Barrels & Brews: Spirited Women

  • By:  Mary Ellen Miles

One day Penny O’Connor, 42, came home to find her husband, Kevin, bottling sample brews in their newly renovated bathroom. After her initial shock, Penny decided to pitch in and help. Their partnership continues to this day as founders of O’Connor Brewing Company in Norfolk. 

When Jennifer Eichert was “young and bored,” she accompanied her father on a winery visit to California’s Napa Valley. He started his tasting, and the sommelier offered 11-year-old Jennifer some grape juice in a big, Bordeaux-style wine glass. That was it, she said: “From that moment on wine has always had a special place in my heart.” Jennifer, now 33, manages Mermaid Winery also Ghent.

In 1996 Kim Hardy graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in English and Spanish. She remembers her dad telling her to make a list of jobs she could get with her degrees. She never imagined she would one day—together with her husband Porter—launch Smartmouth Brewing Company, another Norfolk microbrewery. Now 40, Kim is enjoying every minute. 

Despite the challenges they face in their chosen career paths, these three Norfolk women are thriving in a traditionally male-dominated field. Let’s find out how and why they do it. 

 

FLAVORS & SENSATIONS

Penny O’Connor said that if Kevin had told her on their first date that his dream was to own and run a brewery, she probably would have run for the hills. 

Kevin introduced Penny to craft beer while they were dating. He talked constantly about beers and equipment. Kevin’s family has an entrepreneurial background, so Penny finally asked him why he didn’t start his own brewery.

O’Connor Brewing Company opened its first location, on 25th Street in 2010. At 10,000 square feet, it seemed perfect for their needs. However, in the past three years production has tripled to 15,000 barrels per year, and the business needed more space. 

Last month the brewery moved to a 30,000-square-foot warehouse on 24th Street that formerly housed Decorum furniture. It’s a mid-century modern building with lots of windows and natural lighting. Now the business has ample space for catered events, like weddings and corporate gatherings. “It’s a cool place to go for something different,” Penny said.   

A Princess Anne High School graduate, Penny studied marketing and French at Virginia Tech before heading into a 10-year corporate job. She’d been brewery problem-solving with Kevin at home all along. But, he needed more help. In early 2012, she began working with her husband—officially. 

“I was really excited to help him run the company, said Penny, now vice president. “I’m a pretty driven person, I like to solve problems, I like to succeed. It was a definitely a challenge, but it’s been gratifying.” 

Penny admits she liked her previous corporate life. As the brewery plans evolved, visions of her husband “brewing all day and drinking their profits at night” took hold, briefly. “Even though he enjoys the fruits of his labor at the end of a long work day, it’s really 95 percent business and 5 percent drinking.” 

The number of craft breweries opening each year continues to grow. Five hundred new breweries opened in the U.S. between 2011 and 2013. The Brewers Association defines an American craft or microbrewer as small, independent, and traditional. A craft brewery has most of its beverage alcohol volume in beers with flavor made from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and fermentation. 

Penny freely admits to drinking Bud Light and Coronas when she first started dating Kevin. He opened her taste buds and her mind when he introduced her to craft beer. “Hops is kind of an acquired taste,” she said. Craft beer has far more hops than regular beer. “It’s delicious,” Penny said. “There are so many flavors and sensations going on in your mouth. It’s a nice treat—kind of like a gourmet meal versus a burger and fries.” 

Craft beer is doing really well, Penny says. “I think that the movement has arrived. People want to get on board the craft beer train; I find that invigorating.”

“A woman in craft beer is rare now, but they’re really making their mark.” Penny said. “It’s nice to be surrounded by strong women who enjoy this industry and are passionate about what they do.” 

Women are important role models, Penny believes. The O’Connors have two children, a boy, 6, and a girl, 3. “I’ve always been a working mom,” she explained. “I do the grocery shopping and I help pay bills. Marriage is a more equal partnership today.” 

Penny finds it refreshing when women enjoy their craft beer. “It’s really good, made locally, and I think women appreciate that,” she explained. The brewery celebrated American Craft Beer Week in mid May. 

At the brewery, as well as home, Penny has many jobs. It’s fun, she said. “I really like doing all of it. And once in a while at the end of the day, if I have time to enjoy a beer, I do,” she said. 

 

LAID BACK & FRIENDLY

Jennifer Eichert, managing member at Norfolk’s Mermaid Winery, has learned a lot about wine since her early introduction. After earning her degree in international business from Auburn University in 2003, she moved to Hampton Roads to be with family. It took her about six months to find a job, and it wasn’t in the field she wanted. While she worked as a market analyst and then in newspaper ad sales, she kept thinking about the wine industry. She even considered moving to Napa, where she’d found her interest. 

She called a wine field contact for advice. He talked her out of moving west—and into working at the winery he was managing, Prince Michel Winery and Vineyard in Leon, Virginia, where Jennifer managed a sales territory. She wore a “bunch of hats” during her year at Prince Michel, including helping with the wine-making process. Slowly the idea of her own winery began to hatch in her mind. “I figured why not just go for it?” she said.

Jennifer moved back to Norfolk in 2009 and found the ideal spot for her winery on 22nd Street in Ghent. Jennifer loves the downtown location and the patio vineyard. Finding the right location was easy compared to getting investors. “I think I got six ‘no’s’ before I got a ‘yes,’” she said.

With her part-owner father, George Eichert, she opened Virginia’s first urban winery in May 2012. They started out with 12 employees and, with seasonal help, have 14 now. Warm weather beckons customers to lounge on the 36-seat patio, where little white lights illuminate the evenings.

The intimate, 2,500 square foot interior has a dining room that seats about 45 and bar seating with a view of the open kitchen and winemaking room. There’s also a private bar for special events. Reddish-brown concrete floors, a wooden stave bar, and barrel stave chandeliers create a warm ambiance for their customers. “I want them to be comfortable, not feel like they’re in a stuffy wine bar,” Jennifer said. “We’re very laid back and friendly. We know many customers by name.”

Jennifer works hard to keep up with wine list trends, she said, so she can offer “awesome” wines to her customers. She also strives to offer something different at Mermaid. Every  month they have a themed event, with a recent Saturday designated as “prom night.” Customers dressed up in their best prom attire. A chosen king and queen won a bottle of wine.  

Mermaid Winery uses French and Hungarian oak barrels, as well as stainless steel tanks. They will produce 225 cases this year. They have 50 patio vines growing with two varietals, Norton and Cayuga White. They currently have 350 wines from around the world for tasting. 

“It’s been a lot of hard work,” Jennifer said, “but it’s been great to share the wine experience. We have relationships with some loyal customers.” When Mermaid opened, they didn’t expect to be viewed as an eatery, Jennifer said. Customers wanted more food on the menu, so they expanded the menu and now offer brunch. 

Jennifer’s advice for other businesswomen is to be open to opportunity and risks. “Work hard, but look after yourself to get new energy and fresh ideas.” This is especially important if you’re a single mom, like Jennifer. Her 3-year-old son helps keep her motivated and focused.

In choosing your interest, make sure you love it, Jennifer said. In order to lead your company, you have to be confident and comfortable about yourself. Be prepared for hard work, she said. “There is no substitute for it.”

 

SMART & HARD-WORKING

Like Penny, Kim Hardy admits to being somewhat responsible for her then-attorney husband, Porter, starting Smartmouth Brewing Company. About a decade ago she gave him his first home brew kit. He had an interest and they had a garage, so she figured why not? “After Porter home-brewed for about five years, we thought we could do this,” Kim said. 

Like Kevin’s family, Porter came from an entrepreneurial background and always wanted to own a business. So, Kim and Porter created a plan and looked for a building in Norfolk, where he grew up. Kim said that due to large equipment, breweries require a very specific space. But, just a few blocks from home, they found the ideal spot, on the banks of the Elizabeth River. 

Since there were no Southside microbreweries at the time, the Hardys thought they’d have a hard time with financing. But just by talking to friends and the community, they found it, Kim said. 

With the help of 13 investors, the Hardys opened Smartmouth Brewing Company in October 2012 and sold kegs to distributors of local pubs and restaurants before their 1,100-square-foot tasting room opened that November. 

The brewery opened with just Porter and the head brewer, Greg Papp, as employees. Volunteers, like Kim, ran the tasting room. They didn’t anticipate it “taking off” like it did, so they quickly hired an employee. With full and part-time workers, they have about 18 staff now, said Kim. She’s still a volunteer, but business is booming and the company is growing. 

“We struggle to make enough beer,” Kim said. “We need more equipment and employees. We’ve assembled a fabulous group,” she said. “They’re smart and hard working. People just like beer. Everyone we interact with is happy.” 

Kim works a lot with the physical brewery space and, together with her hard-working colleague Chris Neikirk, “tag-teams” the marketing efforts. Kim also handles a lot of the branding and enjoys working in the tasting room on occasion. “When I work in there, I see the reason we do what we do,” she said. “It’s satisfying to see people enjoying what we made.”

Since they live close to the brewery, the Hardys might run over there any time, Kim said, but most of her work is done from home. She enjoys the convenience and flexibility of working at home especially since she and Porter have two children, a son, 9, and a daughter, 7. “I can chaperone a field trip or make a doctor appointment easily,” she said. 

Kim was pleasantly surprised when the brewery began to attract families. On any given Saturday you’ll see parents with kids in strollers, she said. Children and parents alike pick up chalk and add to their giant chalk mural. “I’m very proud and thankful,” she beamed. 

www.oconnorbrewingco.com

• www.mermaidwinery.com

• www.smartmouthbrewing.com

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