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Caribbean connection: Auburn native launches hard seltzer at his Virgin Islands brewery
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Caribbean connection: Auburn native launches hard seltzer at his Virgin Islands brewery

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

In 2001, Kevin Chipman moved to the Virgin Islands in search of something new.

Now, 20 years later, the 44-year-old Auburn native is the co-owner of St. John Brewers, one of the first breweries on the Caribbean archipelago. Located on the titular U.S. territory, the brewery expanded this month into hard seltzer with the launch of its own line, Love City. And helping Chipman and St. John with the launch were some creative minds in his own hometown 1,800 miles away.

Chipman told The Citizen Monday that he had been working as a physical therapist in Boston for two years before he decided to make the move. A soccer player at Auburn High School, he entered the field because he came to appreciate it through his own injury history. But he wasn't happy with the work, and wanted a break — as did Chirag Vyas, Chipman's roommate at the University of Vermont.

The two quit their jobs and bought one-way tickets to the Virgin Islands. After busing tables, and sleeping on an old sailboat with no electricity, they became bartenders. But having gone to college in the craft beer hotbed that is Vermont, Chipman and Vyas came to lament the lack of selection they had in their new surroundings. So they went to a public library and looked up how to brew.

"It was just Heineken, Coors, Amstel, Corona," Chipman said. "So the brewery came out of our own desire to drink different kinds of beer that weren't available." 

St. John Brewers opened in 2004, and remains the only brewery on the 20-square-mile island. The location comes with limitations. Chipman and Vyas can't source grain or hops from the island, so the ingredients have to be shipped there — and at great cost due to the logistics. They also had to partner with a stateside bottler, and for awhile, they personally delivered their beer in a 1989 Toyota pickup.

In spite of the challenges, though, Chipman and Vyas built a following. Today, St. John Brewers employs about 20 people at its brewery and tap room, and produces about 3,500 barrels of beer a year. 

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The Auburn native attributes that to his and Vyas's focus on what they call "island-style craft beer," the best example of which may be their first signature flavor, Tropical Mango Pale Ale. They also endeared themselves to the St. John community after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, handing out thousands of free beers to dispirited residents every Friday for four weeks. 

In 2020, Chipman and Vyas decided to try hard seltzer "just to see if we could," Chipman said. The increasingly popular beverage also plays well in the tropical climate due to its light, fruit-forward taste. Experimentation and flavor panels led to four flavors — Watermelon Dragonfruit, Mango Mandarin, Hibiscus Pomegranate and Passionfruit — and the line took its name from St. John's nickname.

Meanwhile, on one of his regular trips back to Auburn, Chipman reconnected with Maggie Susman, a fellow area native who also attended the University of Vermont. After learning that she had started marketing agency Three Needs Creative with partner Karen Morrissey Bedard, Chipman asked her to help refresh the St. John Brewers brand — and, eventually, launch Love City Hard Seltzer.

Susman told The Citizen that Three Needs, as it does with many clients, helped St. John Brewers identify what sets it apart in the eyes of consumers. From there, the agency worked with the brewery on details like color selection and the voice it uses on its menu, website and more. As Love City became ready for its launch, Three Needs helped St. John create the logo, can design and packaging.

Chipman said the agency went out of its way to understand the brewery and make sure that all of its suggestions added up to one cohesive brand.

"They understand our brand, our mission and what we're trying to achieve," Chipman said. "They've been absolutely fantastic."

Love City Hard Seltzer is available exclusively in the Virgin Islands, Chipman said. But he hopes one day he'll be able to share the beverage, and the others he makes at St. John, with his hometown.

"Good beers were always around me up there," he said. "It wasn't until I moved somewhere that they weren't that I had to become resourceful and make my own."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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