Earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to tag along with a friend to a personal tour of the New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins, about an hour north of SurveyGizmo's headquarters in Boulder, CO.
Instead of getting the usual tour, we were guided by New Belgium’s Sensory Specialist, Lindsay Guerdrum. She gave significant attention to her area of expertise, the chemistry of beer making, with particular attention to the sensory lab.
The sensory lab might be one of the coolest places you can put a chemistry degree to use. There they research and develop how all five sense experience New Belgium beer.
As you might imagine, this involves a lot of data.
All the discussion of data and analysis inspired many questions about software and methodology (an occupational hazard of years spent working for SurveyGizmo). It quickly came to light that the lab uses SurveyGizmo for their tasting panels! In an effort to not bore the other people on the tour, we made arrangements for me to come back and observe the sensory lab in action from a purely survey-driven perspective.
What I saw were innovative and intriguing uses of survey software that allow New Belgium to stay on the cutting edge of the booming craft beer industry. Here's what I learned.
Sensory Lab & Market Research
Weeks later I met up with Alex Hazelmyer and Ali Schultz. Their job titles are simply, “Sensory Love,” and this couldn't be more accurate. They provided me with a more in depth look at how the sensory lab conducts market research and analysis using online surveys.
Many of the people working in the sensory lab previously worked in labs of big beer companies. They told me that many corporate beer companies tend to hide their sensory labs, “in the basement” and utilize them more as an afterthought than a research driver.
To put it mildly, New Belgium’s sensory lab works a bit differently. The findings from their panel surveys are an essential contributor to the market research that drives the development of new beers going to market.
Data Collected from Experts
Finding the right audience for your survey is essential to collecting actionable data.
It can literally take years to get a good list of panelists together -- there is an entire industry devoted to it! But in the DIY spirit of New Belgium, Lindsay and the other scientists at the sensory lab have built their own in-house panel.
This was no easy task. Employee-owners are encouraged to attend weekly tasting experiments in the sensory lab, but it can take a year or more of consistent involvement in these experiments for a New Belgium employee-owner to be astute enough for their survey responses to be considered valid.
Before bringing a new beverage to market, New Belgium's beer team conducts a lot of research. New Belgium hasn't yet made it to all lower 48 states, but they do have reps working far and wide throughout the US, all with their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in the craft beer industry.
When New Belgium needs samples of certain types of beers from almost anywhere in the country, they can find them.
After learning and sampling what is on the market, the sensory team, with their finely tuned pallets, analyze the flavor profiles of each of these beers. Then they map each beer based on descriptive analysis and analytical data.
From here they can determine what the market currently looks like and where they can find the best fit for a new product.
Onsite Surveys in Action
In the mid afternoon about 50 panelists in various pieces of New Belgium garb made their way into the tasting room.
A handful of tables were filled with seven pitchers each: one control and six tests. The panelists picked up their seven tasting glasses and began filling them with the liquid from the correspondingly numbered pitchers.
After pouring the control and test liquids, many pulled panelists pulled out their smart phones and opened the surveys that were sent to them earlier in the day.
Each test beverage consisted of the control liquid combined with an additive. Each table included a list of possible additives and their flavor descriptions.
Some additives were described as tasting like desirable fruits and vegetables. Others flavor descriptions included “baby puke,” “in-your-face band aid,” and “tomcat pee.”
After swirling, smelling, and tasting from each glass, panelists used a survey to indicate what additive they thought was included with each test glass.
After all participants completed their survey Alex and Ali revealed the correct answers. This allows participants to note their mistakes and evolve their palette over time.
Survey Data Analysis
Once all this tasting data is collected in SurveyGizmo, the lab techs export into Excel. Using some Excel macros (courtesy of a much appreciated “Excel Wizard”), the sensory lab team is able to track an individual participant's responses over time from many different angles.
They can determine the participant's accuracy over time in relation to overall accuracy, and they can also can determine if a participant has reached a credible level of sustained accuracy in identifying certain additives in the beer.
Once a panelist achieves a Jedi-like level of tasting powers, their data can be used to help gauge the quality of New Belgium's existing beers, as well as test the different beverages they are working to bring to market.
This test is one of many that the lab used because the particular beer was not yet part of the New Belgium product line.
In order to ensure their data is valid, New Belgium will run many tests on this same beverage. These tests, in conjunction with other projects related to research and development, will determine if or when New Belgium moves towards adding this style of drink to their product offerings.
The Power of Surveys for Market Research
New Belgium's use of its own employees to create a panel of experts is a fantastic (and somewhat unorthodox) way to use surveys for internal market research. And clearly, it's working to their advantage.
Using survey data to create the highest quality beer combined with an intense focus on employee ownership and sustainability has given New Belgium a 4% share of the craft beer market. The demand for their products is so strong that they're opening a second brewery in North Carolina to compliment their long time location in Fort Collins.
Where can surveys take your company? As New Belgium shows us, the only limits come from our creativity.