Thursday, August 2, 2007

Red Stripe Lager

First of all, I'd like to say that I'm sorry the beer reviews haven't exactly been flowing in. I've been a little busy with my wedding and its preparation to write in the blog. Rest assured that beer did play a prominent role in the bachelor party and the wedding, which was stocked with Widmer Hefeweizen, Sam Adams Boston Lager, and Bud Lite (not all of us are beer snobs), along with some random leftovers. Most of the whereabouts of these beers are unknown, presumed consumed.

So as a treat for you, I have not one, but two beers reviewed coming up. Not only are these beers from a foreign country, but the reviews themselves originated in a foreign country: Jamaica. This act shows to what lengths I will go to ensure that this blog is internationally focused on the merits of beer. (Also ignore the fact that I went to Jamaica on my honeymoon. Totally unrelated.)

Because I think it's interesting, I'll give a little background of Jamaica's history. If you wish to skip these thoughts, click here to skip right to the beer.

Jamaica is a little bit of paradise nestled just below Cuba and east of the Yucatán Peninsula. The island has been blessed with crystal clear Caribbean water, lush green forests, beautiful white and black sand beaches, and bright color tropical flowers. Such a veritable jungle couldn't be left alone to the native Arawaks, who called it Xamayca, or "land of wood and water," so the Spaniards, following Christopher Columbus' visits to the island in 1494 and 1503, colonized the island as Santiago ("St. James"), albeit half-heartedly. Columbus' family was offered the island in return for his services to the Spanish crown, but were angered with the lack of immediate profit on the island (read: gold and silver), so they did nothing but turn Jamaica into a cruelly-ruled Spanish colony and decimate the Arawak population, who was replaced and/or supplemented with African slaves.

The Jamaican peoples' fortunes improve a little when a British armada arrived on the island in 1655, overrunning the Spaniards in just one day. The Spanish colonists fled to teir other holdings, mostly in Cuba, though some stayed on the northern coast in secret, fighting a couple of battles for the island beginning in 1657. They were defeated by the Brits by 1660, and the Spanish once again retreated to Cuba. The British saw potential in Jamaica, especially in sugar cultivation, so in 1661 they appointed a governor who directly reported to the crown, and all children born to British subjects in Jamaica were free citizens of England.

The plight of the Jamaicans was not over, however. A slave rebellion was crushed in 1690, a major earthquake destroyed Port Royal (near Kingston) in 1692, a massive fire destroyed what was left of Port Royal in 1704, and the Maroons (escaped slaves and their descendants who live in the eastern mountains of Jamaica) were captured and killed during a fierce battle in 1734. Their fortunes improved with a 1739 treaty that gave the Maroons semi-autonomy over their territory, which is still enforced today. Jamaica's population continued to grow as American colonists loyal to Britain left the U.S. during the Revolutionary War to emigrate to Jamaica. The economy started to slump, however, as sugar prices dropped and slave ownership was outlawed in all British territories by 1838.

Determined to keep Jamaica modern, the Brits established a telegraph service between the island and Europe in 1869, and introduced coins backed by the Bank of England soon after. Roads, employment, education, tourism, and irrigation all improved in the late 1800's. Then, as luck would have it, another earthquake hit Kingston, destroying it. The British Parliament and the Church of England sent lots of poundage to rebuild the city exactly as it is today (well, the street plan anyway). Jamaica made contributions to the two World Wars: aiding the Brits in Palestine during WWI and supplying the Allied forces with bauxite (aluminum's raw material) and workers in munitions factories in WWII. Suffrage-wise, Jamaican women won the right to vote in 1917, three years before it was allowed in the United States, and universal adult suffrage came about in a new constitution in 1944.

Still, the Jamaican people clamored for independence, and they received their wish, first in 1957 with autonomous internal self-government, then with true independence on August 6, 1962. The British crown was still the official head of state, and still is today. (This is a characteristic of former colonies, albeit a highly resented one in Jamaica, as evidenced by the controversy over this policy when Queen Elizabeth II visited the island in 2002.) Britain's Princess Margaret and the United States' Vice President Lyndon Johnson observed the changeover that day. In 1966, Haile Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia, visited Jamaica, bring along with him his religion, which many Jamaicans converted to after his visit. This religion focuses on sacramental marijuana smoking, Ethiopia-specific Bible passages, and the "I" (inner divinity), and in 2003 there were 265 thousand believers. You may know it as rastafarianism, named after the Ethiopian emperor Selassie, formerly known as Ras Tafari.

Now this is where I veer off the Frommer's-inspired history a little bit. The 1980's was a very dangerous time to be a tourist in Jamaica. Kingston, its capital, was (and still is) the most dangerous city in the Caribbean. Many Jamaican resort cities, such as Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril, weren't much better. Crime was high, unemployment was high, and the island suffered major damage from Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. In the 1990's, however, the island started turning around. Infrastructure was rebuilt, resort cities hired extra cop patrols to reduce crime, and unemployment was eventually cut in half. Violence continues to flare up occasionally, and Kingston is still bad, as are many touristy areas at night. Muggings aren't uncommon, but the most you may encounter is someone trying to hock a conch shell or write your name on a piece of wood (don't accept either).

Now, on to the beer.

There are a few defined constants in Jamaican culture. The national food is salt fish and ackee. The other national dish is jerk chicken. The national fast food is the meat patty. The national pasttime is cricket. And the national beer is Kingston's own Red Stripe. This stuff is sold everywhere on the island, and is the dominant beverage on signs for convenience stores and pubs. It's Bud's cooler, better-tasting, Caribbean-accented Jamaican brother, and it is a source of pride for all Jamaicans. It is a big supporter of Jamaican sport, including Cricket, which is another source of pride especially when they beat England. It is a sponsor of the 2007 Cricket World Cup (the link may not work correctly until after you have verified your birthday and re-entered the URL), which is held in the West Indies, and they released a special collector's edition bottle in celebration. "Hooray beer!" indeed.

Here are the stats:

Red Stripe Lager
BREWERY: Desnoes and Geddes, Kingston, Jamaica (a member of the Guinness family)
FIRST BREWED: 1934 (its current incarnation)
ABV: 4.7%

The first thing that I noticed about this beer was its large white head. It managed to retain its shape and puffiness even as I downed the beer. It was brewed a clear golden color. Its taste was not bitter, but didn't have anything extremely memorable. Anyways, it's still better than most stateside macrobrews (I have a weakness for regular that bad?). Its finish was clean, leaving a slight bitter hoppy aftertaste, though it didn't linger. A word of advice: drink it cold, like D&G recommend.

In the end, Red Stripe is a great beer to quench your thirst whilst you're eating jerk chicken on a warm Caribbean evening. It may not be the best beer in the world, but it's a step above most beers from south of the Rio Grande/Gulf of Mexico.

Ya mon!


Peter said...

As an actual relative of the Desnoes family, I can tell you that we aren't literally related to the Guinness family.

Anonymous said...

I am drinking a Red Stripe right now and it says brewed and canned in St. John ,Canada . So much for Jamaican beer . I guess the greed finally got to them.