By Gerri Kustelski, Brewery Chemist & Hannah Krieg, Lab Manager (PCQI) at The Lab
Quality can make or break a beverage’s chances for success and growth. The most creative marketing strategy can’t compete with the impact of an unpleasant or unpredictable customer experience. In today’s social media age, quality issues, and recalls can have fast-moving, long-lasting detrimental effects on a brand. The average cost of a recall is $2 million, but the brand impact can be even more significant. With more beverages on the market, consumers are more educated and discerning about the products they choose, what is in them, and how they are made. Changing legislation surrounding the contents and labeling of beverages has also contributed to the growing focus on beverage quality.
The good news is that there are also more tools and resources available to help beverage brands and their suppliers master quality. Here are five things you can do to consistently create quality beverages.
1. Document and Share Your Microbiological Standards
Beverage microbiology is the study of the microscopic organisms that inhibit, create, or contaminate beverages. Microbiological tests are tools that can be used along the entire beverage supply chain to reveal the absence or presence of certain microorganisms and indicate the effectiveness of sanitation. Organizing and documenting your beverage’s microbiological criteria allows you to define and communicate quality measurements that your suppliers and production team can follow. Your microbiological standards, or micro program, should consider government regulations, beverage production guidelines and best practices, and the quality and safety standards you set for your product as part of your business strategy.
The contents and level of detail will vary from plan to plan, but most programs will lay out the microorganisms to be monitored, the analytical methods to be used, and the frequency of testing. Many microbiological standards documents will also include an environmental monitoring program that identifies zones to monitor for sources of possible microbiological hazards.
2. Understanding Your Beverage Attributes
The type of beverage you are creating, and your target market, dictate expected quality attributes. For example, the taste, carbonation, color, and aroma of an ale are different from the components that make up an experience with a lager. Successfully describing and delivering on a unique and optimal product experience requires that you have outlined, in detail, what peak quality looks, feels, tastes, and smells like for your beverage. You also need to understand how you will measure and monitor those quality attributes. There are a range of chemical and sensory tests available to help you analyze and report on quality metrics that will ensure beverage quality. From gas chromatography to mass spectrometry and odor activity values, selecting and implementing the right tools to measure your beverage’s quality characteristics is essential.
3. Train Your Tasting Panel
Beverage creators often use tasting panels during the product development process, but quality-focused beverage brands continue to use tasting panels and sensory analysis regularly as part of their quality assurance program. A trained tasting panel allows you to utilize the perceptions and sensitivities of several people to evaluate your product and ensure that its taste, smell, and appearance match your brand's attributes and flavor profile. Your tasting panel should be trained and prepared to provide specific, actionable flavor interpretations to help correct production flaws, identify trends, and better control production outcomes.
Training will improve the effectiveness of your tasting panel. Some training and validation methods include off-flavor recognition, brand attribute training, and sensitivity threshold training. You can map the data gathered from your tasting panel and use probability control charts to show variation and where samples fall out of the accepted range for quality. Keep your tasting panel active and on-track by establishing, repeatable testing methods, and data analysis.
4. Monitor Consistently
You should have a plan to measure and monitor at intervals that strike a balance between using resources efficiently and giving a clear and meaningful picture of how you’re meeting quality standards. Mapping your full manufacturing and distribution process and identifying key areas of risk exposure can help in this process. You can also weigh in the severity of consequences from a particular variation or type of contamination. Organize and document your monitoring program, including how and when you will analyze and report on the data you’re collecting. Consistent monitoring builds in the transparency, and accountability, you need to ensure the quality of your beverage.
5. Create a Culture of Quality
Quality outcomes are the result of an entire organization embracing quality as a core value. Leadership must demonstrate an active and consistent dedication to quality, communication must emphasize the importance of quality, and employees must be empowered to own quality within their roles. Building a culture of quality is the most effective way to ensure that it is a sustainable brand attribute that scales along with your operations.
As quality continues to increase in importance, it’s vital to commit to a quality assurance strategy and practices that will help your business not only compete but stand out in the beverage industry.