Q&A: Tony Vieira

CEO of Memphis-Based Naked Lion Brewing Company

Tony Vieira began brewing beer two days after he finished college. Following 20 years in the brewing business with giants Anheuser-Busch and Coors, he's living a brewer's dream as the CEO of Memphis-based Naked Lion Brewing Company. The beer-maker launched in 2007, and today you can find Naked Lion Copper Flask lager at Schnuck's, Fresh Market, and Kroger grocery stores, restaurants including Interim and the Flying Saucer, as well as stores in eight other states.

What's behind the name of your company?

Naked Lion is only meant to honor the brewing industry. You'll see a lot of lions in brewery logos; it's one of the common historic symbols in brewing. It's an icon we wanted to have in our name. Naked simply means devoid of concealment. What you see is what you get.

How did you decide to brew independently?

I was brewmaster at Coors, so when they closed the plant about a year ago I decided not to relocate and made a go of it here. My wife and I started the company. We're a contract brewer right now, which is the least capital-intensive way to get into brewing. I have a brewery in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where I take my recipe and packaging materials, and they brew my beer, package it, warehouse it, and ship it out.

Is it acceptable to drink on the job for quality-control purposes?

We have to taste beer on the job. You never overindulge, you really just sip. I worked for one brewer that had a Breath-alyzer to make sure you didn't have too much on a taste panel. The brewers take that very seriously.

What beer do you most enjoy brewing?

I really love the length of time and the finesse it takes to brew a lager. With ales you ferment at a high temperature, so the process moves faster, and then you're slamming the brakes on it at the end. With lagers, it's a slower fermentation pace. It can be tricky getting the profile you want with different yeast strains, and getting the temperature just right. In the end, because of the longer fermentation time, the colder temperature, and longer exposure to yeast, the flavor profile on a lager won't have the peaks and valleys of an ale.

Aside from your own, what beer do you most enjoy drinking?

That's a tough question. I love a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I love a Guinness, and then my other favorite is one a friend in Maryland brews called Hopocalypse.

How do you get a foothold in the beer business?

Distribution is the hard part of the whole thing. Making beer is the easy part. You can't self-distribute everywhere. You have to get the distributor to commit to the brand in a marketplace that's flooded. I have to get it in front of consumers who can show the distributor that there's a demand. That's what we're hoping for.

Is getting your beer to bar patrons different from getting it into grocery stores?

Absolutely. It's difficult on both ends. A lot of the restaurants and bars out there are pretty content with what they have. You have to prove that you're worth them taking a shot on. Supermarkets are cautious about who they give shelf space to. There's no chance of getting [your product stocked] in a cooler unless you're one of the big two brewers. You have to prove that your beer will sell warm first. Beer sells a lot quicker cold.

What's going to distinguish your beers from all of the other great ones available?

Value. We're producing a high-quality craft beer, with premium packaging, and above all, we're at 5.95 percent alcohol. It's higher than most of the beers out there. A light beer would be about 4 percent. Between our brewing process, ingredients, packaging, and the alcohol level, we give people a good value.

Do you have plans to expand your business locally?

Yes. The goal is to get enough volume going to build a brewery here. I would love to open up a microbrewery restaurant where we can make beers to have on tap. Right now Memphis seems to like our beer.

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