The story of St. John Brewers begins when two college classmates quit their jobs to live on the small island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Chirag Vyas, who grew up in Providence, R.I., had been living and working in California as a scientist for NASA. Kevin Chipman, a friend and former roommate from the University of Vermont, worked as a physical therapist at a Boston medical center. In their first two years out of college, they became frustrated by the 9-5 lifestyle that seemingly defined their stateside existence, so the two decided to embark on a Caribbean adventure that would change their lives forever. They quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and purchased one-way tickets to the Virgin Islands.
For their first month on the unfamiliar island, Vyas and Chipman bused tables and paid a local $250 a month to sleep on an old sailboat. The boat had no electricity or running water, so they ate by flashlight and stored food on a block of ice – all the while never doubting their choice to live in this tropical turquoise-blue water setting.
The two soon found a cheap apartment to rent and worked their way up to bartending. Hiking to the beach during the day and making island concoctions at night filled most of their time. However, there was something from their stateside lives that they missed on the island: the two fell in love with craft beer from their college days and longed to enjoy that style of beer on St. John. They wanted an alternative to the light lager that dominated the beer scene in the Caribbean.
So, like any inventive 20-somethings marooned in vacation paradise, Vyas and Chipman headed over to the public library in the “downtown” area of Cruz Bay and logged on to the Internet. If breweries could make beer, why couldn’t they? A few clicks later, they had ordered a $50 beer-making kit and were on their way.
What was supposed to start out as a hobby quickly turned into a passion, and the two found that brewing consumed most of their free time. They experimented with different varieties – pale ales, stouts and IPAs – and fine-tuned each until they were happy with their creations. Before long, the two had friends and visitors begging for a taste of the beers they were cooking up. Within a few short years, Vyas and Chipman had perfected their signature recipe for a pale ale with a hint of mango, one of the local fruits grown on St. John. “We knew that we were filling a void in the beer market,” Chipman said, “island-style craft beer.” The fact that they could incorporate a native flavor made it even more exclusive to the island.
They had no bottling facility so they sterilized large, glass water bottles that they collected from restaurants and used them to house the variety of beers they were creating. As the demand for their beer outgrew their ability to produce locally, the two teamed up with a stateside production partner and decided to distribute their beer to the island restaurants and markets themselves.
The very first batch of more than 1,300 cases of Tropical Mango Pale Ale arrived on a 40-foot container from their stateside bottling partner. Chipman and Vyas boarded the car ferry from St. John to St. Thomas and loaded a half trailer load of the beer in a rented warehouse on St. Thomas, and the other half into a truck to store in their apartment on St. John.
Over the course of the next several months the days consisted of hand-delivering their signature beer to bars and restaurants using their 1989 Toyota pickup truck and running back to their bartending gigs at night. During what would be one of their last delivery runs, it began to rain and the roads became slick, and their truck slid backward down a hill. The two had to get out of the truck and unload 70 cases of beer into a neighbor’s driveway until the truck was light enough to make it up the hill, then they drove back and forth repeatedly to pick up the rest of the load.
Were they ready to quit? “No, we were ready to get a distribution company,” said Chipman. Their driving ethos seemed to be to enjoy life and have fun. “After delivery runs,” Vyas added, “we’d often head to the beach and jump in the ocean to remind ourselves of why we were working so hard.”
Presently after celebrating the 15-year anniversary of brewing that first batch of Tropical Mango Pale Ale, St. John Brewers have gone on to create and bottle several different styles of beer as well as a craft sodas and an energy drink. Their products are sold throughout the Virgin Islands. Additionally, Vyas and Chipman own and operate The Tap Room, the flagship brewpub of St. John Brewers located in the heart of Cruz Bay, St. John. Here all their styles of craft beer are brewed on-site and served to locals and tourists alike, and it is at The Tap Room where Kevin and Cheech can be found working on their next great brew.
What’s next for Vyas and Chipman? The two are excited to continue expanding their brand and bringing an “island escape in a bottle” (or on draft) to the next island-hoppers or stateside island-dreamers for years to come.
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