.


John: Yeah, I know. I've tried into that, too. I mean, one issue and this is what I start doing and you may want to do this too when you give talks, is schedule your own follow up session for people to ask you questions, because that's missing from the current online conferences. Normally you get done speaking and then a bunch of people come up to you and they ask you questions after you're done, right? And you have these nice conversations and there's no virtual analog to that right now. The thing ends and it's just okay bye.


Ali: Right


John: Right? Yeah. So I would say that scheduling your own follow ups where you say, okay, look at the last slide. If you want to talk more like send an email here and I will invite you to a half hour question and answer session where I'll just be able to talk to you.


Ali: That's a great idea.


John: Yeah. Feminists are doing that, you know, but that's something to think about for sure. Okay, let's talk a little about kind of your goals then for your sensory program in the next six months, a year, or what do you see yourself kind of focusing on, like most important area?


Ali: I think I think we're really going to leverage the consumer studies aspect of it. I mean, our quality assurance program within the brewery is really solid. I feel very good about that. But I think kind of what I mentioned before is for quality assurance. We don't have a lot of understanding about what the consumer perceives about beer or are we being too conservative in, say, setting our shelf-life where the consumer would find a beer acceptable a month later than our panel does. Because our panel is highly trained. They're used to fresh beer, etcetera. Whereas the consumer might store it in their garage and they are have a much wider range of acceptability. And that's frequently the feedback that we get when we make recommendations. And they're like, well, we like I would say, we shouldn't sell this beer. And then you know, the powers that be at the beer might come back and be like, well, what does the consumer think about that? And I was like, that's a great question. We don't know. And so I think that's a gap that we need to have filled. And then from the marketing perspective, really forming these consumer databases, it's gonna be huge so that we can just do, I don't want to say basic consumer studies, because I feel like you can get a lot of information from those. But, you know, coming in and asking questions and then they leave. That's more what I'm talking about. Whereas if we develop a rapport with specific consumers, we could do focus groups where maybe we can call them back more frequently. We could have consumer panel of sorts where they might have a bit more experience, but they are still a consumer. And so being able to play around with all of those possibilities is something we really want to do in the next six months to a year.


John: Yeah. And now people, you know, for the most part, you can tell people you're going to schedule a zoom call and it won't be a disaster. They can actually just get online, you know, so there are numbers of silver linings from the whole current situation.


Ali: Yes. People have to have learned technology at this point. And I think that kind of hearkens backpedaling a little bit to the fact that, you know, covid has changed the way people think about working from home. I do believe that, yes, you can have a lot more candid or off the cuff interaction with people at the workplace. But there's a lot of benefits to working at home. You don't have people interrupting you all the time. And so if our panelists are working from home more frequently. You know, how can we get them to be or are they just no longer panelists? That doesn't seem like a great method. So we need to high try and accommodate people that want to work from home, because I really feel like that's where the workplace is shifting. And I mean, that could affect consumers as well. Maybe they'll just come to the brewery less and instead purchase beer at the liquor store and drink at their house. Because, you know, to be completely honest, that's a lot cheaper to than going to a brewery and drinking beer. So I think leveraging consumer studies and then working out how to have our panel remote almost, you know, those are going to be the key things to prepare for the future.


John: Yeah. Fascinating. Okay, great. Well, this is great. I think it's been many silver linings that have come out of, like coronavirus as we've been discussing. So hopefully we will may all make it through this thing safely and we will get to reap some of these benefits in the next few months. So before we wrap up here, Ali, so if someone wanted to reach out to you, maybe they wanted to apply for a job at New Belgium or they just want to ask you a question, how would they get in touch with you?


Ali: Yeah, you can reach me at my email address or I'm on LinkedIn as well at Ali Schultz. But my email address is aschultz@newbelgium.com so I'm happy to field questions. Love sharing sensory knowledge.


John: Okay, great. Yes, I feel the same way. That's the thing I love about sensory. People are in sensory really love sensory. You know, no one ends up in sensory because they're like trying to get rich.


Ali: Also not a craft brewery. That's also not a great way to get rich.


John: Yeah. Okay, we'll put these links in the show notes and just kind of wrap up, what advice would you have for young sensory scientists? I always like to ask this question at the end of every podcast. So what would you say if someone just starting their career in sensory?


Ali: I would say two things. One, join ASTM and that's not just the plug, but I think it's so funny that I'm on your show because we used to like hero worship because you read all the NS papers at New Belgium and then we're like, oh, my gosh, now I'm on your podcast. And so, like, dreams do come true. So if you join ASTM, you get to rub shoulders. It's people that literally wrote the book on sensory science. And it's a very affordable, cheap, awesome way to interact with consumers or sensory scientists that have a ton of experience. The other thing I would say is learn statistics, really, you know, calculus useless. Nobody cares.


John: For our purposes, that's basically free.


Ali: Yes, you know, engineers you probably need calculus. It's fine. But I would say for sensory science, really having a solid foundation in statistics is going to be key because you don't simply want to swallow whatever the software that you're using chucks out at you like you should really have a solid foundation and understand where your data is coming from and be able to explain it. So those are the two pieces of advice I would give to new sensory scientists.


John: Well, those are two great pieces of advice. On that happy note, thank you for being on the show, Ali. And looking forward to seeing you at the future ASTM conference.


Ali: Yes. Thank you so much, John.


John: Alright, great. Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.


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