“I want to be the face of O’Connor. I want to be the guy that people walk in and say ‘That guy right there, he’s gonna take care of you.'” – Mike Palfrey
The American Craft Beer movement has really taken off, but here in Tidewater, it started slow. Now in just the last few years we have witnessed our own microbrew boom. So who are the people behind our local brewing businesses?
We’ve set out to talk to some of those working in and around the Tidewater craft brewing scene. Not the owners and master-brewers (everyone talks to them), but people working behind the counters, and stirring the pots to power the local movement. Here’s the second in a series of interviews with some of the Hampton Roads folks behind the brews:
O’Connor Brewing Company: “Lots has happened with the brewery since 2009. O’Connor brewed its first big batch on St. Patty’s Day 2010. Since then, they’ve opened O’Connor’s Taproom, which is located in the middle of the brewery itself. They have crafted nearly a dozen beers, half of which are offered year-round. They’ve come out with some unique and delicious seasonals and limited releases and test batches every week. O’Connor Brewing Co. is highly community-oriented and they like to help out local charities as well as partner with local restaurants and organizations with beer tastings and events. Their beers are offered in six-packs, 22oz bottles, and kegs and can be found in grocery stores, bottle shops, restaurants, and at the brewery itself. Just like their founder, Kevin O’Connor, they like to promote atmosphere that is fun and un-pretentious…”
Here’s my conversation with Mike Palfrey, O’Connor’s brand new Tasting Room Manager.
AltDaily: So how did you get here in Norfolk?
Mike Palfrey: I’ve lived in Portsmouth for the last 16 years. My father was in the Coast Guard for twenty years and we moved around and we ended up moving here in the late 90’s and he retired and we kind of stuck around ever since. My father and mother still live in Churchland area, and I actually live in the same apartment building as my mother-in-law. It works out well since it’s nice to have family around.
How, why did you get involved with the craft brew industry?
It’s been a dream of mine for almost the past decade. My father bought me a home brew kit for Christmas one year, because I had made the transition from “Big Beer” to more “Craft” beer, once I realized it was something we could do at home. From the very first batch of beer that we brewed–it was a Honey Brown Ale–I knew that this was something I needed to be part of. It was bigger than me. It was going to be something that just took the world, or took America anyway by storm. I’ve was working in ‘Big Box’ retail jobs for the past eight or ten years, and it’s been kind of a less than satisfying experience. When I saw the that the spot for tasting room manager opened up at O’Connor’s… It’s funny. The link posted on Facebook and by the time the link posted, I already had several of my friends funneling me this link to get me to come out here and throw my name in the ring. Fortunately it came to fruition. I haven’t stopped smiling; I’ve really been over the moon, like my first big day was Saturday last weekend, and my face hurt by the end of the night because of laughing and smiling. I knew it was something that I just had to get involved in.
As the tasting room manager, especially as you move forward to the new place, what do you think your focus is as far as O’Connor’s?
O’Connor’s is the first craft brewery on the Southside and I want it to be the ‘premier’ craft brewery on the Southside. So when people come to my tasting room I want them to have an experience unlike any other. Once we get the new facility and we’ll have so much more going on. I want it just to be a complete sensory fulfilling experience. I want them to be able to say, “I went in to O’Connor’s and Mike took care of me, Mike made sure that my beer was always full, I was always getting the best kind of service, the music was great, the events were great!”
I hope to be that conduit for O’Connor, so that when more breweries come in, like Green Flash, you know, and Stone’s looking to expand. They come in and they say “Okay, what’s O’Connor got to offer” and then maybe they say what’re the other guys doing. Just for me, I want to be the face of O’Connor. I want to be the guy that people walk in and say “That guy right there, he’s gonna take care of you.”
As far as that goes, have you been to the other tasting rooms?
Well locally I’ve only been to Smartmouth. It’s a running joke because I’ve got friends that live in Denver, and I’ve been to more Denver breweries and Charlottesville breweries than I have on the Southside and the Peninsula. But really you get a feeling, and each one is super, super unique. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Denver, or in Ghent, or at Virginia Beach, you know they’re all looking to give you that finished product, and I think what O’Connor’s is really going to be known for is how hands on they are. There’s not going to be any smoke and mirrors–you’re going to be able to see the guys brewing 24 hours a day. You’re going to be able smell the mash, you’re going to be able smell the hops, and that’s what I really like about it.
You see a lot of the breweries out west do that, and it’s like ‘wide open.’ You know we have new breweries like Young Veterans, who’re really getting their feet on the ground, and brewing amazing beers. I’ve had most all their beers. We’ve got Back Bay that’s going through a resurgence, and then we’ve got the big boys comin’ through like Green Flash. You’ve got Beach Brewing that’s re-launched in a new site. We’ve got like 70 Craft Breweries in Virginia right now, but I want O’Connor’s to be on the lips of Beer Advocate, and just really be there for enthusiast that are looking for the best beer experience.
Along that line, do you think this region–because especially when it came microbrews and craft brews for a long time we were kind of a backwater–do you think the region as a whole has what it takes to support this booming new business?
Absolutely. I think the military presence is probably the best thing, because you can guarantee you’ve got a new market every few years. You know, growing up as a military kid I was ready to move every 3 years, and when you’ve got something as quickly building as this, with this huge ground swell of breweries opening up, and you get the military guys in here and they have this amazing experience with any of the craft breweries in the area, and then they go and get stationed somewhere else, like in Japan and they see somebody and they say, “Oh you’re being stationed in Norfolk now, let me tell you about this place, and go check this out.”
I think between that, and just the way that Ghent has really been embracing the movement, you know you’ve got the Birch Bar which is doing an amazing job educating people about all the different kinds of beers and the different flavors that you can experience. You’ve got staples like the Bier Garden in Portsmouth, that have been doing it for years and years. I think people are really kind of taking a step back and saying “I’m ready for something new.” And I think with the craft beer boom it’s gonna hook on, and you’ve got ODU, there’s 30,000 people who at some point are going to probably try beer during their college career…
Hopefully good beer.
Exactly. Some people say “Oh you know, there’s no such thing as bad beer,” but there is good beer and there are better beers, that’s the way I like to look at it.
So do you see a way that the different breweries and the craft beer businesses that are out here can come together to help each other improve this environment?
It’s all a means to an end, right? The only reason you get into something like this is that you want people to experience the highest quality, the best flavors, the purest ingredients. And in looking at just the camaraderie between breweries, I can’t think of any other, like aside from music, where you have head brewers from other breweries coming in saying “I want to brew beer with you.” You know, like Smartmouth and the brewer from Green Flash just came in and they did something. That’s awesome. You look at the Blue Ridge Beer Trail; you’ve got Blue Mountain, Wild Wolf, and Devils Backbone, every year the do a collaboration and they’re all within a few miles of another. I think if you put yourself on an island in an industry like this you’re gonna garner a pretty bad reputation, and you’re going to be resistant to change, resistant to evolution, and that’s really what craft beer is all about. Because if we’re all churning out the same thing, everybody would be drinking M#$$%^ Light the rest of our lives. It’s always awesome to know, and for me personally, something I’ve been tryin so hard to get in, it’s one big community, and I think the better that bond between head brewers and breweries, the only thing that we’re gonna get is better beer.
Beyond you’re current job, what do you see as your future in the beer business?
I would love to be a head brewer. I would love to have my own brewery one day. I’ve been home brewing on and off for 7 or 8 years now, and that’s always been a pipe dream. And it’s just something that… I know it’s hard work, I know it’s not glamorous work, but that’s not it for me.
The thing that just gives me the most pleasure is when somebody says “What kind of beer should I drink?” and I say “I think you should try this beer” and they try it and I say “You know what, that’s my beer” and they say “This is an amazing beer!”
But for right now it’s making sure that O’Connor, and the O’Connor tasting room, is the place that people want to be. Maybe they go to one of the other places in the area, but they want to end up at O’Connor–because the environment that Kevin, Penny, Hannah, myself and the rest of the staff here, they know that they’re going to get exactly what they want.
My thing is, I have this pie-eyed with bewilderment and wonderment, and I’ve already talked with some of the brewers on the production line and they want be to get in here to do test batches. I want to have my own special handle, that I can roll out for special events saying,”This is my beer; this is the one that I think a lot of people are going to like.” And just the fact that I could transition comfortably, and maybe I end up on the production side, but for me I’m baby steps and just living the dream. I’m fortunate because not everybody can say that. It’s been an amazing opportunity and it’s gonna be something special. I think with what they’re doing at the new location, with what we’re going to have to offer the greater Tidewater Virginia area. It’s going to be really special. I’m spoiled to be part of it. It hasn’t fully set in yet. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but it’s going to be pretty good.
For more of O’Connor Brewing, here they are on Facebook.