We've tweeted it. We've instagrammed it. We've told our friends all about it, and collectively we might finally be seeing the light. Virginia might well be the underdog in the American craft beer scene, and its bevy of innovative breweries have finally captured consumer mindshare, brewing awards, and big beer's attention. Grab your growlers folks...we've got a lot of great beer to drink.
Take a trip down I-64 East from Richmond, VA and you will inevitably venture into one of our country's oldest settled areas of land. You'll cruise through Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Hampton. You'll wave to other side of the James river and say hi to Smithfield, home to more pork than you'd like to imagine exists in the world, and one of the cutest historic townships this side of the Mississippi. Eventually, you'll drive over the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and end up in Norfolk, VA, home of the world's largest naval base and some of this beer guy's favorite little neighborhoods in the world, truth be told.
Kevin O'Connor, and his wife Penny, don't need to be sold on the merits of Norfolk, or the community that has fueled their growth for six straight years. Located in the oh-so-hip neighborhood of Ghent, O'Connor Brewing Company has already outgrown their warehouse space twice in a very short span of time, and currently has the fastest growing beer in the state of Virginia in El Guapo, their agave IPA. Innovative, fun, and consummately nice to boot, the crew at O'Connor embodies the great intention and creativity that has shined a global spotlight on American beer in recent years.
Kevin was always a fan of good beer. Even in his college days in central Virginia, he could be found cruising the isles of The Vintage Cellar in Blacksburg, hunting for whales to bring back to his dorm room. What sort of college student buys beer in quantities less than 30 at a time anyway? Probably a clue to his hop-filled future in southeastern Virginia. When he was 19 years old, he started making beer in his dorm room and took a job working at a local brewpub. It quickly became apparent that he wasn't afraid of scrubbing tanks and getting covered in spent grain.
Fast forward to 2006 - Kevin and Penny now live in Norfolk. Kevin works for Cisco and Penny works for American Express. Noticing that Kevin is still dreaming about running a brewery, drawing his nonexistent brewery's floor plan and beer recipes on the back of napkins while they have conversations, she finally convinces Kevin to quit, and he starts an upaid position for St. George Brewing Company in Hampton, VA. St. George is one of Virginia's oldest extant breweries, with a firm local following and a stalwart portfolio of classic, approachable styles. From St. George, he worked for a local distributor in Virginia for a few years after that, gaining valuable insight and savvy into that side of the beer business. Finally ready to start his own brewery in 2008, the U.S economy did a bellyflop and the climate for growth ground to a halt. Undeterred, sort of, they pushed forward with their plans, bought an old brewhouse from Newport Storm, and in 2010 they released their first beer to the public from an old warehouse in Norfolk. Off and running, so to speak.
And what a race it's been for the team at O'Connor. Rapid growth, which almost seems to be a given these days given the climate behind a well-crafted pint, pushed them to max out their old brewery in just a few years, filling their warehouse with 20 barrel fermentors until you literally couldn't move. Their new facility, pictured above, is palatial in comparison, with an ample amount of oxygen and picnic tables for everyone and enough square footage to see years of sustained growth. Their new 30-barrel brewhouse is state-of-the-art, and they're running it 4-5 times a day in order to keep pace with the production needs and keep their fermentors brimming with delicious beer.
Operational challenges, or the nuts and bolts of sustaining growth like this, should never be underestimated. Their community genuinely loves their beer, and I can't blame them for that. It is, objectively, a truly great portfolio (I work for Guinness, and I can say that Odis, their dry Irish stout, is an inspired beer). But talk to Kevin and Penny about their intention and you really start to hear the requisite enthusiasm needed to steer a ship moving this quickly. "When we made the choice to move to this new facility, we wanted to triple our capacity. It allows us to be creative and balance our business. We don’t want to get overleveraged." said Kevin, "I think growing at a slow pace is the responsible move. The climate that we’re in, with all these breweries...it’s all good stuff, but you need to keep your pulse on what's important"
And while O'Connor is certainly the poster child for southeastern Virginia's burgeoning beer business, you can simply take a walk around the neighborhood to find breweries like Smartmouth, The Bold Mariner, and Coelacanth all thriving on community business. What does O'Connor do to separate itself from the rest? I'll skip to the end of that conversation and tell you that there will never be an easy answer when it comes to positioning yourself in a crowded market. Kevin and Penny seem to have a great formula. Hire great people, focus on quality and innovation, and build partnerships that add value to your business.
I once heard Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery's famously outspoken brewmaster, say that there are very few "new" things in beer...you're just new to the idea or concept in the first place. In other words, at some point in the past 10,000 years, ever since the human race discovered the delights of fermentation, we've probably already addressed that thing you think you just figured out for the first time. Ostensibly, I can get on board with this sentiment. But after speaking with Kevin and Penny, and drinking their beer, I have a feeling that we're not quite done yet. Continuous advances in technology, efficiency, measurement, and microbiology will let us drill down ever deeper into every beer we make until we've got it dialed in on the molecular level. We can make it as myopic as we like, and the obvious benefits to the drinker will become ever more apparent. But that je ne sais quoi, that feeling of truly understanding why you're doing what you do, will always have some mystery, and O'Connor, along with thousands of other breweries in this country doing the same thing, can take that to heart.