Beer essentials: what’s brewing at Grenada’s West Indies Beer Company

As the international craft beer trend spreads to the Caribbean, the popular ales made by Grenada’s fledgling West Indies Beer Company are brewing up a quiet storm. David Katz finds out more

West Indies Beer Company founder Mark Heath. Photograph courtesy True Blue Boutique Resort

In the past year and a half, a quiet revolution has been slowly brewing on Grenada’s south-west coast, hatched from a glorified garden shed. Armed with some small fermentation vats, a few key ingredients, and plenty of passionate enthusiasm, the West Indies Beer Company has launched a range of hand-crafted ales and ciders, producing small batches the traditional way. Although established with little fanfare, the microbrewery joins a growing movement that has seen likeminded entities spring up throughout the Caribbean in recent years, part of a global craft beer revival.

“When we first brewed the beer, we gave it away, because we didn’t have a license,” says Mark Heath, the real-ale enthusiast behind West Indies Beer. “There hadn’t been a brewery license issued in Grenada for over fifty years, so it took us over a year to get one — nobody in government could quite work out what we were supposed to do.”

At his tiny headquarters, where electronic equipment maintains the brewing beer’s temperature, the jovial Heath explains that his youth was spent between southern England, where some of that country’s best beer is brewed, and the island of Barbados, where his airline pilot father took the family at every available opportunity. Heath subsequently spent much of his adult life working in the oil industry, but quit his job to shift to Grenada fifteen years ago. “I worked for Exxon for twenty years and had a holiday home here,” he says, “but every time we came, it got harder and harder to go back to England. So I handed my notice in and we moved out permanently. Our two elder children stayed in the UK, cause they’d already left school, but my youngest daughter fitted in really well here. Moving to Grenada was the best thing we ever did, without a doubt.”

The only thing missing, of course, was the beer. “I grew up on Ringwood Best, Forty Niner, Horndean HSB — some beautiful beers. When we started brewing on the island, we were practising at first, bringing in a few beer kits, and people said, ‘This is really good, you should brew more.’”

Once the beer hut had been constructed, courtesy of Heath’s friend Russ Fielding, proprietor of the True Blue Bay Resort, Heath began experimenting with various ales, which were offered to patrons at the Dodgy Dock, True Blue’s perpetually popular watering hole. “The first beer we brewed was a clone of my favourite beer in England, Old Speckled Hen, which later evolved into Dockside. Then we brought in the Windward IPA [short for India pale ale, a style of beer]. But the problem was, the two beers were roughly the same colour, so we replaced some of the Dockside malt with a darker malt, which meant that it didn’t brew out to quite the same degree. That leaves it a little sweeter, a little bit fuller and hoppier, and of course darker. We’ve done an English IPA as well, which was very popular, but is not as strong as the Windward, and we’ve done a few porters too. Plus, we’ve got a summer ale brewing at the moment.”

When I sample the Dockside, it is truly manna from heaven: a robust, ruby-coloured ale with a pleasantly bittersweet aftertaste. The beer snob in me senses hints of chocolate and cinnamon in the nose, and at six percent alcohol, it packs a mighty punch, bringing on a swift buzz partway into the second glass. A taste of the US-style Windward IPA brings plenty of surprises as well, with a clear citrus taste being the instant hit, its lighter colour masking the higher 6.7 per cent alcohol content.

As the IPA continues to delight my taste buds, Heath explains that Grenada has certain things going for it where beer is concerned, most notably its reviving waters, sourced from natural rock springs. “The quality of the water is unbelievable. In all the years I’ve brewed beer, it’s never been easier than using the water here, ’cause it’s such a pleasure to drink, and it’s the biggest ingredient in the beer, of course. One of the things we add to beer is Irish moss, as it’s a great clarifying agent, and we have plenty of sea moss here.”

Heath has plans to soon make the beer even more Grenadian, supporting local agricultural workers in the process. “At the moment, all of our hops are imported from America, but we’re trying to encourage people to grow Cascade or Citra hops here. People who have some land up in Morne Jaloux are quite keen on it, so I’m hoping to bring in the rhizomes with the Ministry of Labour, give the rhizomes and initial support to the farmers, and then we’ll buy back whatever they grow. Hops are a really expensive cash crop, especially when there are shortages — we’ve been paying US$20 a pound, and then bring it all the way down here, so I’d rather pay local growers US$20 a pound and not ship. If we can get local people to grow them, we will definitely buy the hops back.” The go-local focus means that Heath also plans to try making his Sundowner cider with Grenadian mangoes, rather than the imported apples currently used.

As the Dodgy Dock fills up with a mix of university students and local limers, the ales have plenty of takers, though some stick to the cheaper, mass-produced local lagers proffered by Grenada Breweries. Heath knows that this business has plenty of potential pitfalls, but seems realistic about his goals. “I’ve seen there was a Caribbean microbrewery that was up for sale recently, and I think the problem is that people don’t do enough work and look at the economies of scale. I could have been bankrupt six months ago, because it took me over a year before I could even sell one beer. Then there are other problems, like there’s no carbon dioxide manufacturing on the island, so all our carbon dioxide has to come from Trinidad or America, and you have to be creative about that.

“But there are some great microbrews that have succeeded in the region,” he says. “The one I like is Blackbeard Ale from the Virgin Islands. Whenever I’m up that way, I always get a case. There is also 10 Saints in Barbados, and Banks has launched a craft ale range, though their Vex Yellow Monkey was too sweet for me.”

Since demand has consistently outstripped Heath’s supplies, the West Indies Beer Company is currently undergoing a serious expansion that will shift the brewery to larger premises in nearby Lance Aux Epines, and dramatically increase its production. “Right now we’re a picobrewery, producing forty-five gallons per batch, but we’re stepping up to 375 gallons, so that’s a big step that gets us into a definite category of microbrewery. I’ve got four people working for me now, and should soon have about twelve. Then we will supply the other bars.

“Ultimately, I’d like to see a scale that allows the beer to be readily available, both here and in a few of the neighbouring islands. I hope that we will get to that stage where the beer is constantly available, so that people can know this is no longer an island where you can only have two lagers or a bottled Guinness. The West Indies Beer Company will always have a bitter that you can enjoy on tap.”