Between the Scenes: Vivian Brews Beer at Sierra Nevada


Last summer, Vivian visited Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River, N.C., outside of Asheville. She went to watch Sierra Nevada’s vice president Brian Grossman and his team brew a cucumber thyme Saison for the “A Chef’s Life’s” premiere party this past September. Beyond helping create a refreshing beer, Vivian left with a ton of knowledge about the brewing process, Sierra Nevada, and how challenging cucumber is as a beer ingredient. She and Brian, whose father Ken started Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in California in 1980, shared their favorite moments from the visit.  

Q: Brian, is this something you get to do very often — work hands-on with a chef to create a signature beer? 
Brian: Not very often, believe it or not. We do a lot of smaller collaborations; once a year we do our Beer Camp beers. This past year, we collaborated with six stateside and six overseas brewers to create a Beer Camp Across the World variety pack. The 12-pack sales coincided with a series of beer festivals across the country; profits from the festivals help support local brewers’ guilds. This experience with Vivian was the first time I got to work with a chef from outside of our company. Getting to work with Vivian was a blast; she’s a damn riot. We have a lot of similarities. We both live in the world of flavor. It was mostly just fun to show someone who appreciates flavor like we do.

Q: Vivian, what fascinated you about the beer-making experience?
Vivian: I hadn’t had much exposure to hops as an ingredient. They are really interesting. Brewers add hops early to the brewing process to add bitterness and later to create aroma. I loved wandering around the brewery smelling the various bales of hops. Hops have this complex aroma of citrus and earthiness. It’s hard to describe just how aromatic they are.

Q: Brian, what was so challenging about Vivian’s choice of cucumbers as a beer ingredient?
Brian: Any fruit or vegetable is challenging because it can have surface bacteria that can spoil a batch of beer. We had to cook the cucumber in boiling water long enough to kill the bacteria but needed to avoid ending up with overcooked cucumber. Ultimately when we add the cucumber during the fermentation process, we were aiming for the aroma of fresh cucumber — and that’s tricky.

Q: Vivian, what did you think of the cucumber Saison?
Vivian: I really enjoyed it. It was a nice mellow summertime beer with a lot of cucumber on the nose.

Q: Vivian, what was the most important thing you took away from the visit?
Vivian: I really wanted to hear the Sierra Nevada folks explain the proper way to taste a beer. I learned that you should never touch the inside of the glass because floral notes from hand soap can disrupt the tasting experience. That makes so much sense given that 90 percent of what you are tasting in beer is the aromatics. In conjunction with that, I learned that it is best to pour a beer with a beautiful layer of foam, which increases the surface tension and allows the beer to release those aromatics.

Q: Brian, what style of beer do you recommend people drink at this time of year?
Brian: The off-the-cuff answer for colder weather is more barrel-aged, more savory-type beers, like Russian Imperial Stouts. There’s not one type of beer you should be drinking right now. Beer has 3,000 flavor compounds or so. The beer you should be drinking will change with who you are with, the mood you are in, the food you are eating. I personally love our celebration ale. Pale ales are always a good choice, especially with spicy food. But if it is cold and you are sitting by a fire, there’s nothing wrong with a nice Imperial Stout.

Q: Vivian, did anything else surprise you during your visit to Sierra Nevada?
Vivian: I was really impressed with how much thought the Grossman family put into building its brewery in North Carolina. So many decisions were based on environmental concerns; that’s why they decided to open an East Coast facility so they did not have to ship their beers across the country. The brewery’s spent grain is given to local farmers for cattle feed. And the 200,000 feet of timber from the land was used to make the restaurants’ banquettes and tables and all the doors and trims throughout the entire 300,000 square-foot facility. They even have a four-acre organic garden, which produces produce for the brewery and restaurant, including the lemon thyme that was used to make my beer.