Ten years ago, two guys from the mainland USA quit their real world jobs to pursue full-time careers as professional beach bums. They moved to St John, lived on a busted boat and ditched their dependencies on silly things like electricity and running water.
They worked odd jobs and lived day-to-day under the beautiful blue skies and on the soft sands of the Virgin Islands. It’s a timeless tale of the likes that many visitors envy and many VI residents share. But when Chirag “Cheech” Vyas and Kevin Chipman set out to make the Virgin Islands’ best-brewed micro beer, their story would change everything—for beer-loving locals, at least.
Virgin Island Brewers owners Chirag "Cheech" Vyas (left) and Kevin Chipman pour a couple frosty ones at their Tap Room bar and restaurant in St John. All Photos by Dan O'Connor
Before moving to St John, Cheech worked as a scientist for NASA in California; his close college buddy Kevin was a practicing physical therapist in Boston. Life was good, they said, but the beach life beckoned. Soon after hatching a plan to pursue a dream life in the tropics, the two found themselves entrenched in the island life of St John. Love City was welcoming, and life was simple and fun, they both agreed. They found jobs bussing tables for $40 a night, and eventually worked their way up to decent paying bartending gigs.
“So, the goal was: bartend for six months, then head back,” Kevin said. “But we’re still here.”
Still here, perhaps, because of a pursuit to bring good beer to an island otherwise lacking a varied selection. One can only drink so many Caribs, painkillers and bushwackers. One day, they hit the local library to use the internet and search out home brew kits. A few clicks later, they stumbled upon a $50 starter kit and made a fateful purchase. “No way back then did we think we’d be doing this ten year later,” Cheech said, as he sat outside his and Kevin’s Tap Room bar and restaurant in the Mongoose Junction outside Cruz Bay. The Tap Room, which offers their brews and sodas on draft, was launched in 2006 “out of necessity” to reach a larger audience.
Kevin chills out in the spacious walk-in cooler.
Several years would pass until their simple beer batches would turn their alcohol-infused science projects into a full-blown business venture. They hit the mark in 2005 when they experimented with a mango-infused batch that caught on across the community. It eventually became their first bottled beer and the first to wear the colourful St John Brewers label. As demand for their unique beer grew, Cheech and Kevin eventually made the ambitious investment in 1,400 cases of their tropical mango pale ale.
“We were like, ‘Okay, either we’re going to sell this or we’re going to drink a lot of beer ourselves,’” Kevin said. “And, fortunately, just because of how supportive St John is, people were ordering ten cases at a time.”
They lugged the beers around St John in their 1989 pickup truck, and eventually made it into ten locations in St Thomas. Today, St John Brewers’ beers and sodas are stocked in bars and stores across the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and in seven states.
Today, St John Brewers distribute four brews: Island Hoppin’ IPA, Island Summer Ale, Liquid Sunshine spiced wheat ale, and their still ever-popular Tropical Mango pale ale. They also sell their tangy Green Flash energy drink, a root beer and a lemonade.
“We’re definitely growing,” Kevin said. “There’s a challenge of living in the Virgin Islands, just because of the nature of the location and our lack of general resources. … For a new, growing company, there are plenty of challenges, but we’re good at finding clever ways to work around them.”
There's no drought of draft beer in St John.