More than lip service
Are quality testers gluttons for punishment, or people in love with their work?
Most Hong Kong people have never been to Kentucky (many United States citizens have never been there either), but the state has become a household name through its fried chicken. Although you would be hard-pressed to find this 'authentic' dish served by any Kentucky citizen proud of her native cuisine, people around the world associate the state with the chicken that Colonel Sanders made famous.
In Hong Kong, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC as it is now known, has been around since 1985 and there are now 16 outlets around the territory. Part of its success is due to its consistency - what you eat at its outlet in Central tastes very similar to what you get in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Some of the products, such as desserts and salads, are made in a central kitchen. But workers at each outlet prepare and cook the chicken according to standards set by the parent company in the US.
Area manager and training officer Alexander Chan says: 'We use standard recipes and procedures that are the same at all KFCs. We have quality control checks to help ensure consistency.
'In each outlet, restaurant and shift managers conduct daily inspections of the products, making sure taste and temperatures are correct. In addition, area managers and training officers make unannounced visits to the stores to check on quality, service and cleanliness.
'Sometimes it is difficult to keep standards consistent. We receive chicken from different sources, so the taste could vary slightly. But when we identify a problem we do everything we can to solve it.' Does Mr Chan get tired of eating KFC? 'No, I'm proud of what we serve. My son loves it; he enjoys it when I take him on inspections. Sometimes I even eat KFC on my days off or on holidays in other countries.' While the thought of eating the same food day after day does not appeal to most people, beer-lovers may envy Sunny Lai. He gets paid for drinking it.
As a management trainee for Carlsberg Breweries, one of Mr Lai's duties is quality assurance - he makes sure the Carlsberg you drink here tastes the same as in Copenhagen.
To ensure this, the beer is brewed according to quality parameters set down in an official manual by the corporate office in Denmark. Carlsberg breweries worldwide use the same techniques.
Twice a week, a panel of specially trained employees gather to taste beer. At each session, they sample every batch of fermenting beer, a random sample of the bottled finished products and, sometimes, beer from competitors.
To qualify for the 'flavour evaluation panel', Mr Lai had to undergo a 10-week tasting course. He was then given numerous tests to make sure his palate and nose were keen enough to discern minute differences.
'In quality assurance, we make sure the consistency of Carlsberg is the same wherever you go. We do this through a series of tests. We have flavour evaluation, where we check the fermenting beer on taste, aroma, body and colour,' he says.
'After fermentation, the beer is filtered, bottled or canned, and then pasteurised. We take random samples of the finished beer to check that everything about it is right, down to the label.
'In addition to these tests, we do chemical and micro-biological analyses. With the chemical analysis, we see that the alcohol content is right.
'Brewing is a natural process, and that's where the micro-biological tests come in. We check the yeast to see that it's healthy and hasn't been affected by wild yeast,' he says.
'We can't let anything contaminate our yeast; it might affect its ability to convert sugar to alcohol. We receive a new strain of yeast every two months from Denmark so we know it's fresh.' Does Mr Lai spit out the beer like his wine-tasting counterparts? 'We swallow the beer we are testing; it's only about 15 samples, which is not that much. We only drink about half a pint in total at each tasting. We can't get drunk because we have to go back to work after we have finished,' he says.
'To clean our palates, we eat crackers between sips. In addition, smokers are not allowed any cigarettes for at least an hour before a tasting because the smoke interferes with their sense of smell, which then affects their taste buds.
'If the beer doesn't pass the panel's approval, there are usually things we can do to fix it. It normally ages for about 20 days; but we can let it ferment longer, which improves the quality and refines the product. We can also blend the beer to improve the taste and, on rare occasions, we will dump a batch.
'Our palates are more sensitive than the average consumer's.' Mr Lai denies beer's alleged fattening effects. 'I've been with Carlsberg for three years, but I haven't gained any weight from all the beer I sample. There are only about 200 calories in each pint, so it's not the beer that makes you gain weight, it's the food you eat with it.
'Fortunately, I like beer, so I don't get tired of tasting the same thing week after week. Even on my days off I drink Carlsberg.'