The town’s fate balances on concerns of financial solvency and social pride. As a seasonal, tourist economy faces threats from slowly eroding barrier island beaches, the locals double down on the “salt life” lifestyle, their roots deep and strong in the island’s tradition.
Most know this Virginia town of less than 3,000 for its wild ponies. Marguerite Henry penned the American classic Misty of Chincoteague in a tiny bed and breakfast on the even tinier main street. While commercialization has literally set up shop in a few garish Sunsations chain stores, the sandy soil makes sewer engineering a challenge, leaving the skyline Lilliputian. The median age on the island is 46, eleven years older than the state’s median of 35.
It hardly seems like the place for a brewery.
Lanky, bearded, and behatted, Josh Chapman stands in front of an old oyster shucking house. It’s August of 2017, and both brewer and writer are coated in a thin veneer of sweat. The remains of Little Bay Seafood Company—all white and stinking of salt—chill at the back of a crushed shell parking lot. The paint peels. The mosquitoes bite. It doesn’t look like much, if we’re being honest.
“Welcome!” Chapman says with appropriate gusto. He gives me a hug. His hat boasts his new logo, a simple but clean line drawing of the old bridge into town. “You wanna see inside?”
We climb some old wooden steps next to a row of massive weeds that form a wall between his property and the next. The room at the top proves almost claustrophobic. Very low ceilings sandwich very old concrete. The smell of long-gone seafood somehow still lingers, and there’s a heavy mustiness that always seems to accompany humidity-wracked buildings on the shore.
“The brewhouse will go here,” he says, pointing to a corner of the room. “We’re going to move the old Little Bay sign inside, to keep some of the history.” It’s hard to imagine many people working in this room simultaneously. Fortunately for Chapman, he’s only got a staff of five, with himself and his father-in-law taking care of brewing operations.
Walking this odd little space, room by room, Chapman’s vision unfolds. He explains that the existing concrete is solid and pocked with proper drains. The foundation has been checked by the state inspectors, and should bear the weight. There’s tight-but-ample parking, and plenty of room to build two bars and outdoor, raised-deck seating. Standing there with him, in a building most passersby would generously call “derelict,” he fairly beams with zeal.
“We’re going to be the first brewery on Virginia’s Eastern shore,” Chapman notes.
“That’s pretty amazing. When do you think you’ll open?” I ask.
“Soon,” he says. “Hopefully by the summer.”
Chapman smiles with his whole body. His impish charm is nearly pathogenic, making it impossible to be around the dude without being excited about whatever he’s excited about. “Josh is the kind of guy who will sing at you,” his former boss, Greg Engert of Washington DC’s Bluejacket, says. “He’s like one of those summer camp Christians.”
There’s an enviable quality to Chapman’s vision. Perfunctorily challenged, he doesn’t seem to see naked two-by-fours and weed-filled lots. Instead, his eyes focus solely on beautiful tomorrows.
Black Narrows Brewing Company represents far more than just the culmination of the dreams of Josh, his wife Jenna, his father-in-law Bob, his mother-in-law Wendy, and his sister-in-law Katie. As the beer industry heaves and shudders under the unshakeable heft of its own weight, forcing revaluations of distributorships and expansion plans, it’s the small, truly-local breweries that are looking more and more like the smart-money move. The term “hyper local” crops up a lot, but something like “community brewer” seems more apt—at least for Chapman’s endeavor.
Where a larger regional brewery can face supply chain limitations, a tiny brewery can make bold, impactful choices. Black Narrows’ brewhouse is a curiously engineered 5-BBL system from Colorado Brewing Systems, and they only plan to brew 400 BBLs in their first year. (For comparison, Sierra Nevada brews ~1.25 million BBLs per year.)
But tiny also means agile. Chapman isn’t tied to a single maltster, for example, and the need for small quantities of ingredients means he can source everything—from malt to hops to bloody butcher corn—locally from Virginian farms and growers.
It’s almost too easy for beer industry folks to see Chapman, the brewer, and the one with all the industry experience, as the defacto leader of the brewery. But Black Narrows is a fundamentally a family affair. Jenna, Chapman’s wife and mother to his two little girls, is the brain behind their grassroots, homegrown marketing and social media. She effortlessly creates a sense of place with her photos and posts, as part of what Chapman calls “a persona for the brewery.” It feels very anthropomorphic, the space almost animated, brought to figurative life through evocative imagery and thoughtful prose.
Bob Huntley, a soft-spoken, incredibly warm soul, is the financial muscle behind the project. It was the ~$200,000 in his 401k, built from years working for IT consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, that acted as the seed money to qualify for an SBA loan through the ROBS (Rollover Business Startup) program. Typically designed for franchises, ROBS requires relatively substantial capital investiture and business plan proof, especially for a startup brewery. Especially a startup brewery on a tiny island with a seasonal tourist economy. Especially a startup brewery on a tiny island with a seasonal tourist economy that plans to donate 10% of its profits to charity.
But the Chapmans still decided to forge ahead—despite the risk of the loan and an unproven business model—and with lofty goals. “This is really about the dreams of Josh and Jenna,” Bob says. “Josh was working as a chef at the time, and they talked about opening a nanobrewery and deli in Alexandria. I knew we could support them, so after several times sitting down as a family, and vowing to never let business negatively affect our relationships, we decided to do it.”
Staking one’s retirement on an unproven model, even one founded in a booming industry, is never an easy decision. “We all know this could fail,” Bob says. “The whole small business move is tricky. I ask myself if the taproom is enough to pay our employees a good wage and for Josh and Jenna to thrive. I’m optimistic, but I’m still working until things settle out.”
The smaller a town gets, the more reputation matters. After spending some time on the island, one discovers an informal social caste. The legacy families and multi-generational locals treat transplants with a certain disdain, fearing the influence of urban elites and their influential money. The island’s vernacular even has terms for what kind of person you are: native-born folks are simply “teaguers” while people who move to the island are “come-heres.” The hierarchy holds firm, and even some families who raised their children on the island are still considered outsiders to those fiercely clinging to the town’s history.
“It’s a territorial issue,” says Rosie Moot, owner of Pico Tacqueria, a small restaurant on Maddox Boulevard, barely two beachtown blocks from the brewery, that serves modern, street-style tacos. Moot’s restaurant is a perfect example of the kind of small business the island needs to stay relevant: fresh, local, appeals to a younger generation. “The biggest fear is commercialization,” she adds, “people don’t want to see the charm of this place ruined by turning it into [nearby Maryland tourist destination] Ocean City.”
Ocean City—which is only 50 miles north of Chincoteague—takes all the stereotypes of a beach vacation town and rolls them up into one greasy, bronzer-stained towel. It’s overcrowded and gaudy and loud. It’s “relaxation” weaponized.
Chincoteague, conversely, is a peaceful respite. Or at least it was.
Like conquering Vikings, big money from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and DC has staked large claims on the island’s limited land and resources. Where the family-run R&R Marina used to welcome arriving water craft now stands a cookie-cutter Comfort Inn and Suites. Several large complexes of modern condos grimace over an antiquated waterfront. Many fear that overdevelopment will wash away the quirks and history that has made the island such a draw for tourists over the past decades.
Of course, not all change has to be bad.
“The people here are the reason I’ve stayed—and why I fell in love with the place,” says Kellen Williams, Farm Manager for Seaside Farms. Chapman calls him his “Saltwater Sherpa,” as Williams’ understanding of aquaculture and the marshy lands of the Eastern shore has informed Chapman’s approach to the beers he’ll brew and ingredients he’ll use at Black Narrows. “It’s an exciting time. ‘Teaguers get this reputation for being insular. But they’ve really welcomed this new guard of entrepreneurs who want to take the eastern shore and make it different.”
The Chapman family gets it, “it" being the proverbial reason to open a brewery in a remote, underserved location. From the beginning, Chapman committed to integrating himself, his family, and his business into the local community. Jenna, a Navy brat originally from Minnesota, and Chapman, originally from Northern Virginia, had fallen in love with Chincoteague years prior, and when thinking about where to start his own brewery, it only made sense to go back to the “pretty land across the water.”
Instead of opening a brewery that checks all the IPA-shaped boxes on a contemporary beer business plan, the Chapmans decided to take a personal approach. While Chapman can definitely brew beer (the eclectic spread of tasty selections at BlueJacket are proof enough of that), in an odd twist, the family’s focus for getting started wasn’t on beer. It was on people.
In our first few conversations, Chapman had vague plans for what styles of beer he would brew, but didn’t even have concrete names. He could, however, without hesitation, tell you intricate details of all the people and businesses he’d be working with to source ingredients, and how their relationship formed a symbiotic cycle of local agrarian efficiency. While it might seem a bit counterintuitive to the average drinker to put the beer a brewery is producing second, it made perfect sense for the island, and the local community the Chapmans plans to serve.
The brewery will directly give back to a world that’s treated them well. They plan to donate 5% of gross beer sales on margins already precariously thin for the startup year of a new business to different causes. Called “One Local, One Global” (in the vein of the idiom Think Globally, Act Locally), another 5% goes to a global cancer prevention and treatment cause. That’s 10% of gross beer sales going directly to charity. Major corporations flush with loose cash don’t make commitments like this, and it sets into unassailable concrete how serious, important, and fundamental the Chapmans’ reciprocal ethos is to their business.
“I kept thinking in a single industry—if I open a brewery on the shore, then other people can open breweries on the shore,” he explains. “But hopefully Black Narrows can stimulate other industries, too, like our farmers and local restaurants. I didn’t expect to see the indirect economic effect of opening a small business, at least not this early.”
“The people of the island have rallied around it,” Seaside Farms’ Williams adds. He’s happy that Chapman didn’t try to force a wealthy, urban culture into a rustic, rural role. “Josh isn’t just doing it for himself, not just for the beer. The people here know the Chapmans love the land and the island and are committed to it. Where he could have turned Black Narrows into a typical craft brewery that caters to established craft beer drinkers and demographics, he’s turning it into a community effort, when he didn’t even need to. That speaks volumes to his character and goals.”
The beer itself follows Chapman’s philosophy like an eager little duckling. Their Tart Oyster Wheat (the only one currently with a name: Salts) uses both local Atlantic oysters and Virginian wheat. The brewery’s very first commercially available beer (that launched at Right Proper Brewing in Washington DC last year) was named In a Common Sea, and contained sea lettuce, a blend of Right Proper’s house yeast, and a strain Chapman isolated from a live oyster. The beer was meant to demonstrate a “community of brewers being able to come together to collaborate,” something Black Narrows will continue to expound upon as much as their success will let them. Every beer to date has used ingredients from other local small businesses.
Thin shards of May sun cut into the Chapmans’ kitchen. Josh leans casually against the countertop while Jenna sits at the table. Two rabbits hop about in the adjacent sunroom while his daughter watches TV on a couch near the front door. He pours a tulip of a curiously pink beer and slides it across the table.
“This is the tart oyster wheat, but with crimson clover added in,” he says.
I take a sip.
“What do you think?” Jenna asks.
The base beer feels wild yet cleverly restrained by the malt, producing powerful yeast character with delicate sour notes. The crimson clover gives the beer its color while also adding a subtle strawberry flavor that works in concert with the tartness.
“It’s good,” I say, followed by a clumsy attempt to describe my sensory experience.
Jenna smiles. She tells me a story of walking by the fields of crimson clover as her daughter played in the spiky red flowers, asking Josh if there was anything he could brew with it. The clover is normally used as a cover crop or nitrogen booster for full-season crops, but as he does, Chapman designed a brewing application for something that’s normally just egalitarian.
On top of the community-oriented approach to running a business, Chapman is tying Black Narrows to the land. While he plans to keep base recipes the same, many of his beers will fluctuate and evolve, as new ingredients become available at the nearby farms. “Just like the seasons, the beers will change,” he says, clearly excited at his own personal reinvention of the “seasonal beer release.”
With a background in culinary work, Chapman learned how to forage with trained chefs who wanted fresh-but-unusual ingredients for their dishes. He’s a student of herbalism and horticulture, always looking to pull out the best elements of what he has available to him, especially if the ingredient proves naturally sustainable. He hints at a hop-forward beer that uses loblolly pine needles, and the salty base for a gose coming from recycled oyster brine. If those beers were described to me in abstract, I’d be skeptical. But having just tasted this crimson concoction, I’m intrigued. The tap lineup at Black Narrows promises to be both a journey in unexpected flavors and a total headache for the TTB and FDA.
As I sip the beer again, I get excited about tasting the final product.
“When do you think you’ll open?” I ask.
“Soon,” Jenna says, “hopefully in the next few months.”
The wild flora of the eastern shore is diverse and abundant, but the consistent rains and mineral-heavy soil make more organized agriculture a breeze, too. Historically, the marshy swamps of Accomack County are a hub for blueberries. Now, driving down Route 13, visitors can see a shotgun pattern of crops: corn, spinach, soybeans, tomatoes, and green beans, to name a few. A little further down the road from the turnoff for Chincoteague, a new crop climbs its way up the acreage list.
The wonderfully named Dixon Leatherbury owns Seaside Hops, a three-acre plot that grows an abundance of varieties for such a small, niche location. And he’s eager to talk about Chapman and Black Narrows, his mellow accent a half mix of sorts between British and Southern, telling me all about why he got into growing hops in the first place.
“It was a moment of weakness,” he says, laughing at his own joke. “I was in the farm equipment business, but was also farming. I thought about growing some barley and doing malting, but I talked to a brewer who said, ‘We’d really love some Virginia-grown hops.’”
And so he grew them. He began with Cascade, Chinook, and Newport on three-fourths of an acre, and now grows a dozen other varieties that go to local Virginia breweries like RipRap Brewing, Alewerks, and Black Narrows, of course. But it’s not only the hops—and their prospective sale—that get Leatherbury excited.
“A small business enhances the tourism and local life,” he elaborates. Economic survivability is rough in a lot of small towns, Leatherbury explains, “here in North Hampton we’re below critical population mass for, say, a CVS pharmacy. We need small businesses to bring people here, and get some money back into the local community.”
He’s shore-born-and-raised, and remembers a time when a brewery moving into town might have been considered a bad thing. “Unlike a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, when a brewery had some negative connotations, maybe based on your religious convictions, they no longer do,” he says. “I think having the brewery on the island is great. The taproom is like a subculture hub these days.”
Chincoteague Bay masquerades as a mirror as we drive down the causeway. Completely frozen over by the relentless coldsnap that blanketed the Eastern seaboard, it’s hard to tell where town stops and water begins.
After postponing the official launch of the brewery several times because of the typical construction, equipment, and permitting issues that plague so many small business startups, the Chapmans are at least able to say that they opened in the dwindling hours of 2017.
Breath condensates in the frigid air as a dozen or so locals wait for the doors to open. Where the rickety stairs leading up into the shucking house had rested against the building, a brand new raised deck allows people to congregate near the entrance. An entirely new building, jutting out perpendicular to the original structure, throws warm light across the deck. Behind us, a giant version of the brewery logo—halo lit with soft white halogen—acts as a lighthouse to guide thirsty passersby.
The warmth of the interior is welcoming because of the cold, but it’s more than the temperature that delights in this cozy space. Jenna has set up a nook with a toy kitchen for kids to play, mounted local food and culture magazines on the wall, and reused legitimately aged German biergarten tables as the primary seating. The space is small, but packed with detail: the tap handles were carved from driftwood by a local artisan, the names of the beers all harken to some esoteric Chincoteaguian turn of phrase or location, and even the labels on the crowlers are beautifully rendered illustration by an East Coast artist.
Chapman and Katie stand behind the bar, while Bob runs tours of the two-room, elegantly organized brewhouse. Wendy watches the little girls, as a large, orderly line forms for ordering beer. It’s a full house with more than 60 people, many of whom do not typically venture outside of the walls of the Megabrew kingdom.
“How’s the beer?” I ask a group sitting at one of the tables.
“This Chicken City is great,” replies an older gentleman from underneath his Tyson Chicken Farms hat. Another notes he doesn’t care for the Picked and Preserved sour Golden Ale, but loves the Cockle Creek Scottish Ale. Everyone seems in an adventurous mood, and it’s likely the Chapmans had poured the first sour and funky beers some of these people have ever tasted.
As the line calms down and everyone sits chatting, Chapman pulls up a Tupperware bin, stands on top of it, and asks for the attention of the room. He’s tall anyway, but up on top of that box, on the day his business finally opened, with his family all around him, he looks like a giant.
“I wanted to thank you all for coming,” he begins. “We’re so very excited to be here, and so very honored that you all were willing to come and try our beer.” He takes a minute to thank his family directly, say a few words about the mission of the brewery, and about the beer.
“I truly couldn’t have done this without all of you.”
There’s a certain brewer-ecumenical, emotional, and financial leap of faith that needs to happen for a family to put their futures into one of those many spaces the Brewers Association likes to flaunt in their yearly statistical round ups. Eventually, logic and economics dictate some people have to lose this gamble, and at some point, America’s beer consumption has to reach a point of diminishing returns.
In that wake, the aspects that will keep a brewing company alive will have a lot less to do with beer, and a lot more to do with the kinds of people and relationships that formed while the beer fermented. Who a brewer is, rather than exclusively what she makes, will play a pivotal role in the survival and growth of the hyperlocal segment of the industry.
Chapman answers the phone. It’s a delivery driver, about to drop off a pallet of 2,000 pounds of Virginia Pils malt. A frenetic bumble bee of productivity, he moves from stirring mash (noting that the new grind on the malt might be too fine and cause sparging issues) to cleaning a brite tank, to cleaning an empty fermenter, to fixing a keg problem in the cold box. He’s had some help from staff willing to learn, but operations remain a pretty Josh-led endeavor.
Katie and another lead bartender nicknamed Breezy come in early for a pre-shift chat about an upcoming event. Seasoned by a summer of busy weekends, they’re no less excited about every guest that walks through the door. Chapman pulls another staff member to the side to coach him on some interpersonal workplace drama while he squeegies hop sludge across the floor into the drain. He meets Jenna in the parking lot—she’s dropping off fresh hops, her ~3-month-old baby girl in the backseat. Wendy sits in the morning sun, finishing up a financial review.
Startup life means a lot of long hours, unexpected problem solving, and all of it coupled with an existential uncertainty of what the future holds. But here the Chapmans rest, coming into their first winter and off-season, bright and aware. It feels like a wholesome cliché, but they really are living their dreams.
A recent visitor asked Chapman why he didn’t buy a more automated system for his brewery. He’s telling me of the interaction while he drags a paddle through a delicious-smelling mash. But, he explains, “with the manual elements of this brewhouse, you just feel more connected to the beer. It fits who we are. All that technology wouldn’t have felt right, you know?”
I nod, as Chincoteague teeters in the other direction.
This hardly seems the place for a brewery. But somehow, it feels like the perfect place for this brewery.