Enjoying a great-tasting beer is an American tradition. It’s good on the golf course, goes well with an afternoon on the dock and is the perfect complement to a leisurely dinner with friends. Beer is even better when you can boast it was made in your own community. Smith Mountain Lake became the recipient of its own microbrewery, Sunken City Brewing Company, in May. Owner and lake resident Jerome Parnell created Dam Lager, the brand’s original brew, in 2010. It was produced at a Roanoke brewery until moving back “home” – to the place that inspired its name.
“It’s the first time the beer has actually been brewed right here at the lake. It’s something residents can take ownership of and be proud of right in their own community,” said Parnell.
The 8,800-square-foot brewery, located at Westlake Towne Center, cost more than $2 million to build and consists of a brewhouse, fermentation area, canning room, tap room and outdoor beer garden.
On tap at Sunken City – whose name Parnell said is a nod to the community of Monroe, which was flooded in the mid-1960s when SML was filled – are the signature Dam Lager, Red Clay IPA and an unnamed brown ale not yet in full production. In addition, brewmaster Jeremy Kirby is releasing small-batch beers each weekend as a way to gauge the particular tastes of lake-area patrons.
The brewery’s interior tap room is decorated in a lake-oriented theme, the centerpiece being a huge wall mural of the lake that overlays an older map of the flooded areas. Pittsylvania County author and historian Herman Melton’s account of how Monroe failure to develop into an official town led to its sunken demise makes for an intriguing tasting room read and appropriate name for a grassroots brewery.
A brewery in his own community was Parnell’s vision but required vital partnerships. Long-time area developer The Willard Companies helped make the dream a reality. “Our first conversations began almost three years ago,” said Lee Willard, the company’s vice president of corporate holdings. “Dam Lager was a big hit around the lake, and we knew Jerome was onto something. We helped in any way we could during the design phase, and then sold him the land [at Westlake Towne Center].”
Kirby moved to Smith Mountain Lake just before the brewery’s opening to take position as brewmaster. The California native trained at the VLB Institute in Berlin, Germany, and has managed breweries in Nebraska and Colorado. “Jeremy and I have personalities that complement one another,” said Parnell. “It’s a big deal to have a German-trained brewmaster here at the lake.” Kirby said he’s looking forward to exploring the SML area – as soon as he can take a break from making beer.
“The guy has been working around the clock here since the beginning,” said Parnell. “He understands that to build a brewery we have to hit the gas on all aspects – from selling beer at the bar, distributing, developing products and getting cans.”
Sunken City is open Wednesday through Sunday year-round. Friday nights and Saturday afternoons feature live music and food vended by area food trucks.
Smith Mountain Lake locals Steve and Peggy Owens said they stop by at least once a week to enjoy the atmosphere, often bringing along their two daughters. Steve said he likes the Dam Lager while Peggy prefers the Skinny Dip, a lighter, unfiltered version of Dam Lager available as a small-batch brew most weekends.
“We enjoy spending time together over good beer,” Peggy Owen said. “The Parnells are a wonderful asset to our community, and they recognized the importance of being family-friendly when they put the brewery together.” Not only have Smith Mountain Lake residents welcomed Sunken City with open arms, out-of-town visitors have flocked to the craft brewery as well.
“We saw close to 1,200 visitors in our first month,” Parnell said. “There are two types coming from out of town: some who are beer tourists and some who are agritourist-types interested in the brewery itself. We’ve had people from Richmond, Greensboro and a lot from Roanoke.”
Anheuser-Busch wholesalers in Roanoke, Lynchburg and Danville distribute the Sunken City brand to many restaurants in Southwest Virginia, including several at SML. As the brand goes out, Sunken City supporters hope fans will follow it back here.
“Jerome is a believer in Smith Mountain Lake and will have all of his beers branded as ‘brewed at Smith Mountain Lake,’” Willard said. “This will only serve to drive more interest and exposure to our area.”