Athena: On A Mission To Boost Beer Quality

June 15, 2023, by Jono Outred

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Athena: On A Mission To Boost Beer Quality

Clare Clouting has a passion for quality. Across a 20-year career in the food industry, she has explicitly worked to ensure that the food she works with is of the highest quality. It isn’t ingredient choice or creative direction where Clare applies her passion, it's safety and quality control, both of which are vital when it comes to beer – even if they aren't immediately obvious to beer drinkers enjoying the contents of the can in their hand.

Clare is well-known and well-respected within the WA craft beer industry, which she joined around six years ago when the popular chip brand she was working for shut down its local operations. Although a vastly different world of production, she applied all she knew about food quality control to her position within Gage Roads, first as quality assurance manager and then as operations systems manager (you can read more about Clare's time at Gage Roads here). 

And it turns out her passion for quality was in place well before she landed in Australia too.

"I’ve always loved food and have been interested in how it’s produced," Clare says. "I grew up on a farm so was exposed to the start of the food chain early on, and my fascination with food production grew from there."

Growing up on a farm in Shropshire, Clare looked to turn that passion for food and food systems into a career. A degree in food science led to her becoming a food technologist and saw her relocate to Birmingham, where she became quality assurance manager for a family business producing Indian curries, sauces and pickles.

In 2001, while travelling through Australia as a backpacker, the country’s landscapes and warmer weather clearly stuck with Clare and, in 2007, she decided to settle in Western Australia permanently, trading curries for chips (or crisps in her dialect) as she started working with Smith's Chips. When the local operation closed its doors, Clare wondered where else her love for food and drink could take her.  

"I found myself looking for a new job in 2016," Clare says. "I decided I wanted to work with either beer or cheese because I love consuming both.

"The promise of freebies was too good to pass up and I’d never worked with complex fermented products before. As if by magic, the job at Gage Roads came up."

 

Clare, back when she was heading up quality at Gage Roads.

 

During her time in the brewing industry, a period Clare describes as "the highlight of my career so far", Clare noticed there was a lack of technical support for brewers in the areas of quality and food safety management. That was further driven home by her time with the IBA Quality Project Group and through founding the Brewing Interlaboratory Reference Analytes (BIRA); a not-for-profit craft beer laboratory proficiency program created with Jon Seltin, Daniel McCulloch and Thomas Parker in 2017. 

She identified a need for more expertise and assistance, especially for startups and for brewers not fully across the complexities of food safety and QC. So, after finishing up at Gage Roads and spending time mulling over the idea, Clare launched Athena Quality earlier this year: a business committed to helping brewers with technical support for quality and food safety management.

"Ultimately, my goal is to empower small to medium businesses with the knowledge and tools they need to effectively manage all their food safety and quality requirements in-house," she says. "In a nutshell, I simplify the complexities of quality and food safety management and provide businesses with the tools and training they need to achieve compliance, ensure the safety and integrity of their products, and improve their quality."

Through Athena Solutions, Clare hopes to not only help brewers who seek her help but to have long-term impacts on the brewing industry as a whole, targeting issues with which most brewers – and consumers – would be familiar.

"I really want to help the industry prevent further product recalls," she says, "which not only costs a lot to businesses and their reputations, but also endanger the overall reputation of our fantastic industry."

 

 

Although her entire career has involved quality management, she appreciates that not every brewer will share in her experience. Beer science is complicated so she wants to help demystify it for busy brewers. 

"Microbiology is an area that I hear lots of feedback about," Clare says. "Understanding how to leverage it effectively, what the best methods are and then. after all of that, how to interpret your results correctly can be really challenging for breweries, not to mention a potential drain on your quality budget.

"Most of the recalls for our industry over the last couple of years have been related to micro issues so this is a high priority from my perspective.

"Labelling compliance is and will continue to be a challenge as well. I’m not just talking about the food safety compliance side of it either; there’s so much you have to get right these days and getting your allergen statement, nutritional panel and claims and alcohol statement spot on is extremely important."

If running a business focused on such a technical space wasn’t enough, Clare has her eyes set on a few other projects too, some of which she started while at Gage Roads and on the IBA board.

As a female business owner and industry leader, Clare has already worked hard to boost female representation within the Australian craft beer community. In 2021, Clare and Pia Poynton from Nowhereman Brewing created the Pink Boots White Coats beer judge training program in WA as they were disappointed by the lack of women judging at competitions. Pink Boots have since rolled this out nationally as Pathway To Judging, with Clare still running courses in her adopted home state. 

As the industry expands and products continue to evolve, Clare's also eager to push her own knowledge in new directions, pointing to alcohol-free beer as a challenge for small breweries. 

"Non-alc beer is an area that I’m keeping a close eye on," she says. "I am excited to see this category open up; it’s a great option for lots of different consumers. However, thanks to the lack of alcohol there is an innate risk with these products that don’t exist in regular beer."

As for what else to expect from Clare, she's eager to help remove some of the other dangers that can impact the world of craft beer beyond exploding cans. 

"I’ve got my hands pretty full with getting Athena Quality up and running at the moment, but I’d like to eventually expand into safety and environmental management. Look out for Athena Safety and Environment down the track – fingers crossed." 


For further details on Athena Quality and to book Clare's services, head here

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