Quest to Discover the Beers of the Windward Islands

What are my choices?

When looking for a beer in the Windward Islands, the choices are not as abundant as they are in the beer aisle up north. In the Windwards, the choices are boiled down to two types of beer: lagers/pilsners (like Budweiser or Labatt’s) or Stouts (like Guinness). This may seem strange to someone coming from the land of micro-brews and the marketing great invention “Dry” beer, but this is the land of the Pina Colada and Daiquiri; it is my guess that beer is not as big a concern (neither is wine, but that is for another time) as rum. Being very adventurous in all forms of barley and hop-type beverages, I looked forward to trying every beer available to me.

What did I discover?

What I discovered was a small selection of local beers, a strange variety of imports I had not had the pleasure of being acquainted with, and a few “old stand by’s.” These “old stand by’s” were not Bud, Labatt’s, and Beck’s like you might expect, with all the advertising they seem to do, but Heineken, Guinness and Red Stripe.

Heineken didn’t surprise me, having sailed in the Caribbean before and reading sailing guides about the adventures of one Don Street, who as it so happens, has been know to put back a few Heinekens. For those who don’t know the famous Don Street, he was the Chris Doyle of yesteryear, writing about all the islands, their people, and anchoring where most probably had never anchored before (and most will never anchor again).

Beyond Don Street drinking his Heineken, wearing his white cruising tuxedo, what other beer does the Windward Islands have to offer? Guinness was a bit of a surprise, but my thought on this is that since it is such a popular destination for Europeans, that they wanted some beer representation besides Heineken. I knew from The Usual Suspects website that Carib was their beer of choice, but would there be other local beers?

The adventure begins…

My curiosity was heightened by the fact that soon after touchdown at the Castries Airport in St. Lucia, the crew of our vessel was telling me about the local beer they had last night called Piton. Well, I thought it was time to go to the bar and start tasting some of the finer local brews. Soon after dropping off our baggage at our Hotel in Rodney Bay, I was face to face with the Piton itself. A cold one in a clear bottle with a good looking label – a silhouette of the famous twin Piton mountains that we would be anchored at the next day. My friend Billy, who had arrived there the day before, was at the bar enjoying a Jamaican Red Strip, a beer I find back in Boston to be a bit bland, but in the heat of the Caribbean, really hits the spot. I stayed on course with my Piton and found it very satisfactory (as almost all beers are in the Caribbean). The other crew members had not given it favorable reviews at first, but they would soon grew very found of Piton.

Storage?

A major concern during provisioning was beer storage. Would there be a cooler for the beer onboard? This cooler thing concerned me; I knew certain parties on this vessel would not appreciate me using the entire fridge for beer storage. Some suggested a Styrofoam cooler. Now I know the structural integrity of the Styrofoam cooler is not enough to withstand a calm day at the beach, much less two weeks on a sailboat heeled over 35 degrees in 15 foot seas. So the great Styrofoam cooler experiment was shot down before we could even discover that finding one in the Windward Islands was not as easy as going to your local 7-Eleven on Memorial Day weekend. The answer, just buy the beer and figure out the cooling process later.

Buying your beverage

First stop was the liquor store in the Rodney Bay Marina called The House ’O Spirits. Let me say this. Price gouging is a way of life around the marina. Being right at the marina gave them the power to raise the prices on spirits to levels that, where quantity would be a problem, this was not an option. Fortunately we had a back-up plan, the rental car, giving us the power to venture into the interior of the island without the help of an expensive taxi.

After avoiding a few mishaps because of driving on the opposite side of the road thing, we where off to the find a reasonably priced place to purchase food and beverages. At the grocery store, the beer selection was quite limited, Piton or Heineken in PONIES (the small 8oz. bottles that have all but disappeared in the U.S. and Canada, replaced now by the larger 16 oz. variety). After picking up a case of 12 oz. Pitons and some food to stock the unimportant parts of the fridge with, we were off to find a more amply-supplied liquor store.

Another House ’O Spirits away from the marina furnished us with more reasonable prices and a better supply of beer. We added two cases of Heineken (bringing the total beer haul to three cases) and some wine. Walking out of the store with my two cases of “Heiny” in the customary plastic cases found everywhere in the West Indies, I felt that either I was getting stronger and could lift two cases with more ease then before, or something was awry. After further investigation I discovered that I had been deceived into buying two cases of Heineken PONIES. That means instead of 576 oz. of beer, I had just bought only 384 oz. (Note, always check the case before purchasing to make sure you are getting the size you want). Well, we would be in Bequia in two days and I could buy some beers there.

We were stocked. During these stops, I discovered that the price of cans was more than the price of bottles (not because I was buying PONIES either), strange for a person who grow up in a drinking society that treats cans as second class citizens. I contemplated getting cans because on a boat glass breakage and garbage tend to be a problem. The can avoids these problems by the natural no-breakage make-up, and the crushing properties that help reduce garbage.

Let the cooling commence

When I got to the boat I made just the discovery I wanted – the integrated cockpit cooler for easy beverage-grabbing while underway. So after buying 5 bags of ice to keep the beer cold for two days, we were ready to go – off to the Pitons.

An unexpected discovery

After some minor engine trouble in the Pitons, we had to stop at Chateaubelair on St. Vincent (unable to make Bequia before dark). After two days on the boat, we were ready for a drink ashore, getting a water taxi from Maxroy (via a call on Ch. 16), we were off to the Beachfront Restaurant and Bar for drinks before dinner. There I made a most interesting discovery – Hairoun beer.

This was a very exciting find and after two straight days on board, it tasted like heaven. This we discovered, is a local St. Vincent Brewery and their beverages (they have many besides beer) would accompany us most of the trip (make sure to try the Ginger Ale, excellent stuff). After a few Hairouns, or “Heroins” as they would later be called for their addictive qualities, we were back on the boat ready for dinner and tomorrow’s sail to Bequia.

Bequia, beers in paradise

In Bequia, after a beautiful sail, we were ready for lunch at Mac’s Pizzeria. There I discovered another strange new sort of beer, EKU. After correctly ordering one, I think, I was pleased when the waitress bought me a nice cold EKU, which was excellent. I immediately concluded that this beer has to be found and brought on to our vessel for further investigation. Knowing I would be doing a little provisioning the next day, I vowed to find this beer and buy some for the rest of us to enjoy. After a few more at the Frangipani at Happy Hour that featured our first really beautiful sunset (it rained a lot in the higher elevation islands, so no sunsets), I was totally convinced that I had found a beer staple for the trip.

Fooled again

The next day, I did buy a case of EKU bottles in a cardboard box. Getting back to the boat, I was putting these soon-to-be-cold beers on ice when I found that a cruel trick had again been played on me. Inside the enclosed cardboard I found 24 EKU PONIES. I again had been tricked by just picking up a case of beer without inspecting it first.

Not to be disturbed by this latest development, I chilled my beers. I had actually started to like the ponies. I know to any die-hard beer drinker this sounds crazy, but I started to understand the pony philosophy. You see down there, where it is always a thousand degrees, beer gets warm fast (even for the quickest drinkers). So the ponies are really a solution for this. Now, you do tend to drink more beers, but at least they are cold beers.

Continuing the journey

After stops in Mayreau and the Tobago Cays, it was time to re-supply at Union Island – off to the famous Lambi’s Grocery Store. Trusting the fine source The Usual Suspects on Lambi’s being a good re-supply place, we ventured in to find Lambi himself behind the counter, quite happy to see us. When I said I needed beer, he directed me over to a stack of suspicious looking cans. After he assured me that it was indeed beer, I bought a case of Polar, from Venezuela, in white and blue cans. It looked a little suspicious, being the least expensive, among other reasons, but I hadn’t tried this beer so I took a chance.

After many curious looks, we got ourselves back to the boat where I decided I better cool one of these beers fast to see what sort of mistake I had made. A six-pack went immediately into the freezer, right next to a lot of ice. Venezuelan beer seems a little suspect to me. My sister, having been to Venezuela, said that she had this product and informed me that after a little “working in”, it isn’t that bad. I noticed throughout the rest of the trip she never tried to “work herself into” drinking it.

After an hour or so, I popped the top of my first Polar and took a sip. I immediately realized that the “working in” phase of this beer better be short or we better find some Boat Boys to pawn this off on. After 3 or 4, you did settle in to the taste of Polar, but for the rest of the trip we were suspicious of where Lambi had gotten his hands on such a brew; we hadn’t heard about any recent piracy of Venezuelan boats.

The Land of the Caribs

Now it was off to Grenada, the land of the Caribs. When we got to St. David’s Harbor, one of the many inlets on the south side of the island, we went to shore for lunch (I had a craving for French Fries) and a local cold one. There was a nice bar at the Grenada Marine facility and I had the pleasure of trying Carib on draft. I had my first Carib in a clear bottle at The Charthouse Restaurant in Rodney Bay and found it to be a little lacking. This may upset some Carib faithful, but I must say it was true, so I had not had one since leaving St. Lucia.

The draft though was ice-cold and tasted great. Later in Prickly Bay, I got to try my first Carib in the brown bottle and it was much better then the previous Carib I had in a clear bottle. I always have believed that beer keeps bettered in colored bottles, and this trip seemed to prove this. On our tour of Grenada, our guide/taxi driver drove us by the Guinness / Heineken Brewery as well as a Carib Brewery. Quite exciting.

While doing a little provisioning on Grenada I picked up a Mackeson’s at the grocery store. I had seen this beer in St. Lucia, but hadn’t tried it. It is a stout and let me just say, Guinness it is NOT. It tasted like a cross between sour coffee and licorice. It was not tried again.

“Completing the cycle”

On the way back up to St. Lucia, I had to “complete the cycle,” so in Canouan I had a Guinness at the Pirate Cove Bar and found it OK for Guinness in a bottle, but being from Boston, it is really not allowed to have Guinness any other way but out of the tap in a nice tall pint glass (why they call it a pint I don’t know since they serve it in a 20 oz. glass). I had only one, because Guinness in that heat sort of gives you the impression of motor oil.

For my final different beer of the trip, I had to have a Red Stripe. For this I waited until our final trip up the coast, so I could have one at Spinnaker’s overlooking the beach in Rodney Bay. That last day sitting at Spinnaker’s, looking out at our boat at anchor, I had time to reflect on the journey and concluded that anyone who can’t enjoy ANY ice cold beer put in front of them while sailing in the Caribbean shouldn’t be sailing in the Caribbean.

A few tips about purchasing beer down there

  1. Get the beer in the plastic crates. There are good and bad things heard about the plastic crates. One bad thing is that they are full of cockroach eggs. While this might be true, our boat had a live-aboard family of roaches who were already there long before we got there, so we just brought them some company. Don’t fool yourself either; I have yet to go on a boat of any type in the tropics that didn’t have a bug problem. But these crates are a great to store your empties. We put them in one of the cockpit lockers. Also, when going to buy more beer, these crates full of empties are returnable, so you don’t have to worry about disposing of the bottles with your garbage.
  2. Cans, since they don’t seem to recycle cans, are more expensive and have to pretty much be thrown in the trash afterward. Also, most of the beer drinkers I know, sort of thumb their nose at beer in cans, so most likely you will not be purchasing them.
  3. If you don’t want ponies, inspect what you are buying beforehand. I got stuck with ponies twice, which ended up being fine, but if you want 12 oz. bottles, either ask for them, or inspect what they bring you. It’s not like in the U.S., where there are stacks and stacks of cases lying around. In the Windwards, they get your cases for you so make sure you ask for big bottles. They might not even have them.
  4. Variety – I always had at least three different beers on board. I like the variety. The Pitons I bought the first day lasted until the end of the trip, because wherever we went, I would pick up something different so the crew was always enjoying something new. The beers down there are very similar in taste, so if you have a Piton first and then an EKU second, it’s not that different. Not like having a Sam Adams and then a Bud.

Well, I guess the only real disappointment was that I didn’t get to try more beers. It’s something I love to do and there just aren’t that many to try in the Windward Islands, but there are plenty that taste great. After a great day of sailing, and sometimes during a great day of sailing, nothing is better than an ice cold beer.

Enjoy…

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