The Flavourist – an experience from the outside

The incredible thing about hops is that they’re different for everyone based on skill, memories and culture. Someone who doesn’t drink tea is unlikely to pick up on chamomile, even when the whole room claims that that is all they can smell. If you have never come across honeysuckle in a garden then how would you pick it up in a hop? And yet, in a parody of the famous Blake poem, the people of this industry seem to be able to smell the whole world in a single hop, and that is definitely something to be admired.

And now I have something to confess: I was not one of them. I started in the company as a Marketing Assistant almost nine months ago, and I am as green as green can get. The world of hops is a world I’ve never even considered, unless you count the summer picnics at Kent Life hop farm when I was ten. And who knew there was more than one variety? However, this was all about to change.

Up until now, I had been taking a theoretical approach to learning: researching everything and anything when writing articles, listening to conversations between brewers, watching videos on the pelleting process and so on. But when an opportunity presented itself to trial a Hop Flavourist Course in the centre of Hop country, Hallertau in Germany, it seemed like the perfect chance to see if I had any natural talent when it comes to identifying hop aromas.

The whole course was over two days and, as the very first run, everyone was extremely excited to find out what was going to be involved. Even the Managing Partner of Barth-Haas Group joined us to test his skills!

Results from our first test


So what did I learn? Well, one of the most important parts in training is developing your sensory database. That is something I cannot express enough. As I mentioned before, if you have never come across certain smells, or you just haven’t recognised them even when exposed to them, then you are unlikely to be able to identify them. Using covered pots, we put our noses to the test and used cognitive association to identify different aromas that are often found in hops. For example, when I smelt parsley, I automatically thought of my guinea-pigs as that is something I often feed them. When I smelt Elderflower I thought of my Grandma’s house, cinnamon made me think of Christmas and so on. It is these memories that made me able to remember them on a personal level.

And then there are the obvious smells, right? Wrong. Have you ever noticed how much a piece of lime smells like lemon when you don’t know which one is which? Or how mango can smell like pear, or even apple, an aroma I am very familiar with, managed to smell like banana during the test. This is where you have to delve a little deeper, and during that first day we learnt how to do just that. Developing this memory of different aromas is the key, and it doesn’t stop at the end of the lesson. Flowers, herbs, spices, the smells of a forest, fruits and so on are everywhere, and if there is one thing you take away from this article it’s this: for goodness sake, stop and smell the flowers!

Find the correct variety

The next day came the real challenge: Hops. You remember when I pondered any natural talent in picking out hop aromas? Well it turns out, I have very little. But c’est la vie, my strengths lie elsewhere (like in writing articles about smelling hops!). I was determined to improve, however, so as the room called out generally agreed upon words, I made notes and persisted. My main problem was, as expected, a complete lack of database. I refer once again to the person who doesn’t drink tea not recognising chamomile; that was me. I wouldn’t know lily of the valley from geranium, juniper from fennel seeds, and yet thanks to the training the previous day I was able to recognise ginger, dried fruits and lime among others. By the end of the session, I had improved and was able to leave knowing that I had learnt something.

Flavour is personal, and perhaps mine is not particularly extensive, but the results of the other participants clearly demonstrates the subjectivity of the process. In a single hop, half the room picked up on cassis as the most prominent aroma, whereas the other half noticed pepper first and only a hint of cassis. There is no right or wrong, only perception. And that is why every hop, that goes into every beer, means something different to those that drink it. Including me. When it comes to hops it’s not business, it’s personal.


Emily Swann works for the marketing department at Simply Hops and wrote this article for a Simply Hops newsletter:

Even though she was very humble about her flavour-skills we want to mention: she aced all the aroma test with 100 % correct answers – and she was the only one out of 18 participants

You want to share Emily’s experience? Then sign up for our first course held in Nuremberg:



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One Response to “The Flavourist – an experience from the outside”

  1. Sean Franklin says:

    Nice article. An individual’s smell library is not really a barrier to becoming a great taster in the first instance. The first call is to perceive. Identification is not needed on a like/dislike basis. Identification is a bonus.
    When confronted with a new aroma tasters can try first first slot the taste into a broad category such as fruity, floral, burnt..etc., to which mostly every one can relate. From that broad category the detailed description can come to mind. One of the marvellous features of beer tasting that always surprises me is when a new aroma crops up and defies classification. Always taste with an open mind, any aroma is possible in your next beer!

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