Delmarva Diary: Black Narrows Brewing
Building a Brewery, Building a Beer
Josh and Jenna Chapman dreamed up Black Narrows Brewing Co. in 2015 in between beers and too many cups of coffee to count. They dreamed of building their brewery on Chincoteague Island where they could partner with local farmers and brew beers that reflected the seasons, the land, and the waters of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In 2016, Jenna’s parents, Bob and Wendy Huntley, breathed life into Black Narrows by pouring their money, time, and wisdom into the business. Together, the founders and owners forged a future for the small craft brewery. 100% family owned, they’re committed to giving back 10% of their gross beer sales from the moment they open their doors. The Black Narrows founding family is dedicated to building bridges and crafting change in their community and around the world.
BUILDING A BREWERY
It was almost two years ago. We were driving on Chincoteague Road with the windows rolled down, past the giant satellite dishes, past the NASA Visitor Center, past visions of our infinite sky. Around the bend the causeway stretched out toward Chincoteague, our “Beautiful Land Across the Water.” The thick scent of marsh mud welcomed us back and Home played loud over the radio. Josh and I looked at each other and out at the Black Narrows, near the road where the old swing bridge once connected us to Chincoteague.
It was that weekend in the Fall of 2015 when we first walked through the old Little Bay Seafood shucking house. We saw past the dirt and the grime, past the broken doors and low plywood ceilings. We saw the bones and the soul of the space. We knew we could give the old building a new life while preserving its past. We surveyed the rooms while the possibilities danced in our minds. Each one of us felt something the moment we stepped inside, we were home. We knew then our dream of building a brewery was possible. It was time to start building our first beer.
BUILDING A BEER
Building a beer is an ever-changing art form and brewing it can be a complex science. You only need four ingredients to make beer: water, malt, hops and yeast. There are many more components that go into a beer, but building a beer is much more than a simple combination of ingredients. Each product has a face behind it, people pouring their heart and soul into their craft. And for us, each beer starts with an idea and an opportunity to tell a story.
At low tide, shiny rows of oyster beds come into view at Queen Sound. They represent an important trade and a way of life passed down from family to family for generations. The oyster industry has played a major role on Chincoteague since the 1800s, and our town is ever passionate about its oystering heritage. For the last 45 years, every fall the island swells with the celebration of the start of oyster season. People come from all over the world to eat Chincoteague oysters fried, grilled or raw on the half shell. For our first beer, we knew we wanted to salute this local hero and highlight its history. After doing some research and talking with locals, we learned that Chincoteague oysters are called “Salts” for short and the name stuck with us. Salts would be our beer, and it was time to start building our recipe.
Water is the first piece of the puzzle. We use a reverse-osmosis process that gives us a blank canvas to work off of and from there we add the grain, hops, and other ingredients. Water is inspirational. When we look out at the many waters surrounding us we feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. The sound of the water lapping against the marsh grass, the sun reflecting warm oranges and shades of pink on the horizon, the cold of the ocean when you swim in its depths—these moments move us. From the marsh to the bay to the sea, we learn more every day about these important ecosystems. With the help of Elise Trelegan and her team from the Chincoteague Bay Field Station we’re finding ways to protect, preserve and celebrate our natural resources, and are excited to be partnering to present the first MARSHfest science and craft beer festival this fall.
Driving around is one of our favorite ways to unwind. When we’re piled in the car for an adventure there’s no telling where we’ll end up. When we’re on the road we watch the seasons move and change all around us. In Summer, the lush tree line thickens and the farmlands fill out in green leafy plants and yellow grains. One of those golden waves of grain is barley. In Loudoun County, Virginia, Pilot Malt House sources a local 6-row barley to make the base malt for all our beers. Sometimes when we’re brewing beer, the girls will sneak some malt into their pockets and munch on it. For our new beer Salts, we’ll also use wheat. When we reached out to Aaron Cooper from CutFresh Organics, he sent us home with a beautiful blend of raw Appalachian White and Red Soft Winter Wheat. Aaron’s blend adds a sweet earthiness to the beer and we’ve found ourselves going back to it again and again.
Bacteria gets a bad rap, but there are a lot of good bacteria floating around, too. In fact, it’s an important ingredient in our family’s favorite bread. Growing up we lived on sourdough. Saturday mornings we often woke to the smell of sourdough French toast, and on cool evenings you’d find us on the back porch eating clam chowder out of sourdough bread bowls. We’re also a yogurt-obsessed family, and bacteria is what gives yogurt that tang. If you like sauerkraut, bacteria’s a part of that process as well. The lemonade-like taste in Salts comes from the bacteria Lactobacillus or Lacto for short. It’s the tart in our Tart Oyster Wheat.
Every year we look forward to the hop harvest at the end of summer at Dixon Leatherbury’s farm in Machipongo. The hops are at their peak on the bines (vines without tendrils), strung up high in the air in rows, swaying in the wind while we play tag with our girls in the shade. Fresh hops, bright green and like paper to the touch, are harvested only once a year in August or September. Dixon feeds them through a harvester he manufactured himself, which sends the hops spiraling off the bine. Some of the fresh hops are sent out, but most are dried and packaged to be used throughout the year. For Salts, we will use his local Chinook along with some Hallertau Blanc from Germany. When we leave the farm, we leave with harvest memories and hops to feed our souls and beers all year round.
The flowers, herbs and spices that go into Salts vary season by season. Recently we spent a warm day on Perennial Roots Farm, and after helping Natalie and Stewart weed beds for planting we stumbled upon a field of crimson clover in full bloom. Covered in dirt, after a midday rest in the farmhouse with cold glasses of water in our hands, we pondered using the flowers in Salts. The reddish pink heads and the refreshing scent of cucumber inspired us. After an afternoon picking clover and holding baby bunnies, we left the farm feeling rejuvenated and inspired. There’s an endless supply of inspiration when you walk and work the land. We know the next time we come out, there’ll be something else we’ll find anew.
From the very beginning we knew we wanted to work with local farmers and watermen. Kellen Williams was making oyster cages in the shucking house when we first bumped into him. Knowing we wanted to do something really special with the Chincoteague oysters, we talked with Kellen who shucked some of his own for us to experiment with. Instead of using oysters in the usual stout, we were inspired by the German Gose style. Chincoteague Oysters are known for their distinctive salt flavor. That’s when the light bulb went off. Typically, brewers use salt to mimic the saline content naturally found in the River Gose. We had a natural salt in our oysters. We found a way to highlight a treasured commodity in our small town and treat it like a king in our beer.
You can find yeast just about anywhere, and we get giddy when we talk about it. Mainly because we believe yeast holds endless possibilities for our beers. We’re working with Jasper from Bright Yeast Labs to find local yeast strains on Chincoteague Island and up and down The Shore. We were thrilled to find our first one! On August 5th of last year (National Oyster Day) we took an oyster from Little Bay (covered in marsh mud) and put it into some wort (unfermented beer.) Jasper cultivated and isolated a strain of yeast from our oyster so we could have our first native yeast from Chincoteague for Salts.
We believe the face of the beer should feel like the soul of the beer. We wanted to find an artist who was creative and passionate, but more importantly, a natural translator. Being able to hear an idea and a story and transform it into an image is what Jessica Battista does best. After spending some time in the old Oyster Museum (Museum of Chincoteague), we knew what to ask Jess to recreate. We asked her to interpret for us an image for Salts that looked and felt like the old oyster tins. Our excitement about this project could no longer be contained. With the recipe complete, Salts had come full circle and it was time to try the final product and share it with neighbors, friends and family.
On Sundays, we always did a big family supper. We’d sit around the table over a roast or a casserole and catch up on life, throw around the football, then finish off with a movie and fresh popcorn. Gathering friends and family over food was how we always did things. Boils and barbeques in the summer, chilis and stews in the winter, outside picnics in the spring and fall. Food, friends, and beer go hand in hand. Since January we’ve held free family suppers for the community. After we crafted a few beers, we brought them to the suppers for people to taste, and Salts became a fast favorite. Folks said “It tastes like Chincoteague,” and “It’s like sipping summer from a glass.” At the last dinner, after cleaning up the studio, we fell on our chairs, poured a round of Salts and cheered. One day soon we’ll open up our doors and we’d love to have you over for a pint on our porch.
Visit Black Narrows Brewing Co., 4522 Chicken City Rd., Chincoteague Island, Va. blacknarrowsbrewing.com
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