In every Caribbean country, a locally made brew is always the number one beer. Typically this is a lager with just enough complexity to complement Caribbean food, but easy-going enough to enjoy several bottles in the warm weather of the region without getting overwhelmed. Identifying this brand is easy, the billboards are everywhere, bars are bedecked in their branding, and the bottles are always within easy reach. Notably, these brands may command local loyalty at home, but in other Caribbean countries few drinkers are fans. For example, Red Stripe is the most popular beer in Jamaica, but in Barbados and Trinidad finding it stocked in a store is hard and finding a staunch Red Stripe drinker is even harder. On those islands, Banks Beer and Carib Beer respectively are the number one brands.
Visitors to the English-speaking Caribbean may notice one exception to this; A beer that seems to be universally loved in every country. A brand so closely associated with the region that many drinkers are unaware of its origin in Ireland, and so synonymous with a style that the name is often used as a stand-in for the word “stout”. This brand is Guinness. The story of Guinness in the Caribbean is interwoven into a larger saga of how stout became a globally popular style of beer and allowed a Dublin brewery to grow into one of the largest beverage conglomerates in the world.
Arthur Guinness began brewing beer in 1756, but he only established a brewery in Dublin three years later. At this time, a popular style made in the British Isles was a dark, sweet beer known as porter. Porter acquired both the black colour and rich character from the roasted malt that made up the majority of grain used in the beer. The name came from the porters who offloaded ships at the London Docks as well as the street porters who moved goods throughout the city. Both groups were among the most enthusiastic drinkers of this rich, nourishing beer.
Like most other brewers of that era, Guinness made ale as well as porter but by 1799 the brewing of ale was discontinued and the focus was placed entirely on perfecting the four types of porter that would form the foundation for the brand. Town Porter was brewed to be sold within Dublin, while the slightly stronger and more hoppy Country Porter was available at pubs across all of Ireland. Keeping Porter, a flat beer that was slightly stale was not sold. Instead, it was used for blending into other products to preserve them and ensure consistency. The fourth of these was Superior Porter, a stronger product with more hops and a greater proportion of aged stock blended into each cask.
In 1801, an entry in a brewery journal for West Indies Porter marked an addition to these four, and the earliest reference to Guinness brewing a beer specifically for the Caribbean market. This was not the first porter ever exported to the region. Records indicate that London brewers were shipping that style of beer to Jamaica and Barbados since the middle of the previous century. It is also likely that Guinness shipped porter to the region long before coming up with West Indies Porter. What West Indies Porter represented was the perfection of the brewing methods for making a robust porter that would best survive the long journey across the Atlantic and the heat and humidity of the Caribbean. Guinness West Indies Porter was brewed to be stronger, and fortified with extra hops and a small amount of sour beer. This new product would play an important role in Guinness growing into a global giant since within a few years this new beer was being shipped to Africa, Australia, and North America.
Twenty years after the introduction of West Indies Porter, another flagship product was introduced. A stronger version of Superior Porter first called Extra Superior Porter and eventually Guinness Extra Stout. In a similar manner, West Indies Porter would be renamed Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.
Both of those stouts are still produced by Guinness, but they are no longer brewed the way that they were when they were first introduced. As Guinness grew, they started making changes to the way that they made beer. Local Irish barley was increasingly used instead of the traditional brown malt. A new type of dark malt known as patent malt also began to be used for color and flavour, allowing for a greater proportion of pale malt to be used and further reducing the amount of brown malt used by Guinness. These changes lead to a divergence in style over time between Irish stout and London porter. The latter still relied heavily on brown malt and was both sweeter and thicker than the dry Irish stouts.
Specializing in stout allowed Guinness to further refine the art and science of brewing their iconic black beer. Strategic expansions to the brewery improved efficiency and output so that Guinness was able to export more stout from Ireland. Constantly focusing on improving Foreign Extra Stout ensured that the beer could affordably reach drinkers on far off shores. While popular with British expatriates and soldiers on every continent that they were stationed, Foreign Extra Stout was especially enjoyed by the Irish who saw it as part of their identity. As an ethnic group, the Irish were a complicated people within the greater British Empire. They existed as both colonized and colonizers in different parts of the world. In the Caribbean, some were well respected merchants and plantation owners, while others were indentured servants living in slave-like conditions. The majority of the Irish in the Caribbean, as well as much of the free people of colour could not afford the expensive ingredients for rum punch, which was the preferred beverage of the plantocracy. They were stout drinkers, enjoying it fresh from the cask poured into tumblers and jars as well as in a beverage known as flip.
Flip was a phenomenon all across the Anglo-Atlantic world, and while the preparation differed according to various local traditions, it always used the same ingredients; dark beer, rum, milk, and sugar cane syrup. In England, the ingredients would be heated in a saucepan before serving, but in North America where it was far more popular, they would be poured into an earthenware pitcher and heated with a fireplace poker. In the Caribbean, the ingredients were not heated, simply combined and served as a rum cream liqueur. Dock workers and others in physically demanding jobs drank flip, leading to an association with virility and vitality. Beverages like this helped to establish stout’s growing global status as a hearty and healthy beverage that was often recommended by doctors. A modern drink in the Caribbean that descended from flip called stout punch is still seen as a male libido booster.
While the market for stout in the Caribbean kept growing, Guinness did not have a monopoly in the region since many drinkers did not understand the concept of a beer brand at that point. Only in 1862 did the company adopt the now iconic logo based on the harp that is also on the coat of arms of Ireland and Monserrat. Even so, export bottlers still used their own name and iconography on bottles and drinkers often asked for Guinness by the name of the image on the bottle. Very often, this was the image of an animal like a wolf, a pelican, or a flamingo. Bottles of Guinness in the West Indies would sometimes be sold under different names depending on the British company who bottled it and the importer who brought it in. In Malaysia, drinkers still request a Guinness by asking for a “black dog” due to the popularity of two bottlers who used a bulldog image on their labels.
From the time that the company started using the harp logo well into the next decade, Guinness would be engaged in the arduous task of building a global brand identity while also consolidating their bottling operation and modernizing brewing methods. For the first of these tasks, they would deploy brand ambassadors known as travelers to build awareness and report to brewery management about developing beer trends. In 1900, one of these travelers identified what he referred to as Colonial Stout in Australia, a sweeter more affordable alternative to Guinness that was locally brewed. Another reported that stout was the most popular beer in South Africa by a wide margin, but that Colonial Stout had the largest share of the market.
In the Caribbean, locally brewed dark beer had first reared its frothy head in the year 1875. It was a cheap drink made from molasses or malt syrup sold by small vendors in Jamaica and referred to as draft porter. When proper brewing companies were established, Colonial Stout was among the styles of beer made by them. The first of these was Royal Extra Stout, introduced sometime after 1908 by the Trinidad Brewing Company. Dragon Stout would follow in 1929, made by the same company that was making Red Stripe Beer. Both of these stouts are still produced, but their sweet profile suggests that they were designed to compete with British beers like Mackeson Stout and Calder’s Stout rather than Guinness Foreign Extra.
Guinness was never too concerned about Colonial Stout encroaching in their market since they believed that these beers catered to a less discerning stout drinker. Additionally, their focus was on their most important market for Foreign Extra Stout at that time; the United States of America. At the turn of the Century, Foreign Extra Stout accounted for less than ten percent of Guinness sales. These sales were split almost evenly with one third going to Australia, another third to the United States, and the balance between the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. By 1910 sales of Foreign Extra were steadily increasing and the United States had grown into the biggest market, largely due to Guinness focusing on efficient distribution and finally starting to advertise.
To meet growing demand, the company commissioned a new fleet of merchant vessels and began considering the possibility of opening a second brewery. All of this was put on hold when war broke out in 1914. Barley became more difficult to acquire, beer was increasingly taxed, and ships transporting Guinness globally were no longer safe from German U-boats that patrolled the Atlantic.
The year following the end of World War I marked the beginning of Prohibition in the United States ending the sale of beer in the country completely. Even before it was repealed, the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. Loyalty to Guinness Foreign Extra would be lost in its most important market and it would never properly return. Some years later, World War II would also threaten an important emerging market occupied by enemy troops, the Far East. Luckily, this loss was offset by strong sales in Europe due to government support in supplying stout to troops on the frontline.
These decades of war were defined by destruction and loss, but there was opportunity for Guinness in the aftermath. The company had never had success in Continental Europe, but goodwill towards Britain combined with the fact that several European breweries were destroyed over the course of both wars presented a unique opportunity. They released Guinness Special Export, a stout similar in style and strength to Guinness Foreign Extra but with less of the bitterness from hops. Due to the short trip from England to Belgium where it was first sold, hops was not needed to preserve the beer. More importantly, the lack of hops allowed it to be sweet and malty like the Barley wines and Belgian ales that Europeans loved. At the 1951 Festival of Britain, another stout was released. This time it was a limited edition product based on Special Export and the recently reformulated Foreign Extra Stout. This reformulation was done to meet the constantly increasing demand for what could in a sense be seen as their flagship product. The principle of blending highly hopped young beer with long aged beer stayed the same, what changed was the proportions and properties of the beer blended to create Foreign Extra Stout.
The fifties also saw the release of what some see as the most successful Guinness product ever, the Guinness Book of Records. The idea for a reference book of world records came about when the managing director of Guinness Breweries had a disagreement on the fastest European game bird while on a hunting trip. He realized that it was practically impossible to settle any dispute on statistics or superlatives that sometimes arise among friends while enjoying stout and saw an opportunity for Guinness. One thousand copies of the book were printed to giveaway, but it proved so popular that more copies were commissioned and it quickly became an international bestseller. Revised once a year, the book is still published as Guinness World Records and is one of the top-selling non-fiction books of all time.
As Guinness approached their bicentennial anniversary, they were the biggest brewery in the world, they successfully released a book, and perhaps even more remarkable; they were still family-owned. Other great achievements were yet to come, and some of them were already in development.
Guinness was always on the quest for the elusive perfectly poured pint, and that was actually part of the reason why they would sometimes make changes to their brewing methods. Pouring Guinness had always been difficult. Until the late 1950s, bartenders would dispense from two casks, one over the bar and one beneath. A proper pint depended on the skill of the pourer as well as the volume and temperature of the casks. A project to make pouring easier was envisioned by the same manager responsible for the Guinness Book of Records. The team assigned to the task discovered that a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen lead to a creamy and consistent head on a beer that actually now tasted better.
As a byproduct or fermentation, carbon dioxide bubbles had always been present in Guinness and contributed to the flavor profile since they cause any liquid to be tart and slightly acidic. The nitrogen that needed to be added were smaller bubbles with the ability to compliment the coffee-like notes of Guinness. Combining these gases properly within the beer presented new challenges, but by 1969 the company came up with a new keg design that they would slowly distribute to pubs. It took twenty years for Guinness Draught to overtake the sale of Guinness Extra Stout in the Republic of Ireland but it gave them an easy opportunity to successfully re-enter America. Following the decline of Guinness Foreign Extra, the company had challenges in bringing their beer back to the United States. In 1943 they purchased a brewery in Long Island hoping that Americans might have grown fond of stout while stationed in Europe during World War II. Unfortunately, they did not count on the fact that Americans now loved light lagers and cream ales that could be enjoyed during leisurely activities. Stout was no longer appealing to Americans and in one of the company’s rare failures; they had to abandon their New York brewing project. Guinness Draught was different. Smooth and unlike any other dark beer on the market, it also offered a visual experience to the drinker. When poured into the pint glass, the nitrogen bubbles would cascade down the side of the glass before rising and forming the creamy head. Established stout markets might have preferred the fruity notes of traditional Guinness, but the smoother Draught helped them regain a small foothold in America. Even today, nitrogen and stout have become so inseparable in the American imagination, that until recently the standard stout for most modern American craft breweries was a nitro stout.
While working on the project of infusing nitrogen into stout, Guinness was involved in another major initiative that was equally important and difficult; building a brewery in Africa. In the last thirty years, Guinness had seen an increase in export sales that was greater than tenfold. More than half of these sales were in Africa, with Nigeria now being the third largest market after Ireland and England. Like the rest of the British Commonwealth, Nigeria was seeking Independence and local politicians were promising to focus on indigenous manufacturing in order to reduce imports. Building a brewery in the country that was projected to one day drink the most Guinness made sense, and luckily a member of the extended Guinness family previously served as Colonial Secretary and was able to make the right introductions. Building the brewery alone was incredibly difficult since the company had no experience making beer in a tropical climate, and the high temperature and humidity would have effects on both the fermentation and maturation of the beer. Suitable housing and social clubs for staff also had to be built and a program put in place to train Nigerian brewers.
Perhaps the biggest issue was that as a new nation, Nigeria would likely face political challenges. Violent regime change could potentially lead to a government that was unfriendly to Western companies. Some of this would come to pass and the early years of Guinness being brewed in Africa were against the backdrop of political instability. Nigeria became independent in 1960. The brewery was built just north of Lagos two years later, and within another five years, there was a coup, a counter-coup, and a Civil War on the horizon. In some ways, the Biafra Conflict paralleled The Troubles that had recently started in Ireland. Both were longstanding disagreements turned violent between ethnic groups who may have seemed no different to outside observers. Ultimately, these political issues would have practically no effect on establishing the brewery and locally brewed Guinness would be on shelves in Africa within a year of completion.
Guinness would also build a brewery in Jamaica to satisfy the demand of the Caribbean market, but its completion in the early 1970s would coincide with civil unrest and an economic downturn. At this time, local brewing company Desnoes and Geddes had recently acquired the rights to bottle Heineken locally and were expanding their distribution of Red Stripe Beer. Guinness was popular in Jamaica but in the face of stiff competition in an increasingly difficult market the operation was not profitable enough to justify the factory. They would eventually sell the brewing facility to Desnoes and Geddes who would bottle and distribute Guinness Foreign Extra under contract. A similar arrangement would be made in 1981 with the Carib Brewery in Trinidad and Tobago.
These deals were not exclusive to the West Indies. Partnerships with established beer companies allowed Guinness to easily get beer to drinkers in East Africa and South East Asia. None of these breweries ever brewed the finished stout, they would make the young, heavily hopped component and blend it with a small amount of liquid shipped from Ireland. Referred to internally as Guinness Flavor Extract, this concentrated essence from Ireland contains the sour tang of aged beer, the bitterness of hops, and the trademark notes of heavily roasted barley. Combining these two beers represents an evolution on the original idea for West Indian Porter that offers certain advantages. It gives the local brewers the flexibility to use a broader range of grains beyond the traditional barley. Sorghum is often used in Africa while corn, rice, and barley are all used in the Caribbean. Possibilities exist for one day using cassava.
The locally brewed portion ensures freshness, while the Irish component guarantees that the character associated with Guinness can consistently be a part of Foreign Extra Stout regardless of where it’s brewed. For the West Indian Guinness drinker, there is a sense of being part of a global Guinness community since the same barley roasted at the original Dublin brewery is also used in Caribbean Guinness as well as the Guinness sold in Lagos, London, and local pubs all across Ireland. Today, Guinness in the Caribbean is still made via this method and Guinness Foreign Extra is now an important part of West Indian culture. It’s the subject of songs, the secret ingredient in stews, and bottle sales remain steady.
Across the globe, Guinness continues to innovate. In select markets, they have released several limited edition stouts that all pay tribute to early Guinness products. One of these bears the Guinness West Indies Porter name and is brewed according to a modern interpretation of the original recipe. Products like this harken back to an era before Guinness was a global juggernaut in order the make the brand more appealing to fans of craft beer.
Even for traditional Guinness drinkers in their strongest markets, the company offers new experiences. In London, a city that represents one of the most important markets for Guinness Draught, drinkers have the option of asking for Guinness Extra Cold. When they do, their pint is passed through a supercooler bringing it briefly to a subzero temperature before it is dispensed in the glass. In Lagos, the capital of the country that consumes the most Foreign Extra Stout, drinkers can ask for a Guinness Extra Smooth and be served a stout with similar fruity notes but with some creaminess that comes from added nitrogen.
Both these stouts offer something extra while still remaining familiar to drinkers. They demonstrate that the growth of Guinness is built on paying attention to local drinkers and designing unique products for every region. Right now, the Caribbean remains outside of this innovation, since unlike other major markets there has never been a regionally exclusive Guinness for the West Indies.
This is not due to a dislike of interesting stout since some of the region’s largest companies have recently released special stouts strongly influenced by local culinary culture. In Jamaica, the makers of Dragon Stout produce a more full-bodied and fruitier version known as Dragon Stout Spitfire. In Trinidad, a limited edition version of Mackeson Milk Stout infused with locally grown Trinitario Cocoa is issued as a seasonal release. Smaller companies are doing the same, and so far Caribbean craft breweries have aged stouts in rum barrels, infused them with coffee, cocoa, and even bois bande, a tree bark often used in local botanical rums.
Guinness has a storied past in the region and is the reason that stout is so popular. At present, this popularity persists, but the future of Guinness in the Caribbean in the midst of a craft beer explosion depends on innovation.