Big Boss Brewing Co. was founded 10 years ago, but the building in which it is housed held five others before it showed up.
The first tenant, Tomcat Brewing Co., opened 20 years ago in 1996. Founded by namesake Thom Tomlinson, Tomcat specialized in English-style beers bearing feline-inspired labels, such as Cougar Pale Ale, Bengal India Pale Ale and Lionheart Scottish Ale.
Though the young brewery ambitiously started distributing its beers in bottles and draft throughout the state, it closed its doors the next year. The mid-’90s saw breweries opening at record rates, but many would close around the turn of the century.
Pale Ale Brewery replaced Tomcat Brewing , but was just as short-lived. That brewery closed in 1999.
Then Rock Creek Brewing had its turn. Though it would be many years before Big Boss Brewing set up shop, this is where Brad Wynn – the brewmaster at Big Boss – entered the picture. Rock Creek Brewing was founded in Virginia but also brewed under contract in Pennsylvania. Wynn was brewing beers for them on the weekends in Pennsylvania while he was working for another brewery in Virginia.
Wynn was sent to 1249 Wicker Drive, tucked away in an industrial area just north of downtown Raleigh off Atlantic Avenue. Wynn had to perform an audit to see whether the brewery was worth taking over by Rock Creek Brewing. He reported that it was, and soon found himself as the head brewer at Rock Creek. He held this position for a couple of years – brewing beers with Virginia references such as Black Raven Porter and Devil’s Elbow IPA – until tax issues forced that brewery to close.
So it was that in 2001, Chesapeake Bay Brewing Co. swooped in to pay the taxes and continue the long-standing brewing tradition at Wicker Drive. “Chesbay,” as it was called, brewed its own line of beers as well as beers from Rock Creek Brewing (including beers from Tomcat and Potomac River Brewing, both of which were produced by Rock Creek). Even this diverse lineup of beers couldn’t save the brewery, however, and the doors at 1249 Wicker Drive once again closed in 2003. (To its credit, the taproom did include billiards, darts, ping pong and foosball.)
All the while, Wynn had gone back to brew in his native Pennsylvania. When Chesapeake Bay closed, he got a call asking for his help in selling the equipment. That’s how he met Brian Baker, who was planning to open Edenton Brewing Co. in, you guessed it, Edenton. Instead, Baker opted to open Edenton Brewing in the space previously held by four other breweries. And once again, Wynn was offered the chance to brew in the building.
“For good or bad, I took that job,” said Wynn with a laugh. “I left a great job and took a real chance to come back down here.”
Despite seeing so many breweries fail in the space, Wynn thought it offered a great location in a state with a burgeoning beer scene. He joined Baker, and the two opened Edenton Brewing Co. in 2003.
Wynn describes the years that followed as a wild ride but said ultimately Baker’s heart wasn’t in it. In 2006, Baker left, and Wynn met Geoff Lamb. He and Lamb went on to start Big Boss Brewing, named after one of Edenton’s most popular beers.
While each brewery before them had its own reasons for closing, Wynn said one notable thing differentiates Big Boss from those that came before.
“The thing that separated Geoff and I, and this is weird,” joked Wynn. “We really like beer. It takes passion. You really have to want it.”
With more than 20 years of experience across several different breweries, how do you maintain that passion? For Wynn, it means investing more heavily in Big Boss Brewing’s barrel-aging program, stocking the industrial building with barrels that once held bourbon, scotch, rum and wine. The brewery also plans to continue producing sour beers, many of which will come from the brewery’s 100-barrel foeder (picture a gigantic oak barrel).
Big Boss has grown over the years, and not just in terms of reach or production. The brewery purchased an adjoining space next door years ago to bring its footprint up to about 36,000 square feet. It’s just now getting ready to make use of the extra space, with plans to bring in a new bottling line and kegging system.
Just don’t expect another brewery to move in anytime soon.
Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.
Want to go?
Big Boss Brewing Co. is at 1249 Wicker Drive, Raleigh.
Upcoming events: The Big Boss Run Club meets at the brewery every Tuesday at 7 p.m. for a run followed by beer drinking. Brewery tours are 2 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month (next ones are June 11, July 9 and Aug. 13).
Hours: 3 p.m.-midnight Monday, 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 1-7 p.m. Sunday.
Info: 919-834-0045, bigbossbrewing.com