A Head for BeerRoy Desrochers gets paid to grab for all the gusto he can get
Roy Desrochers, A83, is living the dream. As a professional beer taster, he’s met the luminaries of brewing, from Freddy Heineken to August Busch III. He’s heard their stories. He’s learned their craft. And he’s traveled the world, engaging with beer drinkers of almost every culture in his quest to understand what creates the “dream beer experience.” But just how did a self-described “guy from the Somerville projects” make an actual career out of every fraternity brother’s fantasy gig?
Almost thirty years ago, Desrochers applied for a chemist position at the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little, in Cambridge. Right out of the gate, the head of human resources shocked him by asking, “Do you have any objections to drinking beer?”
“I thought, ‘Is this a trick question?’” he recalls. The interviewer explained that the firm trained tasters for Anheuser Busch. Desrochers replied, “Ma’am, I don’t want to interview for the chemist position. I’m the man for the beer-tasting job.” He got it.
His mother complained that he wouldn’t win a Nobel Prize if he was drinking beer all day. But beer wasn’t the only assignment. As a sensory consultant, Desrochers used another faculty to the extreme: his sense of smell. After extensive training, he put his olfactory skills to work as part of a team that created odor neutralizers. “We smelled everything from mouth odor for mouthwash to dirty socks for laundry fragrances and even cigarette odors for tobacco companies in the mid- eighties. For NASA, we created a machine that used a gel and roller system to biologically remove odor and clean clothes.” That was after sniffing the armpits of shirts that had been worn by runners for two weeks without washing.
“But the beer tasting was always the best,” says Desrochers, who eventually left Arthur D. Little to form his own company, and now works as the sensory practice leader for GEI Consultants, in Woburn, Massachusetts. Desrochers is still asked to de-funk the occasional olfactory case, but he spends most of his time heading to breweries to consult on beer flavor.
It takes an average of seven years to train a beer-tasting expert, and the days are long. After a red-eye flight to the brewery, tasting starts at seven thirty a.m. “We’ll taste market samples brought in from different locations until noon,” Desrochers says. “That’s about five hundred beers. And we don’t spit it out, unlike wine experts. We have to swallow a sip to experience the aftertaste.” After lunch, tasters sample another two to three hundred beers to look for consistency. Then they taste new prototypes, about another hundred. By Desrochers’ reckoning, a beer taster will sample seven hundred to a thousand beers a day. “And we’ll do that for four or five days straight,” he says. “You definitely feel it.” He adds, jokingly, “You have to have the right tankage.”
But Desrochers is serious about alcohol awareness. “Young people get excited. They think you’re getting paid to pound beer. And beer is a wonderful beverage that can make life so much more fun if you participate. But there is a line you can’t cross.”
It isn’t just about the beer, either, he says. It’s about the “beer experience”—amazing scenery, delicious meal, and good company included. One of his best experiences: enjoying a cold one on a mountaintop overlooking Christ the Redeemer in Rio. One of the worst: “We ordered lunch at a café in Tel Aviv, and my beer came in a tin can—not aluminum like most countries use. Tin cans rust. It was like sucking on a nail.”
To date, Desrochers has logged almost three million miles in air travel—equal to a hundred twenty trips around the world—researching beer culture. That’s a lot of peanuts and pretzels, but the milestone recently got him into American Way magazine as one of five top “road warriors.”
The airline miles are a boon to the Desrochers family of Waltham, Massachusetts. Desrochers, his wife, Elaine, and their three children have enjoyed trips to Europe and the Caribbean. Elaine, whom Desrochers trained as a sensory expert, joined him for a time on his brewery tours.
If pressed to choose a dream beer experience? “If I were going to die tomorrow,” he says, “the beer experience I’d relive would be the beer I drank at the head table of my wedding, with my new wife beside me.”
KRISTIN LIVINGSTON, A05, is an editorial assistant in Tufts’ Advancement Communications office. She is at work on two novels: a young adult fantasy book and a Regency time travel romance.