O'Connor Brewing | Getting ready for new digs

O'Connor Growler

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

NORFOLK – O’Connor Brewing Co., a centerpiece of the growing local beer scene, is poised to expand in the coming months by opening a larger brewery and taproom. It’s a big step for the local brewery, which has increased its business since
brewing its first batch on St. Patrick’s Day just four years ago.

The new facility will be at 211 W. 24th St., not far from the current site.

The existing one is still hopping, by the way.

The tasting room was in full swing on a recent Saturday. A food truck waved off because of bad weather, but that didn’t stop customers from sampling the brews. A singer and guitarist went to work. Folks talked at picnic tables on the
warehouse floor. Some tried their hand at a Jenga tower that looked like it had been built for giants. Cornhole games were in full swing near the warehouse doors, though the beanbags and platforms were merely the regular size.

Juan Moreno, an O’Connor cellarman who hails from Houston, took a break from the tasting room counter to give a tour of the existing operation. Talk turned to the new place, expected to triple annual capacity from 5,000 barrels to 15,000. There’s an economy of scale at play with the O’Connor expansion, said Moreno, who studied economics at the University of Texas.

“I like the numbers,” Moreno said.

Founder, president and brewer Kevin O’Connor arrived amid a busy schedule that includes talking to contractors working on the new place. He was there to meet with HR Growler, among other things.

“I’ve got to check on tank nine,” he noted.

“As you can see, he’s really hands-on,” Moreno said. “A lot of these are his original recipes.”

Many local fans of local craft brewing know the O’Connor story, but it bears repeating. Kevin O’Connor brewed in college. Wrote a college paper on starting a brewery. Got a job, but kept dreaming about the beer business. Married Penny. Went to work at St. George Brewing Co. in Hampton, then worked with a distributor.

In 2009, he spent much of his summer developing ales in his backyard – Norfolk Canyon Pale Ale, and two named for channel markers, an Irish red ale called Red Nun and a golden ale named Green Can. They hit the market in March 2010. The
first batch was brewed that St. Patrick’s Day.

The product roster includes a dozen beers, with six core ones offered year-round. In addition to the three original ales, a black IPA called Great Dismal arrived in 2010. The Dry Irish Stout and the El Guapo Agave IPA came the following February
and July, respectively.

Meeting demand in the present space has limited the number of specialty batches. The new facility will offer not only more room to produce and share with customers, but also space to create new styles.

O’Connor, 36, said the goal is to be in the new facility this month – the start of year four – and to have it open in April or May.

The current taproom at 521 W. 25th
is open four days a week, 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, and noon to 7 p.m. Saturday. The new location will hold more people – growing from 50 at the present location to 350 or more.

O’Connor will expand its Friday and Saturday hours at the new location. The brewery plans to open the taproom on Sundays. “The new facility will allow us to open up retail while we do manufacturing,” he said. He added that the facility will have a feel that is a “bit more refined.”

It will still be a brewery.

“You’re going to smell it, see it,” he said. “Right when they dump the hops – that’s one of the best smells in the world.”

Penny O’Connor, vice president of the brewery, encouraged her husband to take the plunge when he wanted to start the brewing business.

“It was definitely risky, but the risk paid off,” she said.

“We are taking a leap of faith. … Kevin has such enthusiasm and love for this industry, this just seems to be the next logical step.”

Kevin O’Connor said the Hampton Roads craft beer scene is a few years behind places such as Richmond and “the Colorados of the world.”

“I think there’s room for more breweries,” he said.

“Personally, I think there’s room for more brew pubs.”

This year, O’Connor hopes to expand throughout all of Virginia and to the Outer Banks, while introducing some new products. They’ll continue to work on seasonal beers, and they plan to venture into sours.

O’Connor said he hopes the brewery will become even more of a destination with its new facility, which may also hold block parties and catered events.

“I think the sky’s the limit, as to what we can and can’t do,” Kevin O’Connor said.

“I’m hoping it will showcase Ghent and Norfolk, but allow this whole area to see great things are coming out of Norfolk,” he added.

The folks at O’Connor hope their customers keep saying what they said when the brewery was starting out just a few years ago.

“This little brewery in Norfolk is making pretty good beer,” O’Connor said.

Now it’s on a bigger scale.

Reach John Doucette at jhdouc@gmail.com.