Kevin Chipman ’99 Chirag ‘Cheech’ Vyas’ ’99
- By Jon Reidel
Departments / Alumni Profiles
When Kevin Chipman ’99 and Chirag ‘Cheech’ Vyas ’99 put out a call to their old friends from Tupper Hall and Buell Street to see if they’d be interested in quitting their jobs and moving to the Caribbean, they didn’t get many takers. Undeterred, Chipman left his job as a physical therapist in Boston, and Vyas resigned his position as a scientist for NASA in California.
Within a few months they were living on a sailboat they rented for $250 in the U.S. Virgin Islands and working as bus boys and bartenders. “We were at a point early in our careers where if we were going to make a move this was the time to do it,” says Chipman. “It was supposed to be for six to eight months, but fortunately it didn’t turn out that way.”
The longtime friends quickly assimilated to the slower pace of island life on St. John, but not for long. Fueled by a longing for some of the full-flavored beers they enjoyed at bars and restaurants in Burlington, the college roomies ordered a beer-making kit for $50 online at the island library. It took two years of tinkering in their apartment before they created Virgin Islands Tropical Mango and eventually Virgin Islands Summer Ale.
“To have a locally created beer is something we thought would go over well,” says Vyas.
And it did among their friends, but getting the full-flavored, not-too-heavy brews in restaurants, bars, and resorts proved challenging. The two initially sterilized large, glass bottles, filled them with their brews, and packed them in blank six packs and cardboard cases. Demand quickly overtook their local production so they acquired a bottling partner and were on their way to supplying the Virgin Islands with their beer. They still hadn’t teamed up with a distribution company so the two spent many nights (and mornings) after tending bar delivering beer in their ’89 Toyota pickup.
Eventually, as some revenue started flowing as their brew became a local staple, Chipman and Vyas hired a distributor, built their brew pub called The Tap Room, and expanded their selections to root beer, ginger beer, and an energy drink they concocted called Green Flash. The Tap Room, located in Cruz Bay on St. John, is also home to their island microbrewery, St. John Brewers. They boast the largest selection of microbrewed beers in the Caribbean.
The Tap Room features a UVM banner that never fails to generate a conversation with vacationing alumni (this reporter included). “We don’t have a lot of decorations, but we take pride in that banner,” says Vyas. “You’d be surprised how many UVM grads stop in here. They end up spreading the word when they go back to the states.”
Those alums have been the key to Chipman and Vyas’s expansion into the United States. They recently had a launch in Boston that drew about three hundred guests, the majority of them alumni. Their beer is now sold in selected bars, restaurants, and stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Florida, Nebraska, and they’re hoping to push farther north into Vermont in the near future. The first chance for some alums to sample the beer could be this summer at UVM’s annual Reunion Weekend, June 4-7, where Chipman and Vyas will celebrate their tenth reunion.
“Our UVM network of friends and the overall UVM community have been very supportive,” says Vyas. “We’d love to have a presence in Vermont. Right now the business is paying the bills. It would be nice to make more money, but we’re a start-up and have to make a little more of a personal sacrifice, which we don’t mind doing at all. It’s been a tremendous learning experience and has allowed us to explore new things and think outside the box. That’s why we came here and hope to continue to grow.”
More information: stjohnbrewers.com
Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue.