Sensory expert Tina Panoutsos joins us this episode, having last year celebrated her 30th anniversary at Australia’s largest brewer, Carlton & United Breweries.
Tina is associate director of beer knowledge at CUB, where she started out as a quality assurance chemist in 1989.
She is undoubtedly one of Australia’s leading beer judges, having officiated at just about every major beer competition in the world over the last 20 years including the World Beer Cup and the Australian International Beer Awards, for which she is currently on the advisory panel.
I caught up with Tina for a chat about her own career evolution, the current state of beer quality in Australia, and how we can all develop our sensory skills.
Tina Panoutsos, professional beer taster: Full transcript
TINA PANOUTSOS: My dad always used to wonder what I was doing in the beer industry a lot of times. And he would always sort of say I don’t really understand what you do, so I just tell people you’re a chemist. Because he couldn’t really appreciate that one of his daughters was tasting beer for a living, teaching people about beer and talking about beer. Because that was a blokes thing. That didn’t really cut it sort I suppose in some ways, that that was something that a woman or a female would necessarily do.
JAMES ATKINSON: When did you get exposure to a lot of different beer styles? Because obviously you’re one of the top beer judges in the country. When did you get your exposure to the really broad range of European and American beer styles that were out there?
TINA PANOUTSOS: That would have been probably the first Australian International Beer Awards that I was invited to judge at. I think I may have been one of three or females that judged at that competition. And that was a conscious effort to sort of shift the diversity of, and the gender balance of that competition so that it wasn’t all male brewers judging the beer. I’d never had a, let’s say a Belgian Tripel. I’d never had, I think I may have had stout every now and again because of Cascade Stout. But it was a real eye opener and I just fell in love with it. I just sort of thought wow beer, beer can be this much and more. So my interest then grew. So I would try different beers, you know. Hunt for them. Unfortunately at that time, and we’re going back probably you know, close to 20 years now. There wasn’t that much available that was fresh. So what you would see in a beer competition, you knew chances were that it would be the freshest you’d possibly get and be judging some of the best beers in the world and across the country. So that was really, really exciting for me. I thought this is nirvana.
JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah, you’ve mentioned being a female in a very male dominated industry. Has that been tough for you at times?
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yeah absolutely. I’m not going to you know, shy away from that to really been diplomatic. But it’s been tough. But I think if it weren’t for some of the experiences that I’ve had, I know I wouldn’t be here right now. I know I wouldn’t have persisted with some of the, you know, the challenges that the role, some people brought along and I’m, I’ve often sort of thought would I go back and do it again? And the answer is without a doubt, absolutely. I could have easily have said well this isn’t an industry for me and it’s just too blokey or you know, it’s not fair or anything like that. But you pursue through some situations, make the most of it. And change it, you know. So there a lot of things that I was, I’ve been really proud to sort of be a part of and to have shifted the dial on some things. Because you know, when it comes down to it I’ve got a son and two daughters. And I just wanted to make things as equal for them in the family as what it, as I’d like them to perceive in the outside world as well. So both, you know, for both genders. I think the perception and the realisation that we’re all of you know, equal standing. That we can contribute really valuably in the industry’s really important to me.
JAMES ATKINSON: To what extent do you need to be naturally gifted with sensory skills? Is it something that anyone can learn if they work hard enough on their tasting and nosing, and studying this stuff?
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yeah I think they do. I think I know that when I was running sensory panels and training people to become proficient panellists, I know the common theory is that women are generally considered super tasters. I think a lot of it has to do with articulating flavours and thinking about things. So if you think about and this is a massive generalisation, because I usually take people for what they bring and what their interest is, into sensory and judging and evaluation. And if you can articulate or you can think about the way in which a beer is constructed, and really sort of process you’re picking up. It’s a matter of then learning how to describe them. And often women might be more attune to those descriptors or might be a little bit more articulate about describing anything. Food, fragrances, colours, you know, descriptors of anything, than what men might be. But it’s not to say that women are definitely better tasters or would make better tasters. Generally they are more perceptive, because of that. But even to the point where I’ve had panellists that are even smokers that can really block off and train themselves to identify certain flavours and become proficient at judging and assessing beer. It even goes down to the point where if you know that you’re blind to a certain flavour, you can train yourself on identifying the difference that that flavour makes. You know, for example we’ve had a number of brewers, or a couple, a few brewers on tasting panels that have been blind to diacetyl. And that’s not uncommon. You know, you get a lot of people that don’t, aren’t able to pick it up. They’re anosmic to it so, but there’s been a number of panellists that have found ways in which they can identify that there might be a diacetyl issue there because of the way it changes the Esther profile or the way it changes the mouth feel. And it’s particularly different to other characteristics. And that all becomes part of their training. And if you’re committed and you’re interested in understanding the construction of beer, and how different attributes play into that. Then anyone can really train themselves.
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JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think that you’re still learning and you’re getting sharper as you go on? Or do you hit a peak when you’re a bit younger? Or, when are you going to be optimal with this stuff?
TINA PANOUTSOS: I think it’s, and probably not in the context of beer because this is going to be really wrong. But I think we peak in our sensory ability or our, being attuned to certain flavours, textures, sights, sounds, as kids. And I know with my three, that it wasn’t until I had my third one that I sort of went she knows exactly what she wants. And just knows the flavours, the textures and sometimes we sort of train people to sort of steer into one direction. Whether it’s the cuisine that we’re eating or the drinks that we’re drinking. So a lot of times when I think about the way in which I’ve run taste panels or been involved in that. It’s allowing people to describe things, no matter how obscure or random it might be. Because then you sort of see a development of their ability to pick up certain flavours or you know, understand the different nuances of let’s just say beer for now. How they can sort of pull all those flavours together and construct a profile. And that’s sort of develops over time. And the more exposure you have to different styles, the more appreciation you have of how beers can be so diverse across their profile, based on you know, innovative ways that brewers are making beers and exploring different ingredients. You can continually build your capability and peak at certain styles, or you know, across the board. But I think there comes a point where just even genetically, the human palate does start to peter out, I think it’s about the age of 65-70. Our taste buds don’t proliferate as quickly or as frequently as what they might in your you know, earlier years – 20s, 30s and 40s. So your sense of taste does start to peter out. Your sense of smell can. Different you know, medical conditions can sort of impact it. And we know with age, that can sort of play a big role. But I’d hate to sort of put an age limit on being able to you know, actively perceive or really be fine tuned in the art of beer tasting, just because of age.
JAMES ATKINSON: So if you keep working at it you’re going to keep progressing?
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yeah. I think the other thing to keep in mind too, is that at different life stages you have a different interest in food, in beverages and as we go through I think that you’d probably be the same. That your, your palate’s changed compared to what it may have been when you first started drinking beer. And your, you’re know the way in which you sort of explore different beverages has an influence on the perception that you have of beer as well. And I find that even, so for example women starting off at 18 and drinking different beverages. And it might be a little bit sweeter, as you know, making a huge generalisation here. But what we’ve found in some of the research that we’ve done, is that the different life stages will attract different flavours from across the food and beverage scene to interest people’s palates. And I think we’ve got to become a little bit more attune to that and not sort of discard people once they hit the age of 50 and go well okay, they might not be into beer as much as what they used to be. I think women sort of explore and are open to trying different things that might interest their palate, it’s just making those different beers available to them. Men sort of change their palate preferences as going through different stages within their life. Alcohol consideration it might be a little bit different. So the flavours, how we compensate for alcohol if there’s been you know, a thought that you know, I’ve got to be responsible. How we sort of play into that flavour profile is important too. So keeping the consumer in mind and what life stage they’re at is a really, really important part of how we can offer and diversify within beer styles. And be able to sort of offer something exciting, rather than a default. And you know, always thinking that beer is the safe plane within the beverage space.
JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned before about how you know some judges will have blind spots. Do you have any blind spots or particular weaknesses in terms of certain faults that you’re not as good at picking up?
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yeah, for sure. I’m not great at picking up things like ‘grainy’.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well actually, I’m going to get you to define grainy. Because grainy, it’s kind of like in the judging that I’ve done, I can’t really get anyone to give me a straight answer on what they mean by that. It’s almost like the vibe, you know what I mean?
TINA PANOUTSOS: And it is, and it comes down to also is it a textural interpretation of grainy, or is it an aroma interpretation? And I know a few of the panellists here pick up grainy was almost a milk chocolate character, like Ovaltine or Milo. Sort of dairy milk chocolate character. I can’t pick it for anything. And even to me if it was a textural thing it’s more a stringent, rather than husky or grainy. I find it really hard to articulate it because I just can’t get it. It might be dosed at six times the threshold, and I still won’t get it.
JAMES ATKINSON: Any others?
TINA PANOUTSOS: I’m just trying to think now. No, most of them I’m pretty okay.
JAMES ATKINSON: Good, well that’s probably why you are where you are. How is the whole beer judging landscape kind of evolved in the time you’re been involved?
TINA PANOUTSOS: I think it’s really progressed really well. I know that when I was first, when I first got involved in AIBA, it as predominantly brewers that were involved in judging. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s actually really critically important to have that core base of judges that have a good technical and brewing knowledge of beer. So that they can be able to articulate where the issues might be or the construction of a beer. But the way in which its evolved has been the inclusion of a broader cross section of the industry. So everyone from beer writers to technical brewers, to brew masters has really evolved so that it provides a really good inclusion of perceptions, understanding, articulation and education within the beer judging scene. So that people are not only just coming in to do a job, they’re also learning and they’re experiencing, and it’s broadening their repertoire of beers as well. Like you asked me before, when I first started judging that was like a mind blowing experience of how diverse beer could be across a number of different styles. Because you know, realistically I was focused on classic Australian lagers, a few stouts and a couple of pale ales at that time. You know, 20 odd years ago. So my repertoire of beers was really quite tight. Whereas now I think you know, the way in which beer awards have expanded and included a number of different styles. And good, bad or otherwise, it provides an education platform for a lot of people that don’t have the opportunity and experience to be able to sort of sit on a tasting panel, on a weekly basis. Get tested for being able to identify faults and profile beers, and really use their sensory expertise to give back to that part of the industry. Whereas the judging competition, not that it’s a training ground for everyone, but it’s an opportunity to really broaden people’s perception. And I think I’ve always been involved in it because of that. I’ve often been supportive and you know, help lend, lend a helping hand, run tasting sessions or anything like that. Because I think the value of it, the return is back to the industry. So if we’re making great beers across the board, then we’re providing great beers for our consumers, broadening their repertoires and getting them to understand that there’s so much diversity. And you know, interest in beer that you can’t go wrong with that.
JAMES ATKINSON: Is that why you’ve been happy to stay involved with the Indies, even though CUB is not able to enter beers? You obviously are quite happy to stay out of the politics and try and contribute something positive to that side of the industry?
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yeah. I’m probably the least political person you’ll come across. But yeah, absolutely. I think there’s networks and my networks have not only been built by the acquisitions that we’ve been part of with SABMiller or AB InBev, or anyone else. It’s also been part of the craft industry and having those affiliations with the smaller brewers within the Indies, or you know, understanding their diversity as well and being able to support that. And I think I’ve got to be thankful to CUB, that they see that as a positive to the industry. So that you know, we’re leveraging our expertise to be able to help the broader category. You can get quite political and I understand that. And obviously there’s you know, the elements where I won’t cross over on, you know, jeopardising any conflict of interest or anything like that. But I think supporting the ability to get great beers out there, whatever way I can, I’ll definitely keep supporting as long as I can.
JAMES ATKINSON: How do you think the quality of Australian beer has evolved, and I’m talking more about the independent landscape over the last 20 years? You know, if we think of, you know, when Little Creatures started up around turn of the century. And in the last 20 years there’s been so many new breweries coming onto the market. And I’m sure you would agree, some rocky moments in terms of beer quality. Where do you think we are now in terms of all that?
TINA PANOUTSOS: I think beer quality has been an exponential improvement. What’s driven a lot of that explosion has been passion. And you can’t, I’ve always said if you’ve got a great attitude, then you can learn a skill. So if it’s passion that’s driving people to get into the beer industry, to be able to you know, give back and produce beers that are exceptional and flavoursome, and you know, offer a different profile or different flavour to consumers, that’s got to be a great thing. The next step is that a lot of brewers have found that without really keen attention to quality, they’ll never get that repetition. What’s been great to see is the interest and the focus, and the dedication to making sure that quality is adhered to. Making sure that brewers have opportunities to understand and broaden their capability in picking up faults, in you know, understanding the crucial component of making sure beer is kept hygienic. Making sure that consistency has to play a role in brewing and the nice romantic batch to batch variety is okay in some styles, but not across the board. Because ultimately, we’ve got to sort of agree that with beer, it is consistency that really enamours beer consumers to keep coming back for that beer. Because they want to know that that’s the same beer they had the last time. Irrespective of how complex or subtle the flavours are. That consistency really plays a role in that repeat purchase and the repeat interest. And then the confidence, because that can’t be undermined either. But the confidence in knowing a beer style or a characteristic that you like within that style, to move you to the next one. That’s really critically important and that’s improved throughout the course of the last 10 or so years, for sure.
JAMES ATKINSON: There’s a lot of weird and wonderful beers being made at the moment and you would have seen plenty of those in judging and just going out to breweries around the place. Is there any particular beer style that you would say is your favourite?
TINA PANOUTSOS: When I think about beers that really float my boat, I can’t pick one. I can’t pick a favourite style, I can’t pick a favourite you know, brand or anything like that. Because there are certain beers that I’ll drink for different reasons. For example, I went into a pub and I had a, it wasn’t my local or it wasn’t something that I’d regularly go to. I’d choose a beer that I know should stand up on its merits. It should be clean, crisp. Carlton Draught is one of those ones that I know that if, and knowing Carlton Draught inside out, that’s like going to an Italian restaurant and knowing the quality of the restaurant is based on the gnocchi. And so if they make a good gnocchi, you know that restaurant is worth it. So if you can go into a pub and it serves a really good Carlton Draught, it’s worth it. On the other occasion, NEIPAs like you said, I’d have to be in the mood to sort of sip it slowly, nice and chilled, and in a mind frame that I can think and enjoy all the flavours, and the textures, the finish that NEIPAs bring. Because they are complex and they aren’t something that you would necessarily be able to say that it’s crisp and quick off the palate. So you’d sit back and enjoy it. Not an absolute huge fan, but yeah. Open to some of the interesting flavours, that’s for sure.
JAMES ATKINSON: Are there any particular beer styles right now that you’re not a fan of? When you would turn up to judge beer for a day and you’d see the styles that you’re going to be judging. Are there any where you go that’s going to be a long afternoon?
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yep, I must admit and when I approach the beer competitions, I don’t judge it on personal preference. I judge it according to how well the beer’s made, technically how does it stand up, does it fit the style, is it a good example, is it exemplary of style? And obviously preference does come into it, because you know, having a breadth of knowledge around different beer styles. And like I said, I don’t just stick to one beer style or one brand. But pumpkin ale is one that I just can’t really you know, sit down and have a couple of. I just don’t get it. Chilli beers are another one, yeah. I’m not a big fan of them.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you like chilli generally, or?
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yeah, I do. I absolutely do and I love pumpkin as well. So it’s not as though it’s the actual ingredient that I don’t like. But I’ve had some combinations of chilli beers that have just knocked my socks off and I think that’s amazing. But overall, I wouldn’t actively go out and purchase one.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you find that it can be hard to just relax and enjoy a beer, without picking it to pieces because of your job?
TINA PANOUTSOS: It can be. I don’t think about it a lot sometimes, but it’s pointed out to me by family and friends to you know, stop swirling the glass and just drink the bloody thing. But it’s innate now I think. I always just pick up a glass, and wherever I can, wherever it’s possible I will always pour a beer into a glass. I think you really get a full appreciation, no matter what the beer is. Whether it’s you know, zero alcohol or contemporary lager, or you know, a full blown double IPA. It’s criminal not to drink it out of a glass I think, because you don’t really get the full effect of it. From doing that it’s easier to sort of stop and smell the beer, and sort of subconsciously process it and understand what flavour you’re getting out of it. And not so much to pick the faults, I don’t do that consciously. But I know that kicks in subconsciously because sometimes I might just sort of stand back and go oh, that’s not quite right. And there are times where I’ll just either continue drinking it, if it’s not that bad. Or if it’s really bad, then you know, definitely I’d say something about it or grab another beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve got to pick your moments don’t you, when there’s family there or they just think you’re a real bore – I find.
TINA PANOUTSOS: Yeah. That’s it, it comes to a point where people might ask. And I’m always willing now to sort of, if you’re going to ask and your family and friends know what I do. So that if it’s, if that’s a question that comes up I’ll definitely offer it. But it’s not as though I’ll come in and you know, sort of dictate what we should be drinking and dissect the beer and sort of do faults, the pros and cons of it or anything like that. I won’t do it unless I’m asked, most times.
JAMES ATKINSON: Alright Tina, we might leave it there. Thanks so much for your time.
TINA PANOUTSOS: Thanks James, it’s been a pleasure.