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Caribbean Beer: No Island Hopping, Please

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When in Antigua, do a Wadadli. Here, it’s Hairoun. In Barbados, you’d better go for a Banks. St. Lucia pushes Piton. And you really shouldn’t belly up to a Bahamian bar without kicking back a Kalick--named for the sound of a local cow bell.

Even tiny Dominica, an island nation of 90,000 sandwiched between French Martinique and Guadeloupe with no other major manufacturing, makes its own beloved brew, an obscure little number called Kubuli.

Despite markets smaller than those for most U.S. microbreweries and minimal exports even to neighboring islands, each of these Caribbean countries insists on maintaining its own home brew as a source of national pride--and jobs.

As a symbol of nationhood, say the brewers here on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, their local brand is lager than life.

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“In the South Pacific, every island had to have its own airline. In the Caribbean, every country has to have its own beer,” said Robert Collins, the Australian general manager of St. Vincent Brewery, home of Hairoun. “Unfortunately, most of the Caribbean beers are very good, which makes my job very difficult.”

And most of them are profitable.

Each has become a national icon, and most control as much as 99% of their local beer-drinking markets. The breweries sponsor a vast array of local cultural and sporting events--like the annual Reggae Festival in St. Lucia or the Road Tennis Tournament in Barbados.

Just to ensure their popularity, however, there are stiff protective trade barriers in place to guard their spot at the bar.

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In what is easily one of the world’s most arcane yet intriguing markets, only two of these indigenous Caribbean brews are exported widely throughout the region and in the U.S.: Carib from Trinidad and Jamaica’s better-known Red Stripe. You also can get a Heineken or a Guinness on all of these islands--although they’re brewed under license in the region.

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But in each of these nations, people really would prefer it if you drank their local brand--even though most are partly foreign-owned, foreign-managed or both.

Most of the local brewery managers interviewed in the region attributed the fierce brand loyalty to a combination of spirit and substance.

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“It is a question of national pride, no doubt,” said Horace Bhopalsingh, chief executive of Carib, a half-century-old brand that is wholly owned and managed by Trinidadians. “It used to be car assembly plants; those were the prestige industry some years back. But now, more than any other product, it’s beer that is woven into someone’s culture.”

He and other brewery managers also stressed jobs. The brewing industry is labor-intensive, and these small breweries are steady sources of work in a region with high unemployment.

To safeguard both employment and pride--and guarantee the dominance of the Wadadlis, Kalicks and Kubulis--the region’s governments have made the Caribbean’s beer industry one of the world’s most protected markets, enshrined in Article 56 of the Caribbean Community’s bylaws.

“It’s a fairly complex thing,” Collins said. “But it’s critical. I’ve told the government here that the day you throw Article 56 out the window, we’ll be an empty shell.”

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Recently extended for the third time until 2004, Article 56 divides the islands into more-developed and less-developed countries. More-developed nations, such as Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, must pay stiff licensing fees and duties to export to the region’s less-developed countries, which include most of the rest.

“The fact is, we will never be able to compete against the large breweries,” Collins said. “We are the most efficient brewery in the Caribbean, bar none. But still, without protection, we’re dead.”

Carib’s Bhopalsingh, who is looking to expand his market beyond the protected Caribbean and into the growing Caribbean community in Florida, New York and California, heartily agreed.

“Without protectionism, many of these breweries in the Caribbean simply would not survive,” he said. “Most of them are literally guaranteed 75% of their local markets.”

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But there are loopholes, which help account for the foreign ownership of the local brews. Owning a piece of the local brew gives foreign breweries entry into the local market. Heineken, for example, can sell throughout the region without a license because the Dutch-owned company makes beer at a brewery it partially owns in St. Lucia. Heineken also owns about 70% of Piton, the local St. Lucia brew.

Collins and his brewery on St. Vincent are typical of the phenomenon. He is Australian, and the majority of the company is foreign-owned. Just over a quarter of the shares are held by local investors. The rest are owned by a prestigious German brewery, Brauhaase; a British hops manufacturer; and Guinness, which is among the local brews’ top competitors.

Riding on a strong marketing campaign here, along with a widely held belief in the region that its product acts as a male aphrodisiac, Guinness is by far the fastest-growing beer in the region.

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But two of the best Caribbean beers remain entirely in local hands.

Banks, the pride of Barbados, is owned by a locally based international shipping company. And Trinidad and Tobago’s Carib, which has won significant Caribbean market share despite the required licensing fees, has been 100% Trinidadian-owned since it pioneered the Caribbean beer industry more than 50 years ago.

Just how large is this market, though?

A bit of perspective:

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The total beer consumption in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for example, is 22 gallons per head per year.

By comparison, Denmark--one of Europe’s smallest nations--downs 33 gallons per head per year. St. Vincent Brewery sells 378,000 gallons a year, while Budweiser, the world leader, sells 2.7 billion gallons.

“I think Budweiser could produce in a few shifts what we can consume in a year,” Bhopalsingh said.

Although the Caribbean has historically been a rum market, the taste for beer is growing; Collins’ brewery has doubled its sales since 1991, and all the local brewers say sales are up.

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While Carib and Red Stripe are looking beyond the region to expand their market, most of the local brews are stepping up sponsorship of special events to increase their sales and further galvanize their often symbiotic role as a national icon.

In Barbados, for example, a sport that grew out of the poor neighborhoods of the capital, Bridgetown, has gained respectability partly thanks to Banks.

It’s called road tennis, a cross between tennis and Ping-Pong played on a “court” that is painted on the pavement of a city street or rural roadway. As it’s played in the city, the “net” is a foot-high slice of lumber that is lifted for passing traffic, the rackets are oversized wooden Ping-Pong paddles, and the ball is, well, whatever is handy.

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Banks beer has helped turn road tennis into an organized sport, financing teams and sponsoring the annual tournament, which is widely advertised throughout the island.

Said a Barbadian road-tennis enthusiast recently at a heated neighborhood match: “Banks has helped a lot to make road tennis a national sport here in Barbados.”

When asked, however, whether it’s catching on elsewhere, he laughed and likened it to the beer itself.

“I’m not sure we’re ready for export just yet.”

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