Sensory analysis is the backbone of any successful fermentation-based production operation. Maintaining consistent, defect-free wares is of the utmost importance, especially at a time when beverage markets are so competitive, if not oversaturated. Realizing this, a newly established San Diego distilling interest, Cutwater Spirits (a nonaffiliated business formed by the founders of Ballast Point Brewing Company, who left the company following its 2015 sale to Constellation Brands), sought out a renowned sensory guru from the craft-brewing world to serve as its director of quality. That respected expert, educator, and author is Gwen Conley, and though she’s a newbie to the spirit realm, her 18 years of experience puts her in a class all her own.
Conley started her career as a “grunt biologist” for Coors Brewing Company before embarking, in 1999, on a nine-year stint as a food technologist for the Ball Corporation, the Colorado-based metal packaging manufacturer. There, she ran the packaging giant’s flavor panel, which required 18 months of rigorous sensory training broken into categories such as food, beer and wine, spices, and off-flavor notes, including those caused by interactions with packaging compounds such as aluminum, steel, and plastic.
“After six weeks I got geeky into sensory and packaging,” she recalls. “We started with basic condiments, using our senses to deconstruct them into their separate ingredients. It was fun, though mayonnaise day was pretty gross. We were presented with five mayonnaises to profile and had to pick which were made with whole eggs, and which were made with just egg whites or just egg yolks. Then we had to select which was made with olive oil or canola oil, and separate out spices. After that we moved on to more complex items until we graduated by analyzing similar brands of ice cream.”
These proved such useful exercises that Conley incorporates some of them into the classes she teaches as part of the brewing certificate program at the University of California San Diego Extension, where her bailiwick, the interplay of beer and food, is the focus of study. Additionally, she leads seminars for brewing ingredient company BSG CraftBrewing. She has also taught lab-setup and barrel-program courses for the American Brewers Guild and teamed up with the Brewers Association craft beer program director Julia Herz to coauthor the instructional tome Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros.
Conley’s first foray as a sensory educator came when she headed quality assurance for Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery in 2008. While there, she held monthly “Sunday school” events at the brewery, crafting ideal beer pairings with everything from cheese to baked goods, most of which were focused on everyday foods easily procurable at grocery stores and high-volume chains such as Costco. She transported that tradition cross-country in 2011 when she signed on as director of production and quality for the three-in-one Southern California brewery interest comprising The Lost Abbey, Port Brewing Company, and The Hop Concept. While there, she worked with director of brewery operations Tomme Arthur, tightening up processes and helping to create ambitious beers ranging from hoppy to high gravity, tangy to inky, and aged in all ilks of oak. Best of all, she eliminated the negative “Flat Abbey” reputation that had developed before her arrival.
Starting from scratch at Cutwater will allow Conley to make her own way and build the company’s reputation from the get-go. At 50,000 square feet, with a large-scale distillery, full-service restaurant, and distribution throughout the country, Cutwater is a colossal operation. “This isn’t a hobby for these guys anymore. It’s a business and it’s being taken seriously,” says Conley, who admits she is still getting over a bit of culture shock. “Beer is bootstrapping, but booze has a budget for quality. We are building our lab as we speak, and they’ve told me: ‘Whatever you need, get it!’”
In addition to her quality-related duties at Cutwater—assisting in the monitoring of spirits as they age and formulating ideal barrel blends while working with her team to ensure consistent products free of off-flavors and other defects—she is taking steps to expand her senses in regards to the flavors and higher-alcohol beverages of her new industry. According to Conley, it’s a whole new world—and much more challenging given how much bolder and intense the flavors of spirits are compared with those of ales and lagers. But don’t expect her to cut ties with beer entirely. Being at a distillery founded by brewers in the heart of San Diego’s brewery-dense Miramar neighborhood (a.k.a Beeramar) allows her to remain connected with her craft-beer cohorts. Her aim is to add spirits to her existing bag of tricks to present a beverage-pairing curriculum that includes beer, wine, liquor, and more. Could another book be in the works? “It’s all in my head,” Conley says, but it may be a while before her breakneck schedule allows enough time for transcription. Maybe it’s for the best. Clearly, her story is far from over.
Brandon Hernández is an award-winning journalist based in San Diego. He is editor-at-large for West Coaster; a columnist for Celebrator Beer News and Ranch & Coast Magazine; author of the San Diego Beer News Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries; he has contributed to numerous publications, including All About Beer Magazine, Imbibe Magazine, San Diego Magazine, The San Diego Union-Tribune, USA Today and Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Follow him online @sdbeernews and @offdutyfoodie.