Helen Ho ChE’18

Professor Sam Keene’s The Science and Art of Brewing (see introduction) inspired a former student, Helen Ho, to pursue a career in the chemistry of flavor. Ho is currently a project director and flavor chemist at Flavor Dynamics, where she started as an intern a year after graduation. Her work requires creating natural and artificial flavorings for various foods, beverages, and other products using a library of over 3,000 aroma chemicals, essential oils, botanical extracts, and essences to make flavors that mimic their real-life counterparts or a fantasy flavor. The process requires copious testing to make palatable flavors using a replicable manufacturing process. “Since every individual lives in their own ‘tasting world,’ Ho said, “it can be challenging to create a flavor that satisfies the needs of the masses. Creating a blueberry flavor, for example, can take eight ingredients or more than thirty depending on the application, taste profile, and physical properties.”

The Cooper brewing class had a twofold impact on her understanding of flavors, she said. The first occurred when the class discussed the common off-note characteristics in beer when brewed or stored incorrectly. “We studied the effect that certain chemicals had on the taste profile of the beer, like buttery (diacetyl), catty (p-mentha-8-thiol-3-one), sulfur (dimethyl sulfide), etc. Surprisingly, I use several of these chemicals today in my day-to-day work as a Flavor chemist,” she said.

Professor Keene lets students create their own brew recipe near the end of the course. Ho found this assignment equally instructive when determining flavor profiles. She set out to make a raspberry cream stout but found that brewing with fresh raspberries didn’t give the richness of flavor she’d been aiming form. Instead, she turned to liquid flavors commonly used in alcoholic beverages. “I remember not fully understanding the strength and impact this small 4-ounce bottle of liquid raspberry flavoring would have on the beer, but it turned out…drinkable. Now at my current job, I make flavors for several breweries and wineries for their products with much greater success.”

Training to be a flavorist takes over seven years, but in the end, as Ho put it, “a flavorist is a human GCMS [Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry process], detecting aroma chemicals to the parts per billion or even trillion. Next time you taste your favorite snack, sauce, or drink, take a second to break down the flavor profile of what you’re having and think about how a flavorist went about creating something so delicious.”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.