Students of an Oregon State University cider-making class on Thursday tried being taste testers in the school’s sensory lab.
The students sat in small booths in the lab. The lab’s manager, Sue Queisser, opened a small door to each cubicle and pushed through a lunch tray carrying four-ounce cups of six different ciders. The students tasted each cider and rated it using a computer inside the booth.
The lab, which is part of the Food Science and Technology Department, is typically utilized by food companies for anonymous consumer taste testing. Companies pay the university to carry out controlled experiments.
Queisser isn’t allowed to say what companies and brands have hired her and her students to do tests. Even the panelists who participate aren’t permitted to know.
“People contact us right before they’re about to make a big product launch,” Queisser said. “They want to know what the masses actually think about this.”
The sensory lab primarily works with food and drink products. They occasionally do in-home experiments where they give participants items like laundry detergent to use for a period of time.
When a company contacts the lab, they give Queisser a demographic for panelists, like people between the ages of 25 and 65 who eat dairy three times a week. She recruits participants using OSU Today daily briefings and by placing notices in the newspaper and on Craigslist. Only about 11 percent of the lab's panelists are OSU students; most are community members, Queisser said.
While companies have research and development departments that develop new products, food brands want to know what the average person thinks of a product before they put it on supermarket shelves, Queisser said.
“The risk when you’re a research and development kitchen person is you’re hypersensitive to what you’re making,” she said. “People who are food formulators are like, ‘Oh, I increased the cocoa powder from 29 to 30 percent and it made all the difference.’ But you ask the average person on the street and they’re like, ‘It tastes the same to me.’”
A company may also approach the lab because they found a more affordable source for an ingredient and want to do a substitution. The company will want to know if the substitution is noticeable to consumers, Queisser said.
“They don’t want specialists in analyzing flavors,” she said. “They want to know from people who go to the supermarket, which potato chip do they prefer? Which coffee creamer do they prefer?”
Queisser and her students conduct controlled experiments so companies receive reliable data. They assign each product a random number. They measure out the food or drink in the same volume and make sure all samples are the same temperature. To further eliminate bias, they randomize samples so each panelist tries the products in a different order.
“It’s super fun,” Queisser said. “People from the community love to come in. Everyone loves to be a taste tester, and people love to give their opinion.”
Participants are not told what specifically a company is testing for, Queisser said. They answer questions like "Which sample do you prefer?’'or they might rank samples in order of preference. They might be asked to rate a product from 1 to 9 by how much they liked it.
Each test requires about 75 to 100 panelists, Queisser said. Participants earn up to $20 an hour in Fred Meyer gift cards.
Companies pay the lab around $4,000 to $9,000 per test, depending on how hard it is to recruit panelists, how much preparation goes into the test and whether the company wants Queisser to analyze the data in a report.
On Thursday, the cider-making students used commercial ciders and flavor agents like baking spices and sweeteners such as molasses to blend and create new alcoholic drinks. After all the students finished testing the samples in the sensory lab, Queisser announced the winner to the class, just as she might tell a company which product was most preferred.