BEER CLINIC :: Winter Thoughts of Warmer Weather – Beers of the Islands

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on March 4, 2015

How to open a successful brewery:

imagesQuit your job in the States and move to paradise… live on a boat for a few months to save rent… bus tables to earn some cash… teach yourself how to brew beer…create a unique beer with an island character…invest your money in a brewery to make this unique beer…bottle and distribute locally…expand production to meet the growing demand…as demand increases, find a bottling and distribution partner in the US (Shipyard Brewing in Maine)… and the rest is history.

This is not your usual route to opening a brewery. The story is so unlikely that it has to be true. And this is exactly what happened to Chirag Vyas, from Providence RI, and Kevin Chipman, his former roommate at the University of Vermont. This is the story of St. John’s Brewery, in the USVI, which recently celebrated its 10th year.

Because the success of the brewery rested on the creation of a remarkable signature brew, Tropical Mango Pale Ale, I just had to find one to taste. I had the opportunity to do so on a recent trip to St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands. Although you can find this beer in a number of states in the US now, I would highly recommend a February trip to the islands.

Due to limitations in time and geography–St. John’s is an island, after all–I was not able to visit the brewery. Nonetheless, it was surprisingly easy to find St. John’s beers, since they are the only USVI brewery that distributes outside of their own brewpub, and almost every bar and restaurant has them on offer.

Bolongo Bay

Bolongo Bay

After settling in comfortably to our hotel room in Bolongo Bay (picture #1, the view from the room), I ambled over to the poolside bar and asked for the Tropical Mango Pale Ale.

St. John’s Tropical Mango Pale Ale, 4.5% ABV, was a very nice drink. Its color has been described as “golden tabby” and I would agree. This is not a fruity beer; it had none of the sugary flavor that you often get with fruit beers. The mango taste was subtle but apparent and there was a slight bitterness contributed by the fruit, so the low hop level was just right. Pix 2 Tropical Mango and Prime RibIt was an excellent session beer, and it ended up my go-to-beverage for most dinners. See me in the picture enjoying this with an island prime rib and US potatoes.

The other St. John’s beer that I tasted, Island Hoppin’ IPA, was a disappointment. Although it read like a typical US IPA, at 6.2% ABV and 53 IBU (Warrior, Cascade and Willamette hops), it was somewhat below average in flavor and appearance. It seemed as if the hops were somewhat washed out–perhaps the beer doesn’t travel well to and from Maine, where it is bottled? Or maybe the hops have to travel too far and to long to get to the island. I wouldn’t go out of my way to drink this beer, but there were few other IPA choices.

Next, I looked up other breweries in the US Virgin Islands. Though there are a few brewpubs, most do not distribute outside of their own restaurant or local area. I would have liked to visit Fort Christian Brewpub, on St. Croix, because brewmaster, Robert P Davis, is from Lewistown PA! However, St. Croix is yet another island, and geography intervenes.

The only brewery on St. Thomas is at the brewpub at the North Side Bistro. If you think that a classical French restaurant with a long wine list is an unlikely place for a brewpub, you would be correct. Apparently, though, the owner enjoyed home brewing and decided to make his wares available at the restaurant, where he brews in small, 5-gallon batches.

A Very Happy Beer Doc.

A Very Happy Beer Doc.

I immediately ordered the IPA, but unfortunately the tap had reached the bottom of the keg and there was not enough to taste. So I asked for my second choice, North Side Bistro’s Bourbon Infused Stout, which was a double stout, ABV about 9% (?), aged over bourbon oak chips. A dark beer seemed an unlikely choice to drink on a warm, balmy evening, overlooking the ocean, but this was a delightful drink. It was an almost perfect barley wine, high in alcohol, low in hops, with an excellent flavor from the bourbon that was not overly sweet, as you will find in many other bourbon stouts.

Since we are talking about islands, I’ll take the time to mention a few island beers that a friend brought me from Maui, Hawaii. The four beers, all in cans, from Maui Brewing Company. I was looking forward to trying them all, Briefly, in my order from best to worst:

Pix 4 Maui Beer

Lahaini Town Brown

IBU 20 with Cascade and Northern Brewer hops. 5.2%. Light crisp bitterness, almost nutty flavor. Very like an English Ale. I liked this one a lot, it’s a great session beer. But it’s in limited release, and you’d have to go to Hawaii to get it.   Definitely worth the trip.

Coconut Porter, ABV 6.0, IBU 30

The coconut flavor is not at all overpowering, it just adds a touch of interest to a porter background which is just about perfect. This one is a very good, easy drink, a bit more than a session beer but should go well with food, especially red meat and burgers. This one is available throughout the US, but if you have a chance to go to Hawaii to get it, why not?

Big Swell IPA, ABV 6.8, IBU 82.

Though this is Maui’s flagship beer, I was not impressed. It was neither big nor swell. I didn’t think the hops tasted right; perhaps it’s because they are in a can, but I have had much better IPAs. I wonder if they can get their hops fresh enough to taste good?

Bikini Blonde Lager, IBU 18, ABV 5.1%.

Very disappointing Helles Lager brewed with Pilsner and Munich malts. I am not a lager lover and I might have missed something. I expect a rich malt flavor and it was pretty bland.

In summary, from a very limited sample, tropical island beers can be very good, but not if you expect typical summer beers, with lots of sweet fruit taste, or hoppy IPAs. On the islands, most hoppy beers don’t taste right, possibly because hops don’t travel well; or maybe the brewermasters taste is dull from too much sun? Similarly, light malty beers don’t seem to come out as well as expected. On the other hand, I have tasted some of the best dark beers ever, and they go so well with suntans. You probably have many reasons to make a mid-winter journey to a tropical island, but if you need another excuse, I recommend beer-hunting. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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