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Scoping out the Scene in St. Lucia
Anything good to drink on the islands?
March 26, 2009
Written by Oakes
As the plane flew over the windwards on the approach to St. Lucia, we marveled at what we’d come for. Green-cloaked Dominica jutted sharply out of the Caribbean, followed by Martinique. Then finally we flew down the coast of St. Lucia, our destination. We passed the majestic Pitons, twin towers of pointy volcanic rock rising dramatically from the dark blue water. When you live in Miami, you don’t go to the Caribbean for the beaches, you go for mountains and jungle.
It’s been so long since I went to a new country, I barely remember the procedure. Customs didn’t worry me – you know in the islands it’s going to consist of mainly of a “Welcome! Enjoy your stay.” I had to get a driver’s license, too, and some currency. We picked up our jeep and got on with the plan. First stop – lunch!
But not before I nearly crapped my pants pulling out of the airport. There were cars coming right at me, man. Then I remembered that they were driving on the left, just like I was, and everything was totally fine. I had a lunch spot scouted out close to the airport because flying on American Airlines I knew we’d be starving when we arrived. We started with some pumpkin soup, a local staple, and mussels, before moving into a typical St. Lucian feast of a meal. St. Lucian food reminds me of southern food – a small entrée with half a dozen side dishes. Oh, and a bottle of Piton, the local lager.
I’d had Piton before, but of course it’s going to be much fresher on the island. And so it was, a mild, marginally hoppy pale lager of no particular distinction. By the end of six days, I remained just as ambivalent about it as I was on that first day. Sated, we cruised up the Atlantic coast and cut across the middle of the island as the sun set, taking in some truly breathtaking vistas along the way. First there was the dramatic coastline, then the gorgeous mountains and steep valleys of the interior, followed by a series of intense switchbacks as we descended into the capital, Castries.
By nightfall, we were settled in our hotel, a mere five minutes walk from the local brewpub. There aren’t many brewpubs in the Caribbean. By my count, there’s Taberna de la Muralla in Havana; Hammerheads in the Caymans; the Old Harbor Brewery in San Juan; the Fort Christian Brewpub in the US Virgin Islands; and possibly one in Curacao. So being close to the Plantation Brewing House was something we considered to be pretty much manna from heaven. That is, until we went there.
I’ve never really been one of those “glass is always half full” sort of beer writers, the ones who find the silver lining in every mediocre brewery. I prefer to call it as I see it. And I have a problem with the Plantation Brewing House. The lagers are lousy, but drinkable. The ales are about as far from professional calibre beer as I’ve tasted in a long, long time. As a homebrewer, boiling over extract onto stovetops before adding stale hops and dried yeast, I made better beer than these two ales. It’s frustrating. You know that eventually the poor quality of the beer will put this place out of business and people will think “Damn, you can’t do a brewpub in the Caribbean, even in a tourist area.” And that would be wrong. You absolutely can put a brewpub in the Caribbean. You just can’t build one that brews terrible beers.
The property, I should add, is fantastic. They divide it between a higher-end restaurant and a pub. The buildings are old, wooden, and colonial. It looks and feels like an old plantation house. It’s gorgeous. The beers belie the quality of the place. Now, I understand that there is a dearth of brewing talent available to entrepreneurs in the Caribbean. So seriously, if there’s a qualified brewmaster reading this, and you’ve been thinking of retiring to the Caribbean, give these guys a call. They need the help. The equipment is new and swanky, there’s a barbeque stand across the street, and St. Lucia is about as chill as it gets. There are far worse ways to wind down a successful brewing career.
Having established that the brewpub is not good stuff, we were forced to explore the handful of lagers and stouts available in the area. In the Caribbean (and West Africa), stout has always been considered to have certain properties. These properties are alleged to help you, how shall I say this, put the coffee in the thermos. To that end, we have the subtley-named Stud Stout from Trinidad, featuring such herbal additives as yohimbe and bois bandé. Yikes.
Other stouts include Guinness Foreign Extra, which is of course the extract from Dublin blended with the local lager Piton, a combination that doesn’t really work. There is Mackeson, ostensibly the same as the US. It’s made in St. Kitt’s, though, and really isn’t nearly as good as the American version. You can also get Royal Extra Stout from Trinidad. For some reason, you can’t get Dragon Stout, even though you can buy Red Stripe everywhere.
On Friday nights, the sleepy village of Gros Islet hosts a “jump-up”, a Caribbean street party. Every stand and bar has a jug of a drink that is essentially rum mixed with bois bandé. We started with this herbal-tasting aphrodisiac drink but quickly switched back to Piton. We got some accra, which is a fish cake, as an appetizer. Then came the pork ribs, crab, fig salad and kidney skewers. Let me tell you something about kidney skewers. They rule. Kidneys. On a stick. Over fire. Oh yeah.
Somewhere along the way, between the pulsing reggae and the next Piton, my beerdar kicked in and drove me into this little green shack of a bar. (OK, all the bars are shacks in Gros Islet). Sitting right there, in the middle of the beer fridge, were two rows of Banks Milk Stout. The one from Guyana. That nobody has rated since I entered it on Ratebeer a few years ago. That one. Sitting right there.
Honestly, Banks Milk Stout probably falls just outside my top 5 foreign stouts. That’s a category that includes Lion Stout from Sri Lanka, FES from both Nigeria and Singapore, Angkor Extra Stout and a few American “sort of” foreign stouts. But it does take the prize for best Caribbean stout. (Yes, Guyana is in the Caribbean. Ask the manager of the West Indies cricket team if you don’t believe me. Or any Caribbean person). Banks Milk Stout became the beer of the trip and for the duration of our stay we became fixtures at that little green shack of a bar.
As some of you might know, the Caribbean specializes in other beverages besides stout and swill. And yes, we toured the rum factory. The export rum from St. Lucia is Bounty, and they have a couple of higher end brands as well. The distillery is located one mountain over from the capital of Castries, in the Roseau Valley near Marigot Bay. It’s right off the highway. We popped in for a tour.
St. Lucia used to produce a healthy quantity of sugar cane, but does so no longer. It is primarily a banana producer, with some cacao production on the south tip of the island. As such they import molasses from Guyana in order to make their rum. Side note – there are also rums available from Martinique that are known as agricole. These are made with cane sugar, which means that agricole is basically the same thing as cachaça, thus it is not true rum.
To make the rum, first they ferment it in open square fermenters. These are exposed to the ambient air, including vents to the outside world. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – open fermenters are cool. From the fermenters, the alcohol is distilled into rum. They use both pot and column stills at St. Lucia Distillers, which must make for a lot of fun in the tasting room. The clear distillate is then aged in barrels to become rum. In this case, Jack Daniel’s barrels are used. The JD is very evident in the nose of the premium blend, Chairman’s Reserve. Personally, I found Bounty a more pleasurable beverage than Chairman’s, because it finishes with a molasses note instead the hot alcohol note of the latter.
The best rum in St. Lucia, however, is Admiral Rodney’s. This is a blend of 8- and 12-year-old rums. It has a rich molasses aroma with complex dark sugars. The body is soft, with a touch of heat in the finish. But it’s a well-rounded sipping rum of fine quality, and well worth seeking out. The distillery also makes a wide range of alcohol drinks from firewater 151 to seamoss cream liqueur to - you guessed it - an aphrodisiac rum spiked with bois bandé.
And if you are wondering whether all of the liquid charms impacted our ability to enjoy the mountains and rainforest, fear not. After a roadside brunch of kidney skewers and Johnny cakes, we climbed the Gros Piton. Then we toasted our efforts with a few pints as the setting sun silhouetted the Petit Piton. This was followed by a night drive home on St. Lucia’s famous winding, hairpin, 1 ½ lane mountain roads.
On another hike, we reached places where we could see each coast. We also caught a performance from the endangered St. Lucia parrot, who showed off his plumage for us, but managed to stay one step ahead of our cameras. We saw the ruins of the British fort at Pigeon Island, from which you can see the French territory of Martinique. Incidentally, we were able to try the Martinique lager, Bière Lorraine, but only because Beershine has the right connections. Each island has its own beer, and this is protected by trade agreements. Without these agreements, there would likely be only three or four breweries in the Caribbean and maybe 10 brands of beer. Clearly, the trade ministers of the windwards are Zappa fans and understand the value of having their own national beer. I’m glad they do, too. It’s more fun that way.
damn fine article Josh. Cheers.150 months ago
There is no good reason to drink Piton in that place. In fact the sooner you get back on the cruise liner drinking Orval, Celebrator and Franziskaner... the better. I've had more interesting stops (Antigua and BVI Virgin Gorda were a few.) Cheers!151 months ago
I can appreciate this article, especially because no one looks to the Caribbean for beer, and also I'm a "new country seeker." I'll be taking a cruise this July to the Southern Caribbean, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for unattainable beers. Especially the possible brewpub in Curcao. I must look into that! Cheers!152 months ago
Great article, and great timing. I enjoyed reading this very much. I will be going to visit ST Lucia for a pitiful day while cruising the Caribbean, and know that I am going to look for that green shack and some Banks Milk Stout while out and about. :D152 months ago
Awesome article. Sounds like someone needs to relocate to a beautiful paradise in the name of good beer. 152 months ago
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – open fermenters are cool.
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