Painting classes, cooking classes, walking tours, photography classes, craft beer tours, live music — there’s no end to the tours and experiences you can try in Grand Rapids. So when you’re here, don’t just stop by downtown. Immerse yourself in the culture of our fabulous city.

If you’ve never searched the Tours and Experiences page of our website, give it a try! Customize your search based on your interests, and you’ll see a personalized list of upcoming events and activities in the city. It’s convenient and very easy.

In the past, I’ve participated in Coffee Roasters’ Saturday Experience and taken a cooking class at the Downtown Market. Last month, I searched Tours and Experiences and, from among my personalized choices, I selected the Founders Sensory Evaluation Class.

What It’s Like: Sensory Evaluation Class at Founders Brewing Co.

When you walk into a class at Founders Brewing Co., you not only get a taste of its beer, you also get a taste of its culture.

Mike Steil, the affable and super-knowledgeable curriculum coordinator of Founders’ education department, led the class. You could sense his dedication to beer as well as to Founders and its methodology. Randi Mikesell, an education ambassador for Founders, helped with the class too.

As our intimate group of eight (the class limit is 12) settled into our seats and peered curiously at the glasses of beer lined up in front of us, our leader for the evening had an announcement. “You’re here for the Sensory Evaluation Class. That means we’re going to hang out for two hours and drink bad beer,” laughed Steil.

He wasn't kidding. The Sensory Evaluation Class helps beer drinkers understand what’s “off” in a particular beer. Founders’ easy-drinking pilsner, PC Pils, served as our “control” beer for the evening as it is a classic. You drink it, you like it, and you know what it’s supposed to taste like. Imagine one day, you order a glass from your favorite bar or pop open a cold can from your fridge after housing it in your hot garage for a while, and the taste isn’t quite right. You can’t put your finger on it, but this is not your favorite beer. What gives?

Turns out, there are a surprising number of things that can go wrong during beer production, storage, and service. Throughout the course of the evening, Steil walked us through nine of them, giving us the opportunity to taste eight bad variations, and explained what made them taste foul.

Additives for the Founders Sensory Evaluation Class
The contents of these little vials gave our beers the foul aroma and taste that mimic what can go wrong with beer in the real world. Photo Credit: Kirsetin Morello

Before we arrived, Steil and Mikesell used dosing sensory kits to spike our tester beers with different substances that would allow us to learn about, taste, and differentiate between the beer spoilers. “They’re all perfectly safe but they’re not going to taste great,” Steil promised.

Although the ingredients in beer – a combination of water, malts, yeast, and hops – are simple, the science of it is incredibly complex. Many factors such as the different varieties of barleys and hops and roasting time can drastically affect the outcome of a beer.

Jar of barley for the Founders Sensory Evaluation Class
One of the many kinds of barley that can be used in beer. Photo Credit: Kirsetin Morello

Before we took our first sniff and sip, Steil warned us about some of the aromas and tastes we might encounter. Among the possibilities were cardboard, buttered popcorn, creamed corn, green apple, cheese, vinegar, clove, asparagus, plastic, and, the one I least looked forward to: skunk.

As we sniffed and tasted our first “bad” beer, the group agreed that it smelled musty and like cardboard. The smell reminded me of my teenage boys’ sweaty socks. Not exactly enticing!

Steil revealed that this beer mimicked the unpleasant flavor that results from oxidation. Someone asked if the beer was “skunked.”

“This beer is not skunked,” he asserted. “That’s something else entirely and they are not interchangeable.” He explained that oxidation is a chemical reaction that tends to occur in old or stale beer. “So oxidation always happens,” he explained, “but the lower the amount of oxygen, the longer the beer will last.” Lesson learned: don’t store your beer in the garage during the summer.

Beer and materials for the Founders Sensory Evaluation Class
This class was chock-full of information — the pen and paper they provided came in handy! Photo Credit: Kirsetin Morello

As we continued to smell and taste the bad beers, ask questions, and offer opinions, Steil offered the science behind how and why each component can spoil the beer.

For example, we learned that acetaldehyde, which happens during fermentation, gives beer an unusual aroma and flavor which, to me, smelled like a half-eaten green apple I’d left in the car on a hot day. We learned about phenol, a byproduct of a certain strain of yeast. It is intentionally present in some beers, but creeps into most beers unintentionally due to unclean brewing equipment. “It’s easy for this to happen,” Steil explained. “You have to be immaculate about cleaning and using sterile equipment.”

Sometimes the taste of your beer is off because the hops are old or weren’t stored correctly. Sometimes it’s because the beer wasn’t cooled down quickly enough after being boiled. For me, one of the grossest discoveries was learning about bacteria that like to live in draft lines, allowing a culprit called diacytl to ruin the taste of your beer and possibly leave you with an unwarranted and unwelcome headache.

We also learned that, yes, your beer actually can be “skunked.” Here’s a hint: it’s related to sunshine!

You’ll have to sign up for the class to learn more and taste for yourself what happens when the offenders get a chance to ruin your beer. It’s totally worth it. Even if you’re familiar with some of this information, Mike Steil knows just about everything about beer, so you’ll surely learn a thing or two as well as have a great time. Plus, when class wrapped up, we got to try one of the beers they had on tap. I opted for Boilermaker, a bourbon barrel-aged pale ale, which more than compensated for trying all of those beers gone bad.