by Tom Robinson
At Kevin O’Connor’s bustling brewery on West 24th Street in Norfolk, you can stumble upon an indie arts fair, crash a wedding reception or strike a yoga pose almost as easily as you can fill a growler.
Seven years into its beer-making tenure, O’Connor Brewing Company is a power player in Virginia’s craft brewing industry. About 15,000 barrels of O’Connor’s seven flagship brews and seasonal favorites emerge annually from the 35,000-square-foot warehouse he bought in 2014. That’s more than triple the volume he squeezed out of much smaller digs one street over starting in 2009 – a signal that O’Connor’s ambitions stretch well beyond Hampton Roads.
O’Connor’s logo, a spreading tree taken from his family crest, is fitting. The company recently spent $500,000 to expand its brewing capacity from 15,000 barrels to 22,000 barrels in preparation for a wider distribution.
O’Connor Brewing, which has sent beer to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for about two years, now distributes into the Raleigh-Durham market and is looking to expand into the Charlotte, Asheville, Winston-
Salem and Greensboro markets, as well. The company even plans to turn its attention to Maryland soon.
“I’ve always said I’ll take this business as far as the consumer will let me,” O’Connor says of future distribution goals. “Uber-local is cool because it’s tiny and it’s making these little one-off batches. We can’t do one-off batches anymore. We’re pumping out for the masses.”
But just because he is sending beers off to the far reaches of the country does not mean O’Connor has overlooked his company’s role in Hampton Roads. The child of Irish-Catholic roots likes to think of his brewery as an Irish pub of sorts, a frequent gathering spot for family and community.
Start with the weekly events calendar that hangs in the O’Connor tasting room. It’s a crammed collage of colored chalk, announcing vinyl nights, trivia contests, military Mondays, video gamer tournaments, food-truck challenges, musical performances, and “poses and pints” yoga sessions on Sunday mornings.
Along with the regular flow of office parties, alumni receptions, charity fundraisers, and such that are booked on-site, it all helped lure more than a quarter-million people through the doors last year. From offering free beer and meeting space to turning over the tasting room to charities for a day, O’Connor philanthropy supports artisans honing their craft, musicians seeking an audience, and countless nonprofits.
Some are especially dear to O’Connor – Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, for instance. His 6-year-old daughter is on the autism spectrum and receives CHKD services. O’Connor also supports The Chas Foundation, which aids people with mental illness. O’Connor’s childhood friend, Charles “Chas” Kirkwood, committed suicide six years ago.
“Obviously, I want the business to be successful,” says O’Connor, 39. “But I don’t need a new Ferrari or anything like that.”
He has taken care, he says, to craft O’Connor Brewing in the spirit of simple, good times but impactful civic responsibility. O’Connor provides workforce training to autistic adults. And he evenly splits health care costs for some 25 full-time employees, a rarity in the industry.
“It’s really to tell them I know I didn’t do this all by myself,” O’Connor says. “I want people who are passionate about wanting to work for us, and who want to stay longer than some of the nomads who come and go.”
A Maury High School graduate from the Twin B auto-parts family – William, his father and O’Connor’s chief financial officer, owned the chain – O’Connor was that guy in college (Radford and Old Dominion universities) who always had a strange array of beers in the cooler among the Busch and Bud Light.
Impressed by such eclectic purchases from a college freshman (on a fake ID), a clerk in a beer store O’Connor frequented near Radford suggested he try brewing his own.
“I was cooking beer on a hot plate in my dorm room,” O’Connor says. “Almost got thrown out of school for that.”
So began the journey officially launched more than a decade later by the challenge of O’Connor’s wife, Penny, now the brewery’s vice president of marketing: Do it now, Kevin, or don’t.
He raised $250,000, found a building on 25th Street, quit his job at Sysco Foods, and got to work.
His original 5,000-square-foot plant was cranking at capacity, about 5,000 barrels, when the General Assembly passed SB 604 in 2014. The bill sparked Virginia’s microbrew boom by allowing breweries to open tasting rooms.
Suddenly, customers flooded O’Connor Brewing to order from wall taps previously set up for the employees and to hang out. The O’Connors scrambled to keep pace, setting up picnic tables and cornhole games. An old-fashioned town hall took root.
“Fans would come and stick around for hours,” says Penny O’Connor. That was fine with her. “Kevin and I are social animals. It’s in our blood.”
Their space was dirty and crammed with production material, Kevin O’Connor says, but nobody seemed to mind. “We started attracting a whole lot more people than probably what we were supposed to have in that building. We knew we needed to grow.”
And grow they have, as a brewer, and as an entertainment venue. O’Connor Brewing has earned a great reputation as a champion of local music. With its cavernous space, which can hold 700 people, the brewery is widely seen as a potential venue for not-quite-NorVa-ready bands.
O’Connor Brewing has hosted, among others, a ticketed album launch party for Norfolk’s Major and the Monbacks and last May’s LAVA music festival.
“That fits our overarching view of what we really want to do here,” O’Connor says.
In the end, of course, O’Connor says he never loses sight that his bold dreams and wide horizons are fueled by making the best-tasting beer possible. To that end, he has rejected buyout overtures from private equity firms, he says.
O’Connor, who declined to discuss his revenues, says he’s still having too much fun, and success, to sell just yet.