From teacher to homebrewer, to award-winning homebrewer & Guild President, to professional brewer, Bryan Summerson owner and head brewer at Big Lick Brewing Company, one of the hottest Roanoke locations for great beer and live music, has come a long way.
The Summersons moved their family to Roanoke in 2002, having been living and teaching in Henry County before then, and met future brewing partner & Big Lick co-owner Chuck Garst through their wives. “Chuck’s wife, Kim, and Jenny taught together, I met Chuck that way. Chuck was in the homebrew club and took me to my first meeting. So he kinda introduced to homebrewing - then he quit doing it and I took off with it,” explained Bryan. “Kim and I taught together at Highland Park for seventeen years, this is going to be our eighteenth year,” added Jenny with a smile. “Chuck got me into just about everything I’m into now: homebrewing, the Elks club, everything. He said ‘C’mon and do this’ and I was hooked,” laughed Bryan who homebrewed for 12 years before making the jump to pro.
Before opening the brewery Bryan cut his teeth as a homebrewer in the Star City Brewers Guild. He was President for a year and Vice President several times. The Guild hosts quarterly internal homebrew competitions for its members and competition can, at times, be quite fierce. At the end of the year overall points are tallied and a Brewer of the Year is named. Bryan has been Brewer of the Year four times, “back to back twice” he added with pride, as he should since he holds the title for being named Brewer of the Year more than anyone else. “The one year I wasn’t, in the year in the middle of winning the other times, was the year I was the President” he noted, referencing the infamous Guild “President’s Curse” where whomever is President will find their brewing abilities diminished while they serve. That might explain why he chose to only serve for one year ... can’t let those brewing chops suffer!
Deciding to take the leap from homebrewer to professional brewer came at the suggestion of his wife, Jenny. “She was kinda yelling at me about spending money on brewing stuff,” (*side note here, at this point in the interview there came the much predicted and very delicate snort from Jenny, as spouses everywhere I’m sure can sympathize with*). “She said I should start making money instead of spending it. So we kinda discussed it and went back and forth on it” explained Bryan. “I felt like whenever we went to meetings or took his beer places people wanted to drink it, so I thought ‘you could really do this’ .. so he did it! I’m really proud of him” beamed Jenny. “My cousin is a real estate agent and her husband, Phillip Payne, is a commercial real estate agent, he’s the only one I knew of, so I called him up quick and he got really excited about it because he’d bought the old building down there,” he said, referencing their original location at 135 Salem Avenue. “It was going to be a yoga studio, but it had the kitchen in there and everything. If he hadn’t been so excited about it, it probably never would’ve happened. He kinda took it and ran with it.” “We had talked to Chuck and Kim about it,” said Jenny. “And we figured we were going to do it, I went to Chuck” added Bryan, “and said ‘Do you want to help out?’ Then it became real!”
Big Lick Brewing Company was born and they officially opened in September of 2014. The original system was a 2 barrel brewhouse with 4 barrel fermenters and 4 brite tanks (a serving or secondary tank) - making them the area’s first and only nanobrewery. “We could put about 70 gallons at a time into the fermenter,” explained Bryan. This meant that they found
themselves brewing a lot. “Usually twice a week, after school, from about 3:30pm to midnight,” said Bryan with a laugh of someone having survived his time in the trenches, burning the candle at both ends. After all, knowing exactly how much beer you need and when to brew new beers isn’t an exact science. “We ran out of beer during our Grand Opening, I remember that, and we had to close for a little bit,” he said. “It took them a couple of months to figure it all out,” interjected Jenny, “the key to ..” “always having something going” they said nearly in unison. “Something always has to be in the fermentors,” explained Bryan, “and that’s kinda the way it is here too.”
They had started at the old location with a 3 year lease and had gone into it all thinking they’d try it for three years and “see how it goes” - if it didn’t go well then nobody was out too terribly much and they could all go back to teaching and their other, regular day jobs; if it went well then they would explore larger spaces. “We got several phone calls right around three years” said Bryan, “people wanting to show us spaces. First we looked down under The Bridges at a big building, and even paid money to do some architectural stuff and check out the drains. Then we looked right down here, next to the candy factory on Salem, but it didn’t have outdoor space.” “That was something we were not going to not have again,” added Jenny. “I felt like I was in the dark all day,” shuddered Bryan. “One day though we got a phone call from Bill Chapman, he said he was buying this property and wanted to put a brewery in and he’d asked around and asked the guys at Lucky’s and Fortunato, and they all said ‘Big Lick’ so he called me and kinda told me the plan and would I like to talk to him. I said sure and he came up and had the big architect’s rendering in color and flip pages and immediately we were like ‘this is what we want to do!! Then he took it and ran with it.”
The new location, located at 409 Salem Ave in downtown Roanoke, had previously been home to the Habitat Re-Store, which has since moved to Melrose Avenue. Chapman put historical tax credits to good use, but because a good portion of the area had been wide open, they were also able to build the front like they wanted to rather than be limited by those same tax credits. Though originally there was a goal to have food trucks it was decided that a partnership between Big Lick and nearby restaurants - Tuco’s Taqueria and Beamer’s 25 - would be more beneficial and harmonious for everyone with an investment in the area. “We also tell people that you can bring your own food if you want to, or you can do GrubHub, or order pizza,” said Jenny. However, for special events, they do bring in food trucks.
The system at their current location is quite a bit bigger - a 15 barrel brewhouse, four 15 barrel fermenters, and now only one Brite tank. They used to have two, but realized it was taking up space that they could put to better use with their canning line. They still have the 2 barrel system though and that’s what they do all their small batches on, such as their new assistant brewer, Chris Stevens’, Key Lime Pie Ale that is brewed with 12 pounds of graham crackers in the mash. They also have a couple of 2 BBL barrels from Smooth Ambler Distillery in WV that they age brews on. When they use those they frequently add something like strawberries or mangoes to add even more variety to the offering. Bryan also has offered his 2 barrel system and 1⁄2 barrel homebrew system to local homebrewers and employees who want to try their hand at brewing within a working brewery. “Anytime anybody asks, I’m ready,” he said with a laugh. They also donate a prize to the Cystic Fibrosis Ball that allows the winner to come up with a beer and brew it there, which they’ve done two years now.
One of the detractions at their first location was how limited they were, not only in size and brewing & storing capacity, but also in being able to offer live music - something that was and still is very important to them. “We were only allowed to have unplugged, no amplification, musicians. So we had a few musicians, but it was hard to find anyone who could fit in there,” recalled Bryan. “The goal when we moved here though was to make it a music destination” and that is something they have absolutely, most definitely achieved.
“I have always loved music and though music and beer really go well together,” explained Bryan, “it makes it much more fun and gives people a reason to come and stay. It really does draw a good amount of folks to the place, depending on the act.” And, good acts are something they’ve quickly become known for. “We had Broadcast, who was at Floydfest, and Wake the Sun, they’re from New York City and we’ve had them before but they’re coming back for our Anniversary. It’s just really cool. And it can be awfully loud inside so we still have acoustics to work on,” he acknowledged, “but outside is great. If we can have them out there, we will have them out there!”
They’ve also been adding more fun events during the week: they have a game company that comes in and sets up games such as Giant Connect Four, Giant Beer Pong (though you’re not intended to drink up in giant amounts on that one), Inflatable Ax Throwing, and more. That alternates weeks with Trivia, which is also on Thursday nights. Recently they’ve also partnered with Fleet Feet to offer a weekly Pub Run and Walk on Tuesday nights. The first one of those took place on August 7th and had a jaw-dropping turnout of over 150 people!!
Big Lick has brewed over 200 different now, with what’s on tap constantly rotating. During those rotations some really unique and creative brews have made an appearance such as: Nippy Lil Bugger, their Winter Warmer which tastes like an oatmeal raisin cookie; Berry Davis Eyes, which Bryan claims to be a Virginia thing “those thick, fruity sours - all the other breweries in the country call them Virginia smoothies because they don’t have the demand for those like we do here - there’s so much fruit in them”; Smile Like You Mean It, which won a Silver Medal at the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, is a DIPA with no bittering hops, but is dry hopped heavily with Nelson Sauvin, which is wine-like, and then has white wine juice added to the fermentation, making it very hoppy but not bitter with a nice dry white wine taste. They’ve also got a Brett beer going now with a Farmhouse yeast strain that gives it a nice “horse-blankety” flavor that is very Belgian-y, barn yard-y flavor. “I just brewed a beer for the Hotel Roanoke and PBS. PBS is doing a documentary on the hotel and they’re having a big, red carpet premiere at the end of September at the Hotel Roanoke. We brewed a Pre-Prohibition Pils and had a label made up for it and we’ll have it at the red carpet on tap and in cans.” Bryan and team will soon be brewing their “big beers” such as Rusty Cage, a Barleywine, Dying Days which is a Russian Imperial Stout; and they’re looking at renting some more space down the street to use as a barrel storage space for their barrel aged beers, though they’re still in talks on that one, but hopefully it means more barrel aged beers on hand. For Halloween they’ll be doing a doctored up version of their Champurrado Mexican Stout.
Other things of note coming up is their 5-year Anniversary on the 21st of September, which will feature their Double White Bronco; and he’s hosting and brewing with two groups of German students from TUM (Technical University of Munich) through VA Tech. One group will
brew on the 2 bbl and the other on the 15 bbl. You can also look forward to seeing the brewery at the upcoming GoFest, which runs October 18 - 20 in Roanoke.
The brewery has just adjusted its hours, now being open every day of the week: Mondays 4-9pm, Tuesdays 6-9pm, Wednesdays & Thursdays 4-9pm, Fridays 4-10pm, Saturdays 1-10pm, and Sundays 12-6pm. Keeping things in the family you can find Bryan & Jenny’s children, Ethan and Erin, working there pouring beers, as well as Chuck and Kim’s children Nick, who pours, and Lena, who washes dishes. And, as for Bryan, he retired from teaching in June of 2017, right before the new location opened its doors that fall, and he’s now a full time professional brewer. Dreams do come true when you have good friends and family with you by your side.