Around the world, the Caribbean is recognized as the birthplace of rum. But there is another distinctive form of booze in the region beloved by visitors and locals alike ― beer. From crisp, ice-cold lagers offering relief from the hot sun to dark malty stouts spicing up punch and Easter bun, Caribbean beer brands are inextricably linked with island life.
It seems every Caribbean country boasts its own native brew. Aruba has the multi-award winning all-malt Pilsener Balashi, Haiti favors their own Prestige lager, and the domestically produced Belikin dominates Belize.
This love affair with beer didn’t happen overnight. Records show British beer was a staple for sailors traveling through the Caribbean in the 1600s, though it was prone to spoil. In 1801, Guinness began crafting a sweet West Indies porter infused with extra hops so the flavor would survive the arduous five-week voyage across the Atlantic.
The Major Players
Local beers finally emerged in the late 1800s when R. Crang opened his first ale and porter brewery in Kingston, Jamaica. Others would soon follow suit, growing into today’s most prominent brands: Jamaica’s Red Stripe, Trinidad and Tobago’s Carib Beer and the Dominican Republic’s Presidente.
Cooling palms and quenching thirst around the world, these Caribbean beer brands established the international flavor profile of a classic Caribbean beer: often a pale, smooth, softly sweet lager or pilsner. Their mild, refreshing taste pairs well with Caribbean eats from fresh seafood to heavy stews. On a more fundamental level, these beers seem to distill the romance of the region, promising sunshine and good times. It’s the beer you want to drink after climbing to the top of Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica or chipping down the streets in full carnival regalia in Trinidad.
Carib Beer understands this nostalgic power — its iconic gold-and-blue bottle connoting Caribbean waters and year-round sunshine. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the brand is determined to share this spirit across the diaspora. “If you can’t make it to the Caribbean, we’ll bring the Caribbean to you,” said Carib Brewery USA President and CEO James Webb.
Asa Sealy, marketing director at Carib Brewery USA, said familiarity is a huge seller. “So much of our population has migrated from the Caribbean region, and they long for those products that bring them back to home,” he explained. “One of the biggest initiatives for us is to mine that Caribbean pride and use that brand that we so dearly represent to connect with the diaspora.”
The Next Generation
Alongside these titans, however, something else is quietly brewing. You can taste the future of Caribbean beer while sitting on the veranda of the Constant Spring Golf & Country Club clubhouse in Kingston, Jamaica. Here, patrons enjoy a local craft offering that can’t be found in corner shops, supermarkets or typical tourist haunts. Delightful and complex new flavors flow from the gleaming distillery pots of the Clubhouse Brewery ― one of Jamaica’s first craft breweries. As the largest of its kind in Jamaica, Clubhouse Brewery serves 17 varieties, including IPAs, hoppy lagers, pilsners, amber ales, porters and stouts from its taps. Among them is the signature Blue Mountain Coffee Porter, which features a caffeinated kick.
The brewery was founded in 2021 by brewmaster Devon Francis, who boasts a 25-year career working in Jamaica, Uganda, Kenya, The Seychelles and Germany. He’s the mastermind behind recent innovations at Red Stripe, from developing the popular Red Stripe Sorrel and Lemon Paradise beers to adding cassava to the brewing process in an effort to support local small farmers.
Francis asserts that our home-bred concoctions are more robustly flavored than popular counterparts from the north. Compared to Budweiser, Miller and Coors, he said beers “like Red Stripe are definitely more flavorful than the standard American beers. Budweiser uses 50% rice in the brewing, so it is very, very watery.” (And yes, watery is a technical term used to describe beer.)
Despite this stellar reputation, Francis believes it’s time for Caribbean brewmasters to serve up new, bold experiences. “Consumers are searching for more,” Francis said as he sipped beer in the balmy evening air. “There is a part of the demographic who actually want that hoppier, more flavorful exotic beer. For years, they have been fed a standard diet of Red Stripe and Heineken. But the young millennials coming up latched onto craft beer because of its range.”
You could witness this demand first hand this past April when 350 patrons packed into the Jamaica Food and Drink Kitchen for the Kingston City Beer Fest. The events celebrated the growing beer industry with seminars and mixology sessions, 20 beer samplings and multiple food pairing stations. The emergence of a number of microbreweries is spurring this consistent growth.
A home brewing hobby snowballed into a brand for one exhibitor, Christian Sale, founder and head brewer of Kingston-based Trouble’s Brewing!! His interest ignited following a 2017 trip to Belgium. “But the biggest spark came when we were invited to Oktoberfest Kingston in 2019, and we sold out all of our beer four hours into an eight-hour event,” he said. “Other brands of beer were there, including some imports, but the line was only at our booth.”
His most popular brews include Hop Steppa, a copper-colored IPA featuring pronounced, yet rounded, citrus, bitter and fruity notes. Another favorite is Shine Eye Gyal, a blonde ale with a layered, balanced maltiness accompanied by a subtle earthy hop character. The best part, said Sale, “is getting to serve beer and interacting with other beer lovers.”
Caribbean beer’s real secret ingredient? “It’s the people,” asserts Francis. “The people are central in crafting the environment that makes our beer unique.” Between the new craft breweries and stalwart brands, it’s clear they are ready to serve up experiences that are refreshing, relaxing and completely Caribbean.