When Lauren Salazar Woods moved from Georgia to Colorado in her early 20s, her goal was a simple one: “I wanted to avoid gainful employment and work at a ski lodge so I could snowboard all the time,” she says, laughing. But in between living the dream of carving up a mountainside every day and eventually deciding she should go back to school to study geriatric social work, Lauren stumbled upon a job that would lead her to an altogether different envy-inducing endeavor: becoming a beer expert at New Belgium Brewing Company.
When she was hired in 1997 as an assistant to New Belgium founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, the company was only six years old—a scrappy craft brewery at the time, but over the next few decades, it would go one to become one of the largest craft breweries in the country, blazing the trail for the many, many craft brewers that would follow and producing now-ubiquitous brews like Fat Tire. The personal assistant gig quickly morphed into a production-assistant position, where Lauren helped out with various aspects of creating the beer from start to finish: brewing, fermentation, research and development, and even packaging.
As her beer knowledge grew, so did her perception that New Belgium was ripe to be an innovator in the beer game, and Lauren set out to develop a sensory lab for the brewery, which is essential to quality control and flavor precision. Eventually, she attended the pilot program for sensory sciences at UC Davis, and upon her return, she oversaw the lab for 13 years and had a significant hand in the brewery delving into diverse, experimental and innovative beers like the Lips of Faith series.
Almost two decades into her career with New Belgium, Lauren is presently the wood cellar director and blender, and continues to oversee the creation and production of the coveted beers for which the brewery is known. She recently talked with Girlboss about getting her start in the industry, the importance of empowering your co-workers, and the un-beerness of beer.
You came to this job at an entry-level position, saw an opportunity for innovation, took charge, and executed. Like, executed to the max. New Belgium is a different company because of it, wouldn’t you say?
We had a tasting panel when I first started, but literally it was just people grabbing samples from the line or getting a keg sample, and then they would write comments about it. There was no training; there wasn’t any kind of validation. There wasn’t a statistical study or any kind of analysis. So the way that I changed it was I invited everybody to be a part of sensory training. And there was a lot of empowerment in that, and in connecting the departments together. So you might be folding t-shirts in the gift shop or working in the warehouse, but on top of that, you are part of the quality department. It established a sense of ownership in the product and developed a sense of community within the larger New Belgium brand. I realized there was huge motivation in getting people to believe in you and trust you. They give you something and then you in turn give that back, and everyone is very proud of that. I think that was one of the biggest things for New Belgium.
Now, we’re definitely known for our sensory program, and there are 100-plus people at any given moment who are doing training and being taste panelists, who are validating whether or not a beer is true to brand. And this is completely different than any other panel I’ve ever talked to. It’s hard to get people to come out, usually. You’re begging and pleading and threatening, and we just don’t have that culture.
So you enabled a sort of philosophical shift in the company. Is this the first time you really realized you possessed these kinds of leadership and teaching skills?
I sensed right away that New Belgium was a type of place where if you saw an opportunity, you could go and ask different people and say “This is what I think I can do.” And that belief in me—I think that fostered a sense of me owing something to New Belgium so much, and I always wanted to give it back.
At another brewery, you know, a packager might be treated like shit, like you’re just a packager, and it just wasn’t the way that we did it. It makes a humongous difference. I did the same thing with our distributors; I set up an educational program, because there were all these new beers coming up and it was no longer just yellow and fizzy. Prior to this, we’d just expected the distributors to figure it out on their own, but we implemented a mentoring program for our sales people where they’re mentored for six months and then they in turn have to mentor someone for six months. After that, they know pretty much everything about beer production. Because you know, our sales guys, they were going to liquor stores and dealing with these 22-year-old home-brewing know-it-alls, and it was really crushing for them to just get shanked [laughs]. So this changed how they were able to talk to clients—a conversation is a lot easier than a sales pitch.
After 13 years overseeing the sensory lab, you’re now the cellar master and blender. What brought about the change?
It wasn’t that I outgrew the position, but I realized the job needed, like, actual scientists, so I hired two women, both with their masters degrees. And during the time that I was getting the sensory program going, I’d re-started the wood cellar and bought some barrels. It just seemed like the natural thing, that I would start tasting, and I went on to become a blender.
What inspires you when you’re coming up with new beers?
Everything does! You see a color. You’re a restaurant and you’re like, “This is an amazing flavor combination—this Thai basil curry soup. I wonder if I can make a beer out of this?” Everything becomes that question: How does this translate to beer? I’m enjoying this moment, I’m enjoying this color, I’m enjoying this feeling. The texture, the flavor, the aroma. When people ask me about making beer I tell them that I only make weird beer. Like, I love when I have lavender and blueberry together—it’s a lovely flavor to me—and I just think, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to make that a beer.”
The perception of beer and wine have changed a lot in recent years, and some of these more unusual varieties are starting to catch on with mainstream consumers. Where do you see all this headed?
You know, there’s no real definition of beer anymore. There’s always been this idea that it’s a lager or pilsner or kolsch, and people would say “I don’t like beer because I don’t like bitter,” but now beer is just everything. It’s anything you want. There’s regulation and limitation, like whatever the government decides. Like OK, it’s grain based. Absolutely. But for example, recently there was Negroni Week, this thing that Imbibe Magazine made up to celebrate Negronis. So we decided to make a negroni beer. A couple of us went and drank negronis one evening and just dissected it. Pinpointed the herbs and spices. We started researching what makes gin gin, what makes campari campari. How can we emulate sweet vermouth? We actually used orange cochineal bugs for the color! It was just an amazingly fun, exploratory process. And it was a beer, but if you picked it up and took a sip of it, you wouldn’t be like, “Oh. Beer.”
What does your day-to-day look like?
It’s hard to describe how I go about doing what I’m doing. Blending is just knowing every single thing that is in those barrels—where they were, where they are, where they’re going to be. My choices today and yesterday affect tomorrow and the future. I can’t fail! When you’re smaller, you don’t have to make a promise to anyone; the beer is ready when it’s ready, and how much is ready? Who knows. But when you get to a brewery this size, you have to make a lot of promises—to distributors, to consumers. You have to make good on those promise without compromising or selling your soul.