This Brewery Helped Hurricane-Ravaged St. John Put Itself Back Together
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The restaurant where chef Patrick Allen works survived a devastating fire and two Category 5 hurricanes. On some days, when he arrives to cook up mahi mahi tacos for a mixed crowd of tourists and locals, he wears a T-shirt with a severe weather logo and the words: THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.
“It adds a little levity to the situation,” he says. Allen works at the Tap Room, a pub and brewery that’s now thriving on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a territory hard-hit by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. But if you want the whole story of the bar, you have to go back 15 years. It’s a tale best told over a beer—and one, like many tales about craft brewing, that starts in New England.
Tap Room owners Kevin Chipman and Chirag Vyas met as dormmates at the University of Vermont. After graduating in 1999, they headed to opposite coasts: Vyas took a position as a support scientist for NASA in Silicon Valley; Chipman found work in Boston as a physical therapist. “My warm shower was the best part of my day,” Chipman, now 41, recalls of life in Massachusetts. “It was dark when I left for work and dark when I got home.”
In 2001 he visited St. John, the smallest island in the U.S. Virgin Islands at less than 20 square miles. “I remember sitting at this bar and thinking, I could live here,” Chipman says. He persuaded a buddy to join him: Vyas, known to his friends as “Cheech.” They bought one-way tickets and arranged to live on a sailboat for $250 a month. “We thought, This will be cool! We’ll be partying on a boat in the Caribbean!” Vyas says.
The sailboat had no electricity, running water, or working bathroom. They worked as bartenders and busboys, storing dinner on a block of ice and eating by flashlight. They enjoyed their simple, sunny life but missed some aspects of their frosty college days, most notably the craft beer. They ordered a $50 brewing kit and spent two years playing with recipes and giving away samples. When their tangy mango ale developed a following, the two found a bottling partner, Shipyard Brewing Co. in Maine.
“It’s a flavor combination that had never been done before with beer on a production level,” Chipman says. “It’s Caribbean meets craft.” The partners pooled their savings, secured small loans from friends and family—in the $500 to $5,000 range—and started St. John Brewers in 2004. They were 27.
During the day, they delivered their product to local bars and restaurants in their 1989 Toyota pickup, working the bars at night. In 2006 they opened their own watering hole, the Tap Room, in St. John’s main port, Cruz Bay. The menu reads like the fever dream of a Jimmy Buffett fan ordering his last meal on Earth: jalapeño poppers with pineapple cream cheese, a pulled pork sandwich with mango BBQ sauce, and, of course, beer cheese.
The Virgin Islands is haunted by the ghosts of failed restaurants, brought to you by stateside interlopers trying to sell a cheeseburger in paradise. But the Tap Room developed a solid following among tourists and locals. St. John Brewers has created 8 bottled and 18 draught beers; they play with local flavors such as starfruit and have convivial names like Pale Tourist pale ale and Island Hoppin’ IPA. Vyas and Chipman have turned down distribution companies urging them to expand or sell. “We never looked at St. John Brewers as a short-term business with a buyout strategy,” Chipman says.
In 2015, at 38, Vyas was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a degenerative corroding of the bones, which required an arduous double hip replacement and prolonged recovery. That same year the business next door caught fire and incinerated the Tap Room. Only the kitchen and office survived. They relocated the bar into the office space and spent the next two years rebuilding.
Just as renovations were winding down, the island began buzzing about Hurricane Irma barreling toward it. St. John hadn’t seen a storm anywhere near that size since Category 3 Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
Vyas and Chipman, along with bar manager Nick Rinaldi, operations manager Tim Hanley, and Vyas’s wife, sandbagged the bar. The group rode out the storm’s 185-mph winds—with gusts as high as 225 mph—in a concrete seaside condo with two hairless cats, Freddy and Frankie. “We made dams with sheets and towels and just bailed water for hours,” Rinaldi says.
The group ventured out at dawn. The once-lush island was startlingly brown, as though it had been set aflame. Utility poles slumped into the streets, dangling from their powerlines like marionettes. Sailboats lay in repose on the beach. There was a school in the road.
Knowing there would be no means to communicate, the staff had pledged to meet at the Tap Room after the storm. Word spread by the “coconut telegraph,” as islanders call it, and what was supposed to be a staff meeting of 15 turned into a community gathering of 100 people searching for friends and information.
“Normally you ask people, ‘How are you doing?’ ” says Hanley, the operations manager. “Instead the question was, ‘Do you have a roof?’ ”
The bar staff handed out cold brews when things wrapped up. “It was so hot out,” Vyas says. “It seemed like everyone could use a cold beer.”
Two weeks later, Category 5 Hurricane Maria dumped an additional 35 inches of rain on the island. The Tap Room, tucked in a stone-and-mahogany shopping complex, escaped with mostly water damage. Vyas maintained a positive outlook. “We’d already been through a fire,” he says. “So when the hurricanes happened, we said, ‘We’ll clean it up and move on.’ ”
When they weren’t working on the bar, the owners were helping others clear out homes and driveways. Because the Tap Room couldn’t open, they decided to give back what they could: cold beer. Every Friday for four weeks, St. John Brewers gave away its arsenal of 2,400 surplus bottles. “Why let it sit there when people could be enjoying it?” Chipman says.
Ryan West, administrator for the Love City Strong foundation, found out at the ferry dock, where he and his crew had just dispatched a group of evacuees, about Free Beer Fridays. (The nonprofit was created after the storms to assist in recovery and has received support from Bloomberg Philanthropies.)
“We were standing out in the sun, and everyone was emotionally fragile,” Ryan recalls. “Someone said, ‘The Tap Room is giving away free beer!’ ” The group shot for the bar. “You got to feel normal for a few moments. Not think about the people that left the island that day that you might never see again, or the tough decisions.”
Over at the Cruz Bay Landing restaurant, owner Todd Beaty and his staff were serving up 1,000 free meals a day with the support of the Red Cross. They looked forward to Free Beer Friday all week. “We’d go racing down there,” Beaty says. “Just to be able to have a cold beer and talk to everyone. It was absolutely precious to us.”
Crowds swelled to 200 people. One Friday a DJ arrived packing his own generator. Someone brought bongos. “Then it started to rain, and people just danced in the middle of it,” Vyas says. “No one talked about the storm,” says Allen, the Tap Room chef. “It was almost like being at a normal happy hour.”
It took two months to restore power to Cruz Bay and six to get the whole island running. The Tap Room resumed business in November 2017, still operating out of the converted office. This summer—three-and-a-half years after the fire—the Tap Room 2.0 was finally unveiled.
The brewpub that started with just four taps in 2006 now has 24. The space is four times larger, with seating for 120 people, and a second floor with a cathedral ceiling. Production has increased from 5 kegs a week to 20. It’s one of the only restaurants on St. John with air-conditioning. There’s a beautiful stretch of mahogany below the new bar counter: some of the wood Chipman and Vyas salvaged from the old Tap Room after the fire.
“It feels very well-deserved,” says West, the nonprofit administrator, of the airy new digs. “Tap Room stepped up and threw morale-boosting parties once a week. They weren’t looking for praise and didn’t make money.” He adds: “People don’t forget that kind of thing.”
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