Best Islands to Live On: St. John, USVI

Live the life 0311 St. John
St. John Brewers

For most college seniors, happy hour means Budweiser and beer pong. Not for Kevin Chipman and Chirag Vyas, two University of Vermont grads who used microbreweries around Burlington as a sort of career counseling. The best friends developed an affinity for craft beer, a vice that followed them to St. John, USVI, where St. John Brewers was soon born. Yep, two guys in their mid-20s selling beer in the Caribbean for a living. They couldn’t have dreamed this up during college, says Kevin, nor could they have prepared for the hard lessons they’ve learned on the island.

So did you move to St. John intending to open a brewery? No, for the first month we were unemployed, living on a sailboat with no electricity. We spent mornings dropping off resumes at bars and restaurants. Then we'd hitchhike to the beach. We had bills to pay, but we weren't really focused on them. You don't worry about what might go wrong in life when you're snorkeling, hiking or sailing. Those first few weeks of being here set the mood for why we wanted to stay. Very quickly we fell in love with the lifestyle here on St. John.

What made you feel at home? Every time you see someone, you hear either "Good morning," "Good afternoon" or "Good night." I lived in Boston for a couple of years, where you'd walk down the street and everyone kept their heads down. Here, you actually appreciate the people around you. Everyone's your friend.

But paradise had no craft beer. What was the toughest part about home brewing so far away from home? At the time, our apartment had one air conditioner. We built a chill box next to it with mattresses, drapes and tarps to surround our 24-gallon fermenter. We had to keep the temperature as close to 68 degrees as possible to allow the yeast to propagate. Even a 5-degree swing would give the beer "off " flavors. That was June — I remember because we were sweating so much. We were definitely treating our beer better than we were treating ourselves.

Back in the States, you worked as a physical therapist. When you told people your plans, were they skeptical? There really wasn't any negative feedback — that's what makes this business so fun on St. John. From the day we brought the idea to bar owners and managers, everyone supported it. Nobody said no. A few big bars that didn't need another product ordered 10 cases before we even had the beer on island, which felt great.

And then it just took off? With each finished batch, we' d hand out bottles. Everyone on island knew what we were doing every step of the way. We were making lots of friends in the local market — bar owners, managers and bartenders. We knew when they were working, so we'd share beer in the kitchens. Or they'd come over after work to hang out, drink and talk about beer.

What about beer? We'd all sit on the back porch, enjoying a perfect Caribbean sunset, and discuss a beer's cloudiness, foam and aroma. It's like a wine tasting but much less pretentious.

But you were still just a two-man operation? It was until we partnered with Shipyard as a bottler five years ago, but even then we had no distribution company. When our first 40-foot container arrived, loaded with 1,300 cases of our Virgin Islands Tropical Mango Pale Ale, it took hours to unload. And the afternoon rainshower certainly didn't help.

And from container barge to bar? We warehoused it ourselves—half on St. Thomas and half in our apartment. During the day, we hand-delivered the cases from our 1989 Toyota pickup truck, which was constantly breaking down. At night, we bartended. We were beyond sleep deprived.

What kept you going? The community — it's what continues to keep us motivated. A lot of the faces in our Tap Room now are the same ones from when we started six years ago. These locals remember the early days. They've witnessed first-hand the hard work we've put into our product. It feels really good to have their continual encouragement.

St. John sounds like a very tightly knit place. What's that like? Part of knowing everyone is supporting everyone. One of our friends took a nasty tumble while biking down a steep hill, causing thousands of dollars in medical bills. To help, we threw a Roaring '20s-theme benefit. The community rallied, donating enough to cover her expenses. She was very appreciative of her friends and surprised by people she didn't expect to come out to support her. St. John is a small island of 5,000 people, and our resources are limited. It's not as easy as it is in the States. But we band together because we need each other.

The Tap Room isn't the only brew pub in the USVI. Is it different, aside from your microbrew? Yeah, for one it has air conditioning. For the past four winters, we've thrown a holiday sweater party. For us, it's a play on where we are — we're asking people to get bundled up. Then we crank the AC down to as cold as we can get it, starting at 4 p.m. to ensure it's really cold. If St. John has a reason to party, it definitely will.

OK, what's your brewing secret? Mango is a signature tropical flavor and seemed like the perfect ingredient for a tropical beer. We source most of the mangoes we use right here on St. John. A few people have told us that our beer is the best they've had.

Have you received any feedback that makes all the hardship worthwhile? We get a lot of e-mail, including one from a guy in New Jersey who sent a photo of his dog and a six-pack in winter atop a snowbank. On a visit to St. John, he discovered our beer and now drinks it year-round. One sip can transport you instantly to the tropics. When people like him take time to reach out — that's reward enough.