By: Terri L. Jones
photos courtesy of O'Connor Brewing Company
Before you get around to trying the beer (which is great, by the way), your first impression of O’Connor Brewing Co probably will be its mammoth size. At 35,000 square feet, the warehouse in the Park Place section of Norfolk, which has enjoyed previous lives as a food purveyor and a furniture warehouse, is much larger than your typical craft brewery. And within that cavernous building, you’ll find not only the beer-making magic, but also a variety of comfy and spacious enclaves—each with a slightly different vibe—where you can kick back with your buddies and enjoy a brew (or three).
A happening place
With this large physical footprint, it’s no wonder that O’Connor Brewing, owned by husband and wife team, Kevin and Penny O’Connor, has become a place where the local beer-loving community congregates. It’s not just a handful of friends coming together to share a few pints inside the cork-walled tasting room and beer hall, al fresco in the sun-canopied beer garden or on the old loading dock, it’s groups big and small, young and old, gathering for every reason you can imagine.
The evening before we talked, the brewery had provided the venue for a mental health forum and the day before that, a meeting of the American Cancer Society. A few hours after our interview, a group was gathering for a memorial celebration. The brewery has also been the backdrop for lots of celebrations—from birthdays to bachelor parties. Couples have even said their “I do’s” with the gleaming silver tanks bearing witness. “It feels like every night there’s something happening here,” admits Penny O’Connor, who is responsible for the brewery’s marketing and the overall look and feel of the place.
O’Connor also plays host to many public fundraisers throughout the year, the biggest of which is its Black Saturday event two days after Thanksgiving. This year, at the fifth annual event, you will find a huge crowd of adults and kids, alike, listening to music, playing lawn games, noshing at the food trucks, and raising money for the Millers Foundation, which supports local charities. The brewery uses this annual fundraiser also to re-release its IBRIK Turkish Coffee Imperial Stout, a spicy “winter warmer,” which has gained a large local following.
As part of Business Consortium for Arts Support, O’Connor is also the beer sponsor for Wells Theatre, and the company has donated money and space for a variety of other cultural ventures around town. “The arts are a huge part of what makes a community thrive and bright,” notes Kevin O’Connor, the co-owner responsible for production and sales.
“You give, and you’re going to get back,” added his wife, with obvious sincerity. “It just feels good to us. We love this industry and we love our community. We just try to do the right thing.”
A beer for every taste
Kevin and Penny believe that doing the right thing also means creating a lineup of beers that appeals to everyone. The brewery owners simply aren’t interested in being exclusionary with the brews they cook up. In fact, O’Connor has options like Green Can Golden Ale and R&R Lager that serve as the perfect “gateway” brews for uninitiated craft beer drinkers.
The result: their brewery and beer garden are always full with people of all ages, from every lifestyle and with a wide variety of beer tastes. “I’m very proud that this has turned into a space where a very eclectic, diverse group of people can come and hang out,” notes Kevin.
The O’Connors ensure that this diverse group remains involved with their brews through their Think Tank Society. Not only do the almost 200 members have their beers served in a special, larger-than-pint-sized mug each time they come in, but the annual membership fee also gives members the opportunity to try O’Connor’s new beers before everyone else, not to mention a bunch of other perks.
According to Think Tank Society member, Carolyn Clark (she and her husband, Perry, have been regular O’Connor customers for years), “There are special concoctions for us to sample,” she explains. “While I still go back to my favorite (Green Can), I appreciate the complexities of the other varieties they offer.”
Locally sourced ingredients
Being community-minded also extends to what goes into O’Connor’s brews. Typically the brewery’s beers have been “true to style,” but O’Connor is experimenting with a new test batch system—or smaller tanks with about 8 percent the capacity of the full-sized tanks—to create beers based on locally sourced ingredients. That includes everything from local fruits, vegetables and herbs to oysters. Yep, you read it right! O’Connor currently offers a beer called Bold Man Oyster Stout, which features subtly briny notes from those tasty bivalves from the Chesapeake Bay. (The beer’s name is a nod to the Jonathan Swift quote: “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.”)
One of O’Connor’s beer tenders, Alex Cantwell, who is a horticulturist by day, has even spearheaded the development of the O’Connor Hop and Grain Garden at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. This garden uses the hops and grains grown here for a small, very special batch of “wet-hop” beer every year.
A humble, yet mighty craft brewery
While the O’Connors and their team of 40 have grown the business to be the largest craft brewery in Norfolk and expanded distribution into the Outer Banks, Raleigh, Durham, Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington, D.C., the brewery had pretty meager beginnings when it opened in 2010. Back in those days, the couple had little more than a 5,000-square-foot space, a bunch of used equipment and a longtime passion for brewing beer. (Kevin’s first foray with brewing was on a hot plate in his college dorm room. (The school almost threw him out because of it!)
Because they’ve never forgotten where they came from, Penny and Kevin are still pretty humble about it all, hence their tagline: “A humble, yet mighty craft brewery.” In fact, the O’Connor team has always lent a hand to new brewery players in town, and in turn, their fellow brewers, who are more friends than they are competitors, return the kindness on a regular basis.
Kevin admits, “Every day is a new day. There’s always something we have to overcome or challenge ourselves with.”
Apparently, it takes not only a community to raise a brewery but also a brewery to raise a community!