Gain of quarters for O'Connor Brewing Co.

O'Connor Beer Room

NORFOLK

More beer. More room. More buzz.

O’Connor Brewing Co., a pioneer in the regional craft-beer movement, will celebrate its move into larger quarters today with a party featuring local bands, food from trucks and restaurants and, of course, beer. Eight types of O’Connor beer – from its El Guapo agave India pale ale to its S-Turns Belgian-inspired saison.

O’Connor’s new location – a former furniture warehouse on 24th Street – is five blocks from the spot on 25th Street where Kevin O’Connor opened the brewery in March 2010. Both are in the industrial section between Ghent and Park Place.

The brewery spent about $1.1 million on the building and $600,000 on renovations and equipment, marketing director Hannah Serrano said.

With roughly 30,000 square feet, O’Connor more than quadrupled its former space. That will allow the brewery to triple production to 15,000 barrels a year from 5,000.

“In the last four years, we were putting everything out there,” Serrano said. “People loved it. We couldn’t keep stuff on the shelves.”

Over the past year, sales increased 130 percent, she said.

With the enlarged production capacity, O’Connor said he hopes to extend the reach of his beers to stores and restaurants in Northern and Western Virginia and the Outer Banks.

He also anticipates diversifying his selections to include stouts and lagers. “We’ve been making the same old, same old beer,” O’Connor, 37, said. “I’m ready to break out.”

The new venue has more space for customers to linger.

The tasting room, with cork walls and poplar wood bar, holds more than 200 people, compared with 50 previously, Serrano said. A “beer hall,” with long picnic tables and a stage for musical acts, sits within inches of the brewing tanks.

The brewery also features a game room, with two shuffleboard courts and a cornhole set, and a VIP room on the mezzanine, overlooking the production area. O’Connor has bookings through December for events such as corporate parties and wedding rehearsals, Serrano said.

The brewery, which opened with O’Connor and one other employee, now has a staff of 15. O’Connor said he hopes to add 20 over the next five years.

St. George Brewing Co., the granddaddy of local craft brewing, opened in Hampton in 1999. Seven years later, the Gordon Biersch chain started a restaurant in Virginia Beach, where it makes beer.

In 2010, O’Connor became the only independent small brewery in South Hampton Roads. The larger region, from Toano to Currituck County, N.C., now boasts about a dozen. At least three more are on tap: Home Republic and Pleasure House Brewing in Virginia Beach and Big Ugly Brewing Co. in Chesapeake said they’ll open this summer.

“Without Kevin O’Connor, I don’t think we would be seeing all of these other breweries,” said Diane Catanzaro, beer columnist for Veer magazine and president of the Hampton Roads Brewing & Tasting Society. “I think people just didn’t have faith that it would work out. The success of O’Connor and some of the other local breweries has turned that notion around.”

The local growth follows – a bit belatedly, Catanzaro said – a heady national trend. The number of small breweries in the United States jumped 57 percent to 2,768 in 2013 from 1,758 in 2010, the Brewers Association said.

Catanzaro attributed that partly to distributors’ increased involvement and state laws loosening bans on selling beer at breweries. In 2012, Virginia dropped its prohibition.

Restaurants, too, are crafting a place for local beers. Now, O’Connor said, new eateries are installing more than 20 beer taps. They used to have four or five.

“I knew the industry would grow,” he said. “I’m actually surprised at how fast it’s grown.”

Philip Walzer, 757-222-3864, phil.walzer@pilotonline.com

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