When Lauren Salazar returned to Georgia recently, the sensory specialist for Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Co. was surprised and pleased to catch up on how much things had changed since she left in 1992.
“I was giddy to see the beer culture,” Salazar said. “When I walked into the Brick Store, when I was at the Porter Beer Bar, I was like, ‘This is the real deal.’ I was in awe of the cellars and the passion people put into things. It almost made me tear up. I was so excited that it had made it to Georgia.”
Salazar grew up in Columbus and earned a degree in social work from the University of Georgia. She was working as a geriatric social worker when she took a part-time job at New Belgium 13 years ago.
Nowadays, Salazar works at New Belgium full-time and oversees the brewery’s tasting panels, which help to ensure the quality and constancy consistency of its beer.
“I realized that I really enjoyed the science,” said Salazar. “This concept that flavor and tasting could actually be a science was a revelation.”
To further her sensory pursuits, which have turned into a sort of magnificent obsession, Salazar took courses in chemistry and statistics, and went on to brewing school at University of California, Davis.
“Every time I’d learn something more, it was like a giant clue,” Salazar said. “I realized that the beer wants to tell you exactly what’s right and what’s wrong with it. All you have to do is know what you’re paying attention to. If you look at it, it’s telling you things. If you smell it, it’s telling you a lot of things.”
Salazar also creates the wild-style sour beers for New Belgium’s renowned Lips of Faith series. Blending complex and edgy barrel-aged beers, such as La Folie, Le Terroir and Transatlantique Kriek, makes her something of a star among sour beer geeks.
While she was in Atlanta, Salazar conducted tastings that showcased her skills, leading eager groups of aficionados through sensory exercises, sniffing and sipping a variety of her Lips of Faith experiments, including a new sour beer flavored with lychee fruit.
“I was once told that I took something so blissful as drinking and enjoying beer and turned it into statistics,” Salazar said, joking with a group crowded around the Brick Store’s Belgian Bar.
“My second favorite quote came from the same person, who said I took a perfectly good beer and turned it sour.”
But there is some irony in the fact that the kinds of yeasts and bacteria that Salazar uses to make her sour beers so perfectly sublime could completely ruin the more subtle flavor of, say, Fat Tire, New Belgium’s best-selling ale.
“For me it’s like having the best of both worlds all the time,” Salazar said later. “I get the science, where I can take a beer and evaluate it through this chemically driven statistical method. And then I can walk across the brewery into that forest of two-story-tall oak barrels and step way back in time to when brewing was more magical and artful and soulful.
“It’s like the yin and the yang. Back there, among the barrels, instead of chemical attributes, I like to think of colors and emotions and memories. If I tasted a beer in the taste panel, I would write all these verbose things about esters and phenols and acids. Whereas, if I’m with the barrels, I just have this idea in my mind’s eye of what I’m looking for, in terms of the sourness and intensity and what makes a particular barrel special. Really, all I do is just care for them. They do all the work.”
— Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog