A taste for technology: Alumni help artisan beverage makers hone flavors

Rachel Garman
August 11, 2015

In a small house in State College, a group of college students and recent graduates sip Bolivian black coffee around a dining room table in silence — their eyes fixed on graphs displayed on multiple tablets and smartphones in front of them. After each one takes a sip, they record the flavors they taste on a circular graph via a mobile application they built from scratch.

This is a daily tasting at the Hacker House, the nickname given to the home and office of Analytical Flavor Systems (AFS). AFS is a Penn State startup bringing technology to the artisan beverage industry (coffee, beer and tea) with its unique quality control system, the Gastrograph.

AFS was founded in 2011 by Jason Cohen who was later joined by John Dori — both are Penn State alumni who, as Dori described, are “workaholics crossed with incurable flavor geeks.”

The duo met at the Tea Institute at Penn State, a part-tea house, part-research lab that Cohen founded as a student in 2010. They soon became research partners on a project that would eventually become the Gastrograph software.

“I was interested in the way people think and talk about flavor, and what I realized pretty quickly was that no one had any idea how to quantify that,” Cohen said.

Under the direction of John Yen, professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), Cohen and Dori successfully built an artificial intelligence model to process and quantify flavor. It wasn’t long before the pair realized their model, when reversed, could have tremendous value beyond the lab.

“Instead of saying, ‘What's the underlying composition of the product given the flavor profile,’ we could say, ‘Well, given the flavor profile, which specific demographics and populations are going to like and dislike these products?’” Cohen said.

To transform this research into a viable company, Cohen and Dori received much of their help from the College of IST.

In April 2014, Dori — who graduated from IST in May — was the inaugural recipient of the David Rusenko Entrepreneur-in-Residence Scholarship.

“That (scholarship) really helped me focus more time on the company,” Dori said. “The biggest advantage was I got six free credits, meaning I was able to take two fewer courses.”

In addition to paying for classes, the college also invited Dori to speak at its 2015 IST Startup Week and facilitated meetings between the founders of AFS and venture capitalists.

Since then, Cohen and Dori have assembled a team of 10 full-time employees and six interns in departments ranging from chemistry to sales. AFS already has two confirmed clients, a roastery and a brewery, as well as dozens in their sales pipeline.

After partnering with AFS, these clients gain access to the “Gastrograph,” a circular graph made up of 24 flavor components ranging from “herbaceous” to “marine.” A company’s employees can then rank these traits on a scale from zero to five (zero being “not present at all” and five being “heavily present”) to create a product’s unique flavor profile.

Once a review is completed, the software uses its proprietary algorithm to compare the graph to the product’s ideal flavor profile and detect changes that could indicate flaws or chemical contaminations.

Typically, if brewers taste a flavor deviation in a batch, they will run a sample through a chemical analysis machine to determine the cause. However, this analysis can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to calculate results, and the machines can cost upward of $80,000.

A sensory analysis system like the one AFS provides enables brewers to achieve quality control without the need for in-house lab equipment.

In addition, Gastrograph sends producers real-time updates via text and email whenever a contamination is detected in a product. This lightning speed is critical when producers have to decide whether or not to ship a batch.

“You could have 20 percent of your batches be deviant,” Cohen said, “which is a problem because a lot of times they’re deviant in a way that the people who work at the brewery don’t notice because they’re used to those types of variations.”

These deviations are not only important to monitor for the detection and removal of contaminants but also for the sake of maintaining brand loyalty.

“This is a problem that’s going to erode trust in their brand,” Cohen said. “What that means is another brewery that’s more consistent and produces a competing product can only be marginally better, but they just have to be consistent for people to start building trust in that brand.”

And the Gastrograph system isn’t limited to the artisan beverage industry, either. According to Cohen, AFS is already looking to apply its software to such products as wine, chocolate and olive oil.

“We’re also working on a very similar version of our current system but for product development,” Cohen said. “In the much longer run, what we would like to do is develop technology that allows breweries and coffee roasteries to make personalized products.”

Currently, the AFS team is collaborating with five other Happy Valley startups as part of the Penn State Summer Founder’s Program. The new initiative provides local startups with a $10,000 grant to pursue their ideas while working in the State College area for the summer.

According to Lee Erickson, lecturer in IST and academic program coordinator for Digital Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the program also gives student entrepreneurs access to invaluable resources within the community.

“The program provides a networking resource in that there’s a whole list of people the teams can seek out for help,” Erickson said. “They also meet once a week on Thursday nights and have a speaker who shares their experiences around issues entrepreneurs face in starting and growing their businesses.”

For Cohen and Dori, these meetings have inspired connections with peers across the Penn State and State College startup scene.

“I've gotten a search engine optimization lesson from one of the engineers from another team, and I gave them some advice on sales and assembling a sales team,” Dori said.

According to Dori, it’s this sense of community that motivates AFS to keep pushing its technology further and makes the struggles of running a startup worth it.

“As a team, we have crafted a culture, the business decisions, the product decisions and all this together,” Dori said. “It's like you have a singular goal, and it's really fun to work toward that.”

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

  • Example of a round Gastrograph flavor profile

    A Gastrograph profile of Rwandan coffee shows its unique flavor components. 

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Analytical Flavor Systems
  • John Dori uses Gastrograph mobile app

    John Dori (middle), co-founder of AFS, demonstrates how to use the mobile app to a coworker. 

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Analytical Flavor Systems
  • Smartphone with mobile app open lays next to glass of coffee

    The Gastrograph system provides users with an easy-to-use mobile app for product testing. 

    IMAGE: Rachel Garman
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Last Updated August 14, 2015