From the outside, Bill Summers’ home doesn’t really stand out. Tucked away in a cozy neighborhood in southern Chesapeake, it is the picture of simple, suburban domesticity.
But in his office is a nondescript closet packed with more beer than a well-stocked 7-Eleven. The selection would put the best bars in town to shame.
Among his hundreds of beers are some of the most sought after, highly regarded, and rarest in the world. He has a collection of six-year-old Black Tuesdays, a tough-to-get California beer with an alcohol by volume of about 20 percent, and a few Duck Duck Goozes, one of the world’s most revered sours. There’s even a bottle of Partridge in a Pear Tree, a beer so rare collectors consider it a “white whale.”
How does a man get this kind of collection? It helps to be obsessed.
Craft beer lovers are a passionate bunch. They wait for hours to taste new releases. They drive hundreds of miles to tour breweries. They have garage refrigerators dedicated to beer. Some take their love to another level, turning a hobby into a lifestyle.
These extreme craft beer devotees spend untold hours and resources trading, collecting, aging, sharing, and traveling for the most sought after beers in the world.
Summers’ penchant for collecting started in 1993 while he was in the Navy and stationed in South Carolina. He would build six-packs at the local grocery store and split them with his roommates. Craft beer selection was limited at the time, so finding new beers was next to impossible.
By the time he moved to Chesapeake in 1997, the craft beer industry was growing – at least, nationally. “I would buy beer online, trade for them, or take a daytrip to get them,” Summers says.
Summers’ collection reached close to 1,000 bottles at its largest. He now has about 500. While the total is still impressive, the contents of his stockpile are what make it special. Summers has some rare beers with vintages as far back as 1995. He boasts an especially nice selection of beers from The Bruery, a California brewery popular among collectors.
Summers loves to share his beer, too. He hosts bottle shares and vertical tastings devoted to a series of beers
from different vintages. He also donates bottles to the Coastal Virginia chapter of Barley’s Angels, an international organization dedicated to female craft beer enthusiasts; Summers’ wife, Lesley, is the chapter’s president.
Summers is an extreme example of beer collecting, but he is not alone. In Virginia Beach, Adam Sparks is on a first name basis with his FedEx delivery driver. “I send and receive about 10 to 15 boxes a week,” Sparks says. “The FedEx bill this year has been pretty high.”
Sparks’ interest in craft beer got serious in the summer of 2015 when he started trading beers with other aficionados. Since then, he has become one of the most prolific beer traders in Hampton Roads, joining networks of strategically placed traders throughout the country.
Sparks flips locally released beers, such as Virginia Beach’s Reaver Beach Brewing’s sour series, for equally valued beers from across the country. A mentor introduced him to the world, helping him meet the right people and learn the jargon. “They speak another language,” Sparks says of beer traders.
The time and financial commitments required to conduct this much trading are enormous, but he says it’s worth it. He loves sharing and gets a thrill out of drinking the stuff he worked so hard to procure. “It’s like Christmas morning every time I see the FedEx truck roll up,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”
While Sparks prefers to acquire his beer through the mail, Garrett Williams of Chesapeake would rather travel. “I get to take a beautiful, serene drive,” Williams says. “And I know at the end of the road, I get a cold beer.”
Williams first became a craft beer fan in 2008, and eventually began to search out local beers when he was on vacation. This grew into dedicated beer trips; some of them to beautiful locations, others not so much.
He has driven California’s Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at numerous breweries along the journey, and traveled to Munster, Ind., for Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Day. He’s actually made the trip to Vermont several times, and once rented a minivan to pack with beer.
“Turns out you can fit about 25 cases of bombers (22-ounce bottles) in an empty minivan,” he says. “That beer lasted me about a year and a half.”
Williams always brings local beer with him to share. “I love meeting people and talking to the brewers about what inspires them,” he says. “I’ve met people on my trips that I still keep in contact with.”
While most local beer fanatics prefer to collect, trade, travel for, and ultimately consume what breweries have to offer, some occasionally join the business themselves.
Before Jim Lantry and Shawn Childers opened Chesapeake’s Big Ugly Brewing Company in February 2015, they collected, traded, and traveled with the best of them. They formed a neighborhood beer club in 2009. “The beer club goal was to taste every beer ever brewed,” Lantry says. “After two years, we realized there were like 20,000 beers out there, and that number was going up quickly.”
Meticulously logging the beers they tried in leather-bound journals, the group slowed down after five years, notching 4,000 sampled beers. They traveled to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival. They took epic road trips and popped into dozens of breweries along the way.
Eventually the pair opened Big Ugly, and there simply wasn’t time for the beer club. But they consider the experience they gained from the club invaluable when it comes to running a brewery.
“I really don’t think you can judge where your beers are if you haven’t had a lot of other beers,” Lantry says. “I believe that it is helpful for us to have this background.”
They may not be acquiring, trying, and sharing beer at the frenetic pace they used to, but they still occasionally get together for a bottle share, because there is more to the world of beer than the beer.
“I miss the gatherings and social events,” says Childers. “It’s like a fraternity.”