“There’s always places that you keep coming back to because you feel connected to them,” said Black Narrows co-owner Jenna Chapman. “Chincoteague always called us home.”
Jenna co-founded Black Narrows with her husband Josh Chapman, and her parents Wendy and Bob Huntley are the brewery owners. They’re not exactly ‘teaguers (for non-teaguers, that means native to the island), but they are putting down roots on Chincoteague Island. The brewery, a first for the whole of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, opened back in December.
She came to Chincoteague for the first time with Josh’s family, back when they were still dating, and back when she only knew of the island from the Marguerite Henry books. She immediately fell in love with the island, she said, especially with the beach and the wildlife refuge.
“It wasn’t a Boardwalk beach,” Jenna said. “It wasn’t tainted by pollution and garbage and people, it was really a beautiful refuge. For us, we knew we wanted to raise our kids in a place that had such a natural beauty to it.”
Discovering the dream
Josh grew up in Burke, VA. Jenna grew up a Navy brat and moved around every few years until high school, when her dad took a job as a government contractor in Northern Virginia.
“Virginia became home because it was my only home, because I had been a wandering traveler for my whole life,” she said.
When they later lived in Denver, Colorado together, Josh worked as a chef. His boss brewed beer out of his house in Denver, and when Josh and Jenna were invited over one night and saw him brewing, they knew what they had to do.
“It was one of those experiences where we started our dream because of those two people,” Jenna said.
Josh and Bob both began homebrewing. There was a lot of experimentation and a lot of trying new recipes during that time, Jenna said, thanks in part to Josh’s culinary background.
When Josh and Jenna’s first daughter Emma was born, they brewed a beer in honor of her birth. That’s when they started bottling their beers, and now they continue the tradition every year on Emma’s birthday. (Emma is not yet 21, but when she is, she’ll have a lot of beer waiting for her.)
“Some people look at you and they’re like, oh, you’ve been doing this for a long time or, you went to school for all this stuff. No, we were dreamers and visionaries and we just made it happen.”
Josh “saw what he did in the food world, that he could take ingredients and put them together and make them into something beautiful,” Jenna said. “But the cool thing about beer is sometimes it had a life of its own.”
When they pour beer into a barrel, she said, the barrel does its thing and gives the beer its new life. Their Picked and Preserved, a sour golden ale on tap at Black Narrows, is one of those beers: what happens in the barrel with the beer and the fruit, in this case lemon curd and stone fruits, can never be replicated. That’s the art and the intricacy of brewing that they fell in love with.
While the brewery is the first to open its doors on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Black Narrows wants to do more than pave the way for future breweries. They want to pave the way for farmers and support local agriculture, too.
One farmer has already had to plant extra rows of corn for their lager How Bout It, and another is starting to grow barley for most of the beers’ base malt. Dixon Leatherbury’s Seaside Hops in Machipongo provides the brewery with their hops, and Perennial Roots Farm in Accomac is where they get much of their fruits, vegetables, herbs and bark.
“We have such a beautiful strip of land, it would be so wonderful if we could somehow attract those kinds of breweries that are local-focused, so we could help boost and support the economy,” Jenna said.
And providing business to Virginia’s coastal farmers isn’t the only way that Black Narrows puts the community first.
They’ve also initiated a practice called “One Local/One Global,” where 5% of their gross beer sales is donated to a global cause and another 5% is donated to a local cause, with a new local cause highlighted every month.
In March they released a special beer, an IPA — I’ll Persevere Again — in support of Brianna Merritt, a 9-year-old on the island who is fighting leukemia. Brianna inspired their global cause for 2018, and 5% of the brewery’s beer sales for the year will be donated to Family Reach, an organization that provides financial assistance to families with a child or parent fighting cancer.
This month, their local cause is the Chincoteague Island Library.
They’re already growing immensely fast for a small brewery that isn’t half a year old, but it doesn’t seem like Black Narrows is going to be slowing down anytime soon. What started out as a dream to one Virginia couple, a chef and a swim coach-turned-nanny, is now a reality on Chincoteague Island.
“We just pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps and decided to do this, and anyone can do it,” Jenna said. “That’s the cool thing about our background — you can do anything you put your mind to if you just have that dream and go for it.”
Behind the Beer: Salts
Black Narrows sits on Chicken City Road, in a spot that was once the home of an oyster shucking house. That, plus the fact that Chincoteague is possibly best-known for its oysters (also known as “salts”), plus the fact that the Chapmans are dedicated to brewing with local ingredients, means no one should be surprised that one of their first beers on tap was an oyster-based wheat brew. Or that Black Narrows makes one delicious oyster beer.
- To make Salts, both the flesh of the oyster and the oyster liquor (the liquid inside the shell) are used to give the beer its saltiness.
- Most oyster-based beers are stouts, which utilize oyster shells, so an oyster wheat beer made with the flesh and liquor is pretty unique.
- Several years ago, a friend of the Chapmans’ found two viable yeast strains off a marsh oyster, and now they have wild oyster yeast strains unique to anywhere else in the world. One of those strains is used to ferment the beer in Salts.
- As Jenna describes the flavor, “You get the oysters but you also get this lemonade-y kind of taste to it. It’s brine-y, it’s tart, it’s easy drinking and honestly, we feel like this is going to be one of the favorites in the summer because it’s such a bright, interesting beer.”