O'Connor Brewing Co.
Richard Croasdale meets the team from O'Connor Brewing
Monday 13 April 2020
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I’m early to meet the team at O’Connor Brewing Co, and peckish from the long drive to Virginia Beach, so I decide to wander in search of food. It’s a curious area, a mix of old industrial buildings and neat suburban streets, and I follow a freight rail line until I reach a strip mall with a few folk passing the time in the shade of the awnings. There’s a grocery, a clothes store (‘High Fashion’) and a tiny diner, esoterically named ‘Cajun Seafood’. I order a massive shrimp po’boy with chilli mayonnaise. The piping hot, juicy prawns and crisp iceberg lettuce are just what I need to see off the remnants of my hangover.
The dream of O’Connor’s has been 20 years in the making, since founder Kevin O’Connor wrote his final graduate paper on starting a new brewery in 2000. It would take him another decade, until St Patrick’s Day 2010, to put this blueprint into action. One of coastal Virginia’s very first craft breweries, O’Connor has gone from humble beginnings to become a World Beer Cup Award-winning brewery, with more than 40 employees and dozens of styles. It’s best known though for El Guapo Agave IPA, which is now Virginia’s best-selling craft brand.
“We're definitely one of the oldest breweries in Virginia,” says Kevin. “When I first started, this was just a production facility, brewing beer and packaging it. But with the advent of the tasting room that changed everything – it really got us to bring more people in build the brand.”
Now of course, the taproom is a huge part of the brewery, physically and strategically. Importantly though, it’s not too slick. There’s just a rail separating drinkers from the brewers hard at work, and the sounds and smells of a production brewery compete with the music and the conversation of punters. Call me old fashioned, but I like this, and it seems to fit with O’Connor’s image.
I guess at the end of the day, we are considered the old school!
"I was at CBC in Denver last year and stumbled into a breakout session,” says Kevin. “And some guy sits down next to me, looks at my badge and says, ‘are you the guy who makes a El Guapo?’ I looked at his badge and he’s from Arizona! I say yeah, and he says ‘ah you’re like me – one of the old school’. I’d never thought of it in that way, but we were like the 1000th brewery in America and now there’s almost 8000. So yeah, I guess at the end of the day, we are the old school!”
He’s obviously seen the market change a lot over the past decade, and breweries coming through today may not know how hard it was to build a following and grow without the benefit of a taproom. But Kevin dismisses the idea that the new wave have it easy.
“The beer has always come first for us, even if our marketing was shit in the early days,” he says. “And then as time went, we cleaned up a little bit, we got shirts, but the liquid has always been there and I think we've only gotten better with it. Things are different now of course. You absolutely can't go out to market with a bad beer, but you also need the right location, the right décor, a great story and a clear idea where you’re headed. It’s getting tougher and tougher for new breweries.”
Another respect in which new breweries perhaps have it tougher is nailing that all-important ‘one great beer’ that puts you on the map. For O’Connor, this was arguably El Guapo, its agave IPA. In the loading space next to the canning line is a mountain of the stuff, destined for Beer52 subscribers back home. Kevin grabs a can and throws it to me. It’s still cold from being filled, and I eagerly crack it open for a sample; the earthy sweetness from the agave isn’t overwhelming and there’s a pleasant lemon rind bitterness from the hops. It doesn’t try to blow your mind with unexpected or intense flavours – it’s just distinctive, balanced and perfectly brewed.
Kevin cautions new breweries against trying and stand out by brewing gimmicky beers, arguing that these customers will not keep coming back in the long term.
“You know, I believe back in the late 90s, even into the early 2000s, American beer basically boiled down to – pardon my French – whose ‘hop dick’ was bigger than the next. Like how many hops can you put in this thing before your teeth fall out of your head? Balance went out the window. I kind of see that sometimes with the pastry styles now. You just pile in the lactose, it turns into literally a dessert – sweet vanilla, chocolate, whatever you're going to add into it – it’s like eating fat people cake.
“So first and foremost it’s about balance for us. If it's a New England style hazy, juicy IPA, we want the softness there because that's the category and that’s what works well. I think everything we do could fall in line with the American the BJCP.”
We’re thrilled to get O’Connor in the Beer52 box this month, having tasted its beers at festivals in the past. We were also excited to hear that Kevin intends to grow the brewery’s presence in Europe.
“We’ve been to Craft Beer Rising a couple of times and will be at Brew//LDN this year, and the reaction from UK drinkers has really been incredible,” he says. “So this year we’re really putting a lot of work into opening up our international sales programmes, looking at the UK, the Netherlands Norway, Italy and France.”
How many hops can you put in this thing before your teeth fall out of your head?
The beer will continue to evolve too, according to Kevin. He’s watched with interest the growth of hard seltzer such as White Claw in the US, something he personally predicted several years ago. He believes this is part of a wider move toward lighter, easier-drinking beverages that will be reflected in the craft market too.
“I still believe that lagers are going to come back and take over America,” he says. “I think these pastry IPAs at $25 for a four-pack are going to go by the wayside, in favour of the low-alcohol, or ‘better for you’ or whatever you want to call the category. It's going to expand so rapidly that I'm trying to figure out how I can make a beer for less than 0.5% alcohol and still have it taste as good – I don’t think anyone’s really cracked that yet.”
Kevin has a great team behind him, working on the production floor and in the taproom. They’re very welcoming and we all enjoy a laugh over some samples before I have to leave Virginia Beach, in search of my next stop: a distillery in an infamous hotel...
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