Startup gives nod to historic Jamestown with craft beer ware

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Ceramicist at work
Richard Nickel, an art professor at Old Dominion University, makes ceramic growlers for craft-beer drinkers that pay homage to the region’s naval and maritime history. (Courtesy Norfolk Growler Co.)

If a Norfolk-based artisan has his way, one day he’ll make craft-beer growlers inspired by a jug found at Jamestown.

That’s part of a long-term vision for Richard Nickel, an art professor at Old Dominion University who is one the co-founders of Norfolk Growler Co. Meanwhile, the startup’s handmade ceramic containers make for a succinct elevator pitch.

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

A “growler,” as craft-beer fans know, is a supersized version of a to-go cup, a can or a pitcher, often made of glass or metal. Smaller than a mini-keg, a growler is designed to hold 64 ounces of beer, keep it fresh and then be reused.

Norfolk Growler began in 2015 as a group effort. The original partners were Nickel, his wife Chris, who is an instructional designer at ODU, Tompkins, a software engineer, and B.C. Wilson, a mutual friend with an art and business background who, helpfully, 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.”

Ale jug
Ale vessels like this jug from historic Jamestown could inspire future creations from Norfolk Growler Co. (Courtesy Norfolk Growler Co./Jamestown Rediscovery)

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 small 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 Norfolk’s O’Connor Brewing. 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.

Naval imagery
(Courtesy Norfolk Growler Co.)

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 the 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.

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,” she 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 Norfolk’s O’Connor Brewing Co. and a friend of Tompkins. “I think it’s going to work well.”