Last Friday, I was at Cruz Bay Landing having dinner and I ran into Kevin Chipman, co-owner and founder of St. John Brewers…Love City’s only brewery. He was wearing a backpack and a mask and pounding the pavement in promotion of the company’s latest creation; Love City Hard Seltzer. Kevin asked me to come by and pick up one of their mixed 12-packs to sample before coming in to chat with he and STJ Brewers co-founder, Chirag “Cheech” Vyas, about the product that is proving to be the dynamic duo’s silver lining of 2020.
Since the pandemic hit, I have watched with pride as many Love City locals, business owners and residents, once again, proved resilient. Although severe economic impact swept St. John like a dark cloud, I watched as many people changed their focus, tried something new or made a great use of their time to produce a new venture that would further sustain them in the event of ANOTHER bump in the road. On February 1, St. John’s beloved brewers launched their new Love City Hard Seltzer that would broaden their market and give seltzer lovers, like myself, another way to shop local.
If you have been on island over the last few weeks, you may have seen a new and beautifully packaged product lining the the coolers of your favorite dives, on display at the grocery and in the hands of beach goers. The Love City Hard Seltzer is making waves, exclusively in the USVI for now, and Kevin and Cheech were kind enough to sit down with me this week to give me a little bit of the back story and their time spent in quarantine.
The duo started the creative process for this handcrafted seltzer made with cane sugar and natural fruit flavors in 2019. In 2020, they were able to make use of their downtime and execute an amazing product with the STJ Brewers’ stamp of quality. The brewing process, they explained, is NOT like the DIY seltzer videos you see on YouTube (ha!).
“It took us months to really get it dialed into where we could be really proud bringing a product to the market,” said Kevin.
The process began with the base seltzer product: What would they use to maximize clarity and brightness and minimize calories and carbs? This was a very different process than they had utilized in their 15 years of brewing craft beers on St. John. With beer, you utilize the yeast, hops, grain and water to DEVELOP flavor. With the seltzer process, they were trying decrease the amount of flavor in the base.
“In terms of brewing, we know the technical aspects from doing it for so long, ” said Cheech. “The complexity of an IPA with all of the hops and grains…” he trailed off.
“This is sort of the opposite where you try to get a cleaner, clearer finish. The end product is clear, but it’s pretty technical to get there. It’s been kind of fun to explore the brewing process we have done but kind of go the other direction.”
The end result of the seltzer base is a bright, crisp and gluten free hard seltzer made with pure cane sugar and packing only 98 calories per 12 ounce can. Now that they had their product, the decision of what flavors to use was next on the pandemic to-do list. And that wasn’t an easy process either.
They wanted to use the tropical island fruits that they were used to and have utilized in their beers in the past. But adding actual fruit into the mix would diminish the clarity that they had worked so hard to produce. So they settled on natural flavors derived from the oils and skin of the fruits that they, and their consumer base, relate to.
“We have used a lot of fruits over the years in our beer,” said Cheech. “We knew what flavors we liked. It was just a matter of getting there.”
And the beauty of brewing seltzer versus beer is that you add your flavors after. So, Kevin and Cheech spent hours each night micro dosing small batches of their newest product and testing out the flavors on staff and the few bar customers they were able to serve with limited capacity. After months of tedious tasting and note taking, they had decided on eight flavors and called in a focus panel of seltzer connoisseurs referred to them by other restaurant workers. They tasted 10-12 community members in two of these “meetings” who were meticulous with their note taking and scoring the flavors presented to them. Mango Mandarin, Coconut, Hibiscus Pomegranate, Blueberry, Black Cherry, Passion Fruit and Watermelon Dragon Fruit were all on the panel. And only four made the cut to packaging.
I specifically asked about the Coconut and how it fared in their process. I have had it on tap in the brewery and it is DELICIOUS.
“Coconut is too polarizing- you love it or you hate it,” Kevin explained.
They wanted their product to appeal to the masses. And didn’t want that one flavor to deter someone from buying the mixed 12-pack or for that one can to always be the last one left in the cooler!
The winners were Mango Mandarin, Hibiscus Pomegranate, Passion Fruit and Watermelon Dragon Fruit. And I can tell you, the hard work paid off and they are all delicious. But, don’t worry, they assured me that the flavors that didn’t make the cut would be on the rotating tap handles at the Brewery as well as some new flavors on the horizon.
The duo worked closely with one of Kevin’s childhood friends who owns a small design firm in the states with her partner. The two pairs of small business owners worked together for over a year to develop the packaging and marketing materials for the new product. The name, however, took very little time, thought or market testing. Love City Hard Seltzer was a no-brainer.
“Because we are St. John Brewers, we’ve always wanted to incorporate ‘Love City’ into our business somehow,” Kevin thoughtfully said. “It’s such a tip of the cap to St. John…For that nickname. For the wonderful people. For the beauty. We were doing this in the midst of 2020 and it was a very positive message and packaging that we were working with. It kind of helped us look beyond and into 2021.”
And that positive message will continue with this delicious product. Cheech and Kevin have been doing most of their sales door to door on St. John and St. Thomas with the help of Bellows International as their distributor. And, in the true spirit of Love City, the community has supported them and the little brewers that could haven’t gotten “No” as a response to their efforts. Trust me when I say, you won’t have a problem finding Love City Hard Seltzer when you are on island next!