When brothers John and Joe Brugos began home-brewing beer eight years ago, it was only for themselves and some friends.
“Primarily ourselves,” Joe Brugos laughed. “But yeah, we were home-brewing for a long time.”
Eight years later, the two brothers, now co-owners of Rock City Brewing Company, find themselves embarking on a fairly ambitious project that could see a distinctively Virgin Islands beer launched in major markets in the Caribbean and the United States. They plan to take their company’s most popular product, Hull Bay Lager, and manufacture it on an industrial scale.
“Like Red Stripe is to Jamaica, we want it to be the same thing,” John Brugos said. “You see a bottle of this, you know it’s made on St. Thomas. That’s what we’re really looking forward to.”
John Brugos came to the territory 12 years ago, drawn by a job at the Ritz Carlton. Joe followed in 2008 right after he graduated from college and landed on a job market strained by the great recession, “the absolute worst time time to graduate without any experience,” he said.
After a few years on St. Thomas, they began brewing at home.
“We started on a very small scale, and we just got bigger and bigger. We got more more into it, behind the science and everything. We got really consistent with what we were putting out, home-brewing-wise,” said Joe.
Then in 2013, their West Coast-style India Pale Ale “Dumpster Cock” won a competition in Coral Bay and things got a little more serious.
Dumpster Cock “has a lighter body that makes the hops stand out. So it’s very hoppy, in a good way, and very floral and has a really good nose to it,” said John.
The Brugoses had already begun their distillery company, Virgin Islands Craft Distillers, when they met Hooman Pedram and Mario Austin, co-owners of burgers-and-beer restaurant Tap & Still. Pedram and Austin wanted to put a brewery in their second location, in Havensight, and a partnership was formed. Havensight’s Tap & Still now has a small space dedicated to several fermentation tanks for Rock City Brewing.
“Brewing beer starts with malted barley … you put hot water on top of the malted barley, and that water turns into sugar water, basically,” John explained, maneuvering between sundry tanks and equipment in their current brewing space.
“After you mash your malt, you extract the wort – it’s called wort, it’s not beer yet – and then you boil it. You boil that to add your hops and you sterilize it. Then it’s cooled down and it is fermented in one of them,” he said, pointing to the fermentation tanks.
“Different strains of yeasts for different styles, and in a large number so they’ll take over,” said John. “After about two weeks or so, the beer is done fermenting in most cases, and then we’ll clarify it, transfer it and carbonate it. And then it’s ready to drink.”
“There’s so many different factors that go into making beer in general,” Joe chimed in. “The types of malts you use, the types of yeast you use, the types of hops, the temperatures. So that’s so many different variations of beer. Those variables can change slightly everywhere, you can have a million different types of beer.”
The whole process can take between three to six months from beginning to end, said John, and roughly four weeks for Hull Bay Lager. The small brewery can barely keep up with the demand at Tap & Still, and it their own space, The Beer Barn, right across the street.
“We need to expand it rapidly,” said John.
But beer production on the scale that the Brugoses envision for the future will take a lot more than several tanks. They’re currently eyeing a 50,000-square-foot space that will house a 180-barrel brewing system capable of producing 6,000 gallons of product a day. Its 20-, 40- and even 60-barrel fermentation tanks are projected to produce 50,000 cases of beer on its first year of operation, and if all goes well, they project they’ll be making 330,000 cases a year in five years.
“It’s like a drop in the bucket compared to Budweiser, but still, it’ll be a lot,” said Joe.
The buildout of a production facility of that size will take about a year, said the Brugoses, and it won’t be without its challenges.
““The cost of doing business in general is a little more expensive down here. Electricity and water and what not is more pricey than the states,” said John.
Rock City Brewing will also have to deal with a common burden local manufacturers have to bear: the cost of shipping in raw goods and materials as an additional expense.
“We get tons of grain every year just on this one, so just getting that in from elsewhere. There’s no one that can make malt down here, grow grain or anything like that,” said Joe.
To help jumpstart the large-scale manufacturing of Hull Bay Lager, the Brugos brothers are tapping into the Economic Development Commission’s benefits for businesses setting up in the Virgin Islands. If approved, the company can receive up to 90 percent in corporate and income tax cuts, and a full exemption on gross receipts, business property and excise taxes.
In exchange, Rocky City Brewing commits to contributing to local charities in the amount of $50,000 a year, which will increase by $2,500 every year. Off the bat, they also commit to employing a minimum of 10 full-time employees, a number that they project will increase along with production.
“Hopefully, we can create some jobs by opening a production facility, and making beer on a mass scale requires a lot of labor so that’s what we’re hoping to do,” said John.
The Brugoses are also working on an educational aspect, reaching out to organizations like My Brother’s Workshop to foster partnerships that will allow MBW’s young trainees to get a foot inside the door of a brewing business.
“You don’t exactly need a college degree to do this so it’s something that you can learn on the job,” said Joe.
Looking at the big picture, the two brothers are gearing up for what they hope will be an eventful next few years. They’re excited, they said, at the prospect of marketing the Virgin Islands to the world through a beer that’s distinctly, recognizably Virgin Islands-made. They already have a design in mind for the bottle, which will show information on Hull Bay and place St. Thomas on a the map.
“People see our bottle somewhere, they’re gonna want to know where the Virgin islands is, and they’re gonna want to come here, so it’s good tourism-wise, economy-wise,” John said.