A group of eight Montreat College students explored the science behind the sip during a behind-the-scenes tour of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Mills River, NC.

“I was particularly interested in combining microbiology with organic chemistry and taking them to see fermentation in action,” said Dr. Maddison Melchionna, Assistant Professor of Natural Science, who organized and led the excursion. “In chemistry, they are learning about reactions with alcohols and where they come from.”

Founded as a family-owned operation in Chico, CA, Sierra Nevada expanded to a second location near Asheville in 2015. The tree-lined brewery sits on the shores of the French Broad River and prioritizes sustainable practices. For example, the brewery captures carbon dioxide from the fermentation process where yeast is added to a solution of sugar dissolved in water to break down the sugar and create alcohol. That byproduct can then be used for carbonation and other functions, including purging process tanks.

Abby Zavala, a biology major from Lake Mary, Florida, admired the company’s environmental consciousness and resourcefulness.

“I was trying to calculate how much they were saving, and it was a lot of money,” the junior said. “It was definitely eye-opening how much they care as a whole company about the environment and about using other resources to make the best quality beer that they can.”

A highlight of the tour for many students was learning more about hops, a plant that can reach heights of 15 to 20 feet and can significantly influence the odor and aroma characteristics of beer. Different types of hops can have different aromas ranging from sweet flavors like citrus or pineapple to more nutty or earthy flavors like pine.

“At first when we smelled the hops, it didn’t really have a smell to it,” said Adrianna Gullette, a junior health science major from Winston-Salem. “Then, if we rubbed it together with our hands and gave it a hotter temperature, it had a different smell. That’s where they get the distinct flavor for each beer, so that was cool to see.”

Students also had the chance to taste wort (beer before fermentation) to gain insight into the brewing process.

“It was not my favorite, but it was definitely cool,” reflected Anna Baugh, a junior health science major from Winston-Salem. “Our tour guide was super energetic and knowledgeable about the scientific workings of the fermentation process, even getting down to details such as which enzymes they activate to create certain flavors of beer. Being inside a major production facility like this one was super informative about how companies can utilize various strategies to increase efficiency to the max.”

The trip was part of a concerted effort by Montreat’s science professors this year to provide hands-on exposure to careers in science. For Zavala, the tour was an excellent example of the unique opportunities Montreat College offers due to the school’s smaller class sizes.

“We’re able to take people who are actually interested, and we’re able to do things we might not be able to do at other schools,” Zavala said.

Zavala also values Montreat College’s approach to teaching science from a Christ-centered perspective.

“I went to a community college before I transferred to Montreat,” she said. “Being a science major, it was very difficult to include your faith and keep Christ at the center of creation because they’re basically telling you that everything you believe in and you have faith in isn’t real. But at Montreat, I know the professors always try to tie things back to creation and our faith in general, so I appreciate that.”

“Dr. Melchionna does a really good job of not only integrating faith into what we’re learning about, but also applying how science has evolved with faith and how that’s added to it,” added Gullette. “Ever since I’ve been in Dr. M’s classes, my faith has grown so much.”

Overall, the tour left a lasting impression on the students, deepening their appreciation and understanding of the science of brewing.

“The trip increased my interest in digging into the applications of various organic chemistry processes we are learning,” Baugh said.

“It added on to our current knowledge,” agreed Reagan Smith, a junior health science major from Raleigh, NC. “I enjoyed seeing a different perspective on science. The tour guide was very knowledgeable, and it was cool to see how she related what they do there to what we learned in our classes.”

Dr. Maddison Melchionna stops to take a selfie with eight students on their tour of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.