Island Hopping

Island Hopping Author: Tony Smith The heat is unbearable.

I have just flown three hours across the Caribbean Sea, squeezed into the back of an overbooked airplane, and I am stewing beneath the teasing wisps from a dilapidated air vent. I'm hot, I'm tired, and, above all, I'm positive that even Dean Martin never wanted a drink more than I do. But alas, this is the purgatory I must endure, a parched, unsated existence until we touch down in the oasis of Trinidad. The irony, of course, is that I am traveling all the way to Port-of-Spain just to have a beer.

My assignment, my "Mission: Entirely Possible," is to investigate beer, Caribbean brews, the nectar of the gods. With my lifetime of quaffing, it is something I feel eminently qualified for, a talent for which I should have an advanced degree. So the Caribbean seems to me to be the mother lode. Where else can you find so many hot and sunny days, and so many different brews? The Caribbean cooler, if you reach down beneath the contract-brewed Heinekens and Amstels and the imported U.

S. suds, is filled with a bouquet of brews to slide over the lips and past the gums. There are light, sweet beers that soothe the palate, and stronger, darker beers that pack a sun-enhanced wallop. Each seems to have a character and a story indigenous to its island of birth and each is remarkably different.

The low-key taste of a Kalik is eternally married to the ease of the Bahamas and entirely unlike the zippy pep of a Trinidadian Carib. Can you possibly separate the taste of a Jamaican Red Stripe from that of a plate of jerk pork? After a couple of cold Puerto Rican Medallas, don't you want to merengue across the room? Salsa, anyone? Ah, the beauties of Mexico and her many fine beers, from the frothy lightness of Corona and Dos Equis lagers to the dark mystery of Negra Modela and Dos Equis Amber. The places and the beers go on and on: The pub-like tang of a Banks from Barbados. Stand up and salute Presidente in the Dominican Republic -- is it named after the dictator Trujillo? The Pitons are a famous landmark in St.

Lucia, and also the name of the island's own beer. In St. Vincent, the local brew is called Heroon, which is said to mean "Land of the Blessed." Drink a couple and you will understand.

I do not know what Dominica's Kubuli means when translated, but it has my blessing as well. There are other island distilleries large and small, all waiting to be explored, which make the Caribbean the world's largest, warmest and most visually stunning brew pub. I chose Trinidad as my starting point, not only because it is home to Carib Brewery, but also because I was invited to a year-end party for their 3,500 retailers and I heard that the free beer was going to flow like, well, free beer. Carib also happens to produce some of the more visible concoctions from the region, exporting their signature lagers, shandys and stouts to many Caribbean islands, as well as North America and Europe.

And by itself, Carib has an incredible variety of flavors in its lineup of brews, each one providing a different Trinidadian taste. Royal Extra Stout is refined and robust, as rich in hue as the petroleum that is the country's leading export. Carib Strong is exactly that, hearty and forceful like the easterly wind that bends four-story palm trees sideways. The shandys, a mix of beer and softer ingredients like ginger and sorrel, are as brightly colored as a Carnival masquerade.

And the lagers, both Stag and regular, have the smooth taste of mountain water, maybe from the verdant North Range, which looms large over the front gate of the brewery. This, as much as anything, is the attraction of a Caribbean brewed beer -- the intrinsic experience. Slugging down an Iron City while sitting alongside the Monongehela doesn't necessarily put you in the mind-set of a lifelong steel-molding Pittsburgher. But take a few slurps of a cold, Ocho-Rios-served Dragon Stout and you can feel the dreadlocks beginning to grow.

Finish off a few Belizean-made Belikins in the jungle and you can hear the drums starting to pound in your temples. A can of Puerto Rican India is inherently Latin-American looking, but the taste is surprisingly light, not unlike the cousin of a Milwaukee-born beverage. Beer in the Caribbean, it seems, is enhanced by the culture in which it is made. To go all that way and not partake in the local brews would be like going to Walt Disney World and not seeing Mickey Mouse.

Indeed, many of the raw materials used in Caribbean beers are imported from the U.S. heartland (when was the last time you saw barley or hops on the beach?), providing a base similar to that of the brews we're used to buying at the local supermarket. But some brewers take their ingredients from the cargo holds of ships arriving from such places as Germany, France, and Great Britain.

And almost all use local water for at least part of the brewing process. The result is an entirely different-tasting beer, even if it looks like something you're used to. Light-colored lagers can have a distinct zip when made from various hops, and charcoal-looking stouts can actually be malted to a chocolaty sweetness. Discovering these unique tastes is half the fun of going to a new destination and ordering at the bar.

Unfortunately, management deemed it impractical for me to go island hopping with tankard in hand. Besides, we needed to utilize the palates of others: My own can usually discriminate only between "beer" and "not-beer"; otherwise it's all pretty good to me. So pretty soon we had clinkety packages arriving from Anguilla, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and various other points throughout the West Indies. What resulted was a staff taste test -- as heartfelt as it was inexpert -- of the region's finest brews.

You may not want to base a decision on which island to visit next on the results of this test. But then again, maybe you do. Posted online 02/01/98.
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