Norfolk’s go-to vessel for craft beer to go

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These handmade ceramic growlers hold 64 ounces of your favorite craft brew, and they pay homage to Norfolk’s naval history. (Courtesy Norfolk Growler Co.)

It’s made in Norfolk.

It’s ceramic. And it holds 64 ounces of your favorite microbrew.

That’s the premise behind a startup, Norfolk Growler Co., whose custom-made artisanal ware makes for a succinct elevator pitch.

“This is a craft vessel for your craft beer,” said Brendan Tompkins, one of the co-founders.

A “growler,” as craft-beer fans know, is a super-sized version of a to-go cup, often made of glass or metal. Smaller than a mini-keg, a growler is designed to hold beer, keep it fresh and then be reused.

Norfolk Growler began about two years ago as a group effort. The original partners were Richard Nickel, an art professor at Old Dominion University, his wife Chris Nickel, who is an instructional designer at ODU, Tompkins, a software engineer, and B.C. Wilson, a friend with an art and business background who fortunately knew how to calculate volume.

“Who knew that high school math would help you out in later days?” said Chris Nickel.

The inspiration for the product came from the craft brewing scene in Oregon, according to Chris Nickel. Rick Nickel heard about Portland Growler Co., which makes ceramic vessels, and thought it would be interesting to create an East Coast version, one that spoke to naval and maritime culture.

Tompkins, who grew up in Norfolk, liked the idea and wanted in.

“It seemed like the market was big,” he said. “You can feel that something is in the air with craft beer.”

Ceramicist at work
Rick Nickel, an art professor at ODU, was inspired by ceramic growlers in Portland. (Photo courtesy Norfolk Growler Co.)

Rick Nickel started working on a prototype in his backyard studio, according to his wife. The growler he came up with evokes the shape of a liquor jug. It has a bulbous core, a short neck and a handle at the top.

The design also nods to Norfolk’s naval presence, with a decal image of the USS Wisconsin rendered in the tradition of “Sailor Jerry” tattoos. The ceramic glazes speak to naval culture as well: dress white, sailor blue and gun-metal gray.

In the fall of 2015, after about six months of experimenting, Norfolk Growlers brought about 20 to 30 of its handmade vessels to Crafted, an independent arts and craft show held at O’Connor Brewing Co. They sold out, according to Tompkins.

That told him they were on to something.

“When you pick it up, you kind of get it,” he said. “It really does feel right.”

The co-founders brought on another partner, Bill Sheavly, about six months ago, according to Chris Nickel. They bought more equipment, including two new kilns, and roughly doubled their number of functioning molds, from about eight to 15 or 20, Tompkins said.

They also recently moved into rented space at Studio Colab, 430 W. 24th St, according to Chris Nickel.

Before expanding, Norfolk Growlers could produce about 20 growlers per week, Tompkins said. Now their weekly production goal is 60 to 80.

They’ve sold about 150 growlers since they started, Chris Nickel said, many of which were online orders. Prices are $65 for a growler without a decal and $70 with a decal. Custom designs are available for $100.

They’re still figuring out their target market, since not everyone can afford to spend $70 for a growler, according to Chris Nickel; they hope to add some lower-priced ceramic steins and flasks in the future.

Norfolk Growlers hopes to expand its product line to include ceramic flasks and steins, according to Chris Nickel, who is one of the cofounders. (Courtesy Norfolk Growler Co.)
Norfolk Growlers hopes to expand its product line to include ceramic flasks and steins, according to Chris Nickel, who is one of the co-founders. (Courtesy Norfolk Growler Co.)

For now, she said, they’re reaching an audience of craft beer drinkers, including people in their 30s and 40s, as well as customers from the military.

About 85 percent of the orders have been local, but they’ve also shipped to places such as California, Texas and Hawaii.

And earlier this month, Norfolk Growlers went to Crafted again and did more than $1,200 in sales in about six hours.

“Everyone likes to pick it up and look at it and touch it,” Chris Nickel said.

Tompkins thinks the growlers are resonating in part because of the Wisconsin decal.

“Everybody wants our logo,” said Tompkins, who has the image tattooed on his arm. “It’s been a big part of our success, I think.”

A craft brewer offers a similar take.

“I think they’re going to set themselves apart by being artsy and unique and something different,” said Kevin O’Connor, president of O’Connor Brewing Co. and a friend of Tompkins. “I think it’s going to work well.”

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Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, TIME.com, nationalgeographic.com and Talking Points Memo. Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, TIME.com, nationalgeographic.com and Talking Points Memo. Her recent book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital, was shortlisted for the 2017 Mark Lynton History Prize. Her first book, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, won the 2005 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.