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The Popular Origins of Caribbean Stout

It may be counterintuitive, but strong, sweet, dark beers endure in some of the world’s hottest climates. In Jamaica, a low-cost folk drink helped to popularize it. Martyn Cornell tells the story.

Martyn Cornell Mar 14, 2021 - 9 min read

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Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

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When porter and its bigger, bolder brother stout spread out from 18th century London to take on and conquer the world, they sometimes gave birth to specifically local styles: Baltic porter, for example, or Irish stout. Despite stout’s reputation among North American brewers and drinkers as a warming winter drink, it was always a popular beer in hot climates—and a particular style of stout, largely ignored today outside its home region, also developed in the Caribbean.

Strong, sweet, and invigorating, that style is represented today by several well-known brands, at least one dating back more than 110 years. However, there seems to be no consensus about what to call these beers—but Caribbean stout, West Indies stout, and even tropical stout are all names that have been used.

Porter for the People

The West Indies—despite being a rum-producing region—were importing beer from Britain in the 17th century, when the Anchor brewery in Southwark, London, sent “15 Tunns of XX Beer” to “Beerbadoes.” In 1755, a writer recorded that people in Kingston, Jamaica, drank three barrels of porter to celebrate after local elections. Porter was arriving from Bristol and Ireland by the start of the 19th century, with several Dublin brewers making porter specifically for the West Indian market. (Guinness West India Porter, which it brewed from at least 1801, eventually became its Foreign Extra Stout.) Cork was exporting about 2,000 barrels of porter a year to the West Indies and America in 1805.

The Caribbean does not seem to have had its own porter brewery until 1875, when R. Crang, ale and porter brewer, operated at 34 King Street, Kingston. However, it was neither mainstream local brewers nor the many imported brands (including American ones; in 1916, Jamaica was importing stout from the India Wharf brewery in Brooklyn) that satisfied the bulk of local demand for porter. Instead, Jamaica developed a trade in “draft porter,” often referred to as “drought porter,” brewed by soft-drinks manufacturers using “wet sugar”—a type of molasses made by the hundreds of small cane-sugar farmers in the Jamaican countryside and sold in tins.

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Draft porter sold for an exceedingly cheap 1½ pence a glass. It was the drink of Jamaica’s poorest classes. In 1922, a Canadian government report described the Jamaican alcohol market: “Curiously enough, there is a very fair demand for stout in Jamaica, despite its heating qualities. It mixes well with raw rum, but in addition it is drunk for its own worth. There is no bottled porter in the market, but there is a considerable quantity of cheap and bad draught porter of local manufacture. There is no pure food obstacle to the manufacture of this beverage in Jamaica, and it is generally believed that fermented molasses and sugar waste are used in the manufacture.”

Draft porter was sold from draft-porter shops, in existence from at least the Edwardian era (1901–1910); from casks in refreshment parlors that also sold fried fish and bread; and also by traveling salesmen, who would call out “draaf porter!” as they roamed on foot around rural villages. These salesmen would carry a large tin container with a spout and pour it into serving cans in four sizes: quart, pint, half-pint, and gill (quarter-pint, pronounced “jill”). Jamaica also had itinerant ice-cream salesmen who would sell a blend of “frisco”—ice cream mixed with “snow ball,” a fruit-flavored shaved ice—and “a measure of draught porter for the older folks.” A 1936 report in the Kingston Gleaner described a treat for the “deserved poor” of Linstead—in the Jamaican countryside, 20 miles from Kingston—where the local Salvation Army collected an “appreciable sum” to buy and distribute rations of beef, rice, bread, cake, soap, and iced draft porter to more than 300 people.

In October 1939, just after the start of World War II, the Jamaican government proposed raising the tax on beer more than fourfold, from 4½ pence a gallon to a shilling and 9 pence—a rise of more than 2 pence per pint. Brewers protested, saying the proposals would “affect the poorest class of person badly,” placing the price of “native” draft porter and stout “immediately out of their reach.” That would “certainly mean almost complete destruction of the industry,” hitting hard the “small country-men” who produced hundreds of tins of wet sugar a week, which was bought to make draft porter. The tax rise on “native” beer was withdrawn after objections in Jamaica’s parliament, brought back just nine months later, and then thrown out again.

Follow the Red Stripe

The biggest mineral-water company in Jamaica to branch into making stout (and eventually mainstream brewing) was Desnoes and Geddes. They imported wine and beer from abroad as well as making mineral waters. In 1924, D&G began selling “Dragon brand stout,” “brewed from Best English Malt and selected Hops … equal in quality to many imported brands.”

Two years later, in May 1926, the Gleaner newspaper reported that D&G had purchased the Core Ice Factory and Cold Storage in West Street, Kingston, “and from what can be gathered, they intend to reconstruct the plant in order to make it into an up-to-date brewery for the manufacture of beer.” It was another two years before the brewery opened; with Jamaica in an earthquake zone and heavy equipment needed on the upper stories, it had to be built as strongly as possible.

Meanwhile, in January 1928, the company announced the launch of its new trademark: the Red Stripe brand. “All our Wine Labels are now marked with a Red Stripe … the Red Stripe means Quality—Purity—Value.” In August, the brewery officially opened, and Red Stripe ale and stout went on sale in the 40 or so D&G-owned bars across Kingston, at 2 pence per small glass, 4 pence per large.

Dragon and Its Rivals

In 1959, brewing shifted from Pechon Street to Hunts Bay, three miles away. Two years later, D&G relaunched the stout under the revived name of Dragon Stout. In the 1970s, the beer had an OG of 1.070, rising to 1.074 by 1993. In response to questions from Michael Lewis for his book Stout, D&G reported brewing 200,000 barrels of Dragon Stout that year—more than a quarter of its total output.

Dragon’s grist included a base of six-row pale, black and caramel malts, caramel coloring, and corn syrup. The brewery said it used its house lager yeast but at a fermentation temperature of 70°F (21°C). Dragon got hop extracts to the tune of 30 IBUs for “a pleasant bitter/sweet/ alcohol balance.” By 2010, it was still being made with black malt, corn syrup, caramel malt, and hop extract, and primed with sugar before botting, for an ABV of 7.5 percent.

Dragon Stout has several rivals across the Caribbean in the “strong sweet stout” category, in particular Royal Extra Stout from Trinidad. This was first made about 1908 by the Walters Trinidad Brewing Company, owned by Irish entrepreneur Richard C. Walters, making it the Caribbean’s oldest beer brand. In 1957, that brewery was acquired by rival Carib, which continued brewing Royal Extra Stout.

That beer looks to have risen in strength over the years, too: In 1977, it had an original gravity of 1.054, implying a finished beer of about 5.2 percent ABV. Today, Royal Extra Stout comes in at 6.6 percent ABV, made from pilsner and black malts, with caramel for color and cane sugar and lactose for sweetness.

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