Beer taster makes Chinese brew palatable, recognizable
For 35-year-old Zhu Lei, beer is a complex mix of more than 90 flavors, rather than the simple sweetness of the malts and the balancing bitterness.
As a professional beer taster or beer quality technician at the Tsingtao Brewery in eastern China's city of Qingdao, Zhu's job is to identify the slightest differences among different batches of beer products to guarantee stable flavor and quality.
Through years of training, her palate has grown sensitive enough to tell a spoonful of salt in a tonne of water from the first sip.
Professionals like Zhu are in heavy demand in China's growing beer industry. Beer sales in China are expected to reach 727.5 billion yuan (about US$104 billion) in 2022, an average annual growth of 6.5 percent from 2018, according to market research by Shenzhen-based AskCI Consulting.
The 116-year-old Tsingtao Brewery now sells its beer to more than 100 countries. Tsingtao's sales last year jumped over 50 percent in 11 overseas markets including Russia and Poland.
With more than 60 factories nationwide, Tsingtao Brewery makes beer under varied brewing conditions such as water, yeast, temperature and humidity.
Over the years, what Zhu and her colleagues do is to help the brewer maintain a consistent and standardized flavor.
"A professional taster must be emotionally stable so as not to be biased by personal preferences when it comes to evaluation," Zhu said, noting that it does require unremitting efforts.
Zhu has worked as a beer taster for 14 years since her talent was discovered in a beer tasting contest held by the brewer. She then started a career, in her own words, as "a beer artist who knows how to appreciate beer."
The training was hard, calling for strong self-discipline. "I have to avoid strong scented things to keep my palate sensitive," Zhu said. Since her early twenties, she has never worn perfume or eaten her favorite spicy Sichuan food.
Zhu keeps a habit of connecting flavoring substances in beer with ordinary food and smells in daily life, a way to build a database of flavors in the mind.
A normal glass of beer contains more than 90 main flavoring substances that affect the flavor. When machines fail to identify all the ingredients, well-trained human tasters can get the job done based on their experience, Zhu said.
After checking out the color, swirling the glass clockwise, sniffing and finally taking a nice sip to let the beer roll over her taste buds, Zhu said Tsingtao beer has become more palatable with balanced texture and flavors.
Ranil Oninda, marketing consultant for Lion Holdings Trading (Shenzhen) Limited, agreed, saying that Tsingtao beer is one of the best he has ever tasted. It is the first time for Sri Lankan brand Lion beer to attend the ongoing international beer festival in China's "beer city" Qingdao.
The city boasts a distinctive lifestyle of beer drinking, where picky residents often buy the freshest beer from breweries in plastic bags.
"Summer sipping is my family memory. I still remember when I was a kid, I liked to take a secret sip from the plastic bag with a straw," said Zhu.