By Ben Swenson
Virginia’s craft beer scene was in its infancy when Kevin O’Connor opened his business 10 years ago. At the time, the area only had a couple independent breweries. Several had come and gone in South Hampton Roads, but none lasted.
Bankers thought he was crazy. City planning officials couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept. They even had him sketch it out on a napkin. But with a decade of hindsight,
O’Connor’s ambitious vision has proved prescient.
The thirst for craft beer seems insatiable, and O’Connor Brewing Company is among the most respected breweries in Virginia. This year, O’Connor, who is company president, and his wife and vice president Penny O’Connor, will join more than 40 brewery employees to celebrate the 10-year anniversary those uncertain beginnings.
Much of O’Connor Brewing’s success can be attributed to the beer. The brewery’s beverages consistently earn accolades, including a World Beer Cup bronze medal in 2016 for its O’Connor Dry Irish Stout.
But O’Connor Brewing’s reputation rests on more than just beer. Customer, neighbors and local businesses leaders appreciate the mindfulness that anchors its philosophy. The company helps other breweries get started, hosts farmers markets and partners with local restaurants for pop-ups and other events. Visit Norfolk’s CEO Kurt Krause says this has a spillover effect.
“The customers that are regulars at O’Connor’s end up getting exposed to other local businesses in Norfolk which brings a positive impact on our community,” he says.
A Norfolk native, O’Connor attended Maury High School, as well as Radford and Old Dominion universities. He homebrewed craft beer on a hot plate in his dorm room at Radford and wrote a formal plan for a brewery while he was a senior at Old Dominion.
His interest in brewing good beer might have been only a lifelong enjoyable hobby, according to O’Connor, but he’s from a family of businessmen, and that entrepreneurial bent drove him to find an outlet somewhere. He spent several years after college working with the few local craft beer establishments, among them St. George Brewing Company in Hampton, and with his family’s business enterprises.
But ultimately O’Connor wanted to be his own boss. The company bearing his name brewed its first batch of beer on St. Patrick’s Day in 2010. From the beginning, it was a production brewery. Virtually all the beer was packaged and sold through distributors.
At the time, state law banned alcohol sales on the premises of breweries that did not also serve food from a kitchen. O’Connor Brewing, then located in a 6,700-square-foot garage warehouse on 25th Street, could only provide free samples to visitors.
So, O’Connor and a handful of industry colleagues around the state formed the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. Among the organization’s early accomplishments was successful lobbying for the passage of Senate Bill 604 in 2012, which allowed craft breweries to open tasting rooms and sell beer onsite.
That was a welcome change, but left O’Connor Brewing scrambling, says Penny O’Connor. “We were forced into a quick turnaround to make a tasting room,” she says.
As the taps opened on Virginia’s craft beer scene, thirsty drinkers came in droves. O’Connor Brewing outgrew its starter home. The brewery and tasting room moved to its current location on 24th Street, which gave it five times the space and a brewing capacity upwards of 15,000 barrels, or nearly 500,000 gallons.
Through it all, the O’Connors and their colleagues have focused on making deliberate, commonsense business decisions, according to Penny O’Connor. They won’t undertake major expansions – such as distributing to new markets or opening a satellite location – simply because they can. Growth remains steady but measured. Since the move, O’Connor Brewing has doubled brewing capacity.
The company was among the first craft breweries in Virginia to offer 401(k) retirement accounts, according to Kevin O’Connor, which has helped them build a team that’s as loyal and passionate about the beer and the business as the owners are.
That approach has earned O’Connor respect in the brewing industry. When Andy Beale, co-founder of Tradition Brewing Company in Newport News and president of Beach Ambassadors, first considered putting on 757 Battle of the Beers, he reached out to Kevin O’Connor. That endorsement carried weight. “Because of the way Kevin has grown the business, he has a level of respect as a patriarch of craft beer in Hampton Roads,” Beale says.
Aside from good beer and business sense, another hallmark of O’Connor Brewing’s business model is community connection and involvement. The brewery is purposeful about identifying with local culture, as with the names of flagship beers such as Norfolk Canyon Pale Ale and Great Dismal Black IPA. The company has been a longtime supporter of local institutions and causes.
O’Connor hosts onsite fundraisers, festivals and gatherings, everything from ugly sweater parties to weddings. Penny O’Connor says that trying new things – whether that’s in a glass or in an event – will continue to be a priority for the next decade.
Earlier this year, the brewery released several versions of a spiked seltzer, a response to growing interest in non-beer options among younger drinkers. “Every day, there are new 21-year-olds, and they have different interests,” Kevin O’Connor says.
For the present, though, the O’Connors say that 10 years feels pretty good. And for that, they’ll be raising quite a few glasses in 2020, starting with a big birthday bash on St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’ll be blowing it out all year,” Penny O’Connor says.