Alko’s court tasters will find the defect

Hopefully you’ve never had to return a product to Alko due to quality issues. If you have, we will have refunded your purchase and forwarded information about the quality defect to the manufacturer or importer.

If similar feedback has been received from other customers, the product will definitely have been sent to Alko’s quality control department for testing as well. Our quality control programme is based on customer feedback and risk assessments, and seeks to find any defects before a product reaches our customers. Yet in spite of this, last year we received feedback on around 14,000 products that our customers had found to be defective.

Quality assurance at Alko begins with the laboratory testing of each and every product before it goes on sale. This ensures that the product meets the standards set for its beverage category. However, most quality issues relate to characteristics that can’t be measured using threshold values or even using laboratory methods. We look for these types of defects using tests carried out by Alko’s expert jury – they act as ‘court tasters’ who will only allow products that fulfil our quality criteria to go on sale.

Cork taint is the most common defect

The most common quality challenge we encounter involves ‘corked’ bottles. Cork taint can be identified by a mouldy or cellar-like smell. It is detectable by the human nose in extremely small quantities, as it is possible for us to smell the compound that causes cork taint in a concentration of just over one billionth of a gram. Every year, tens of thousands of products that are corked or have other quality defects are removed from sale before they end up in our customers’ hands (55,000 products in 2017). We systematically inform our suppliers of any defects we find, as our goal is for a greater percentage of these issues to be identified and prevented at the production stage.

Compared to many other food and drink products, alcoholic beverages do not spoil easily. The alcohol they contain (ethanol) is without doubt a harmful compound, but it is also an excellent preservative. When you combine this with the typical acidity of alcoholic beverages, you get a liquid in which the microbes that cause food poisoning cannot reproduce. Other bacteria that affect a product’s aroma and taste can also be found, particularly in beer, and we intervene when a product no longer meets quality expectations.

People have varying abilities to sense different defect compounds, and will also react to the resulting defects in different ways, which is why investigating defects always involves teamwork at Alko. Our range of almost 8,000 products encompasses a broad variety of different production methods and ingredient bases. This makes it challenging to define acceptable product quality, even for an experienced team of tasters. Feedback on product quality is vital, as it enables us to focus on the things that are most important to our customers.

Juha Viikari

The author is a quality control manager at Alko.