Upon first consideration, it would seem logical that the heat and glaring equatorial sunshine would make a crisp, light lager the preferred beverage of locals in the Caribbean. It’s certainly what the tourists prefer, and the discerning visitor can find great enjoyment in regional offerings like Carib, Presidente, or my personal favorite, Amstel Bright, all served with a wedge of lime jammed into the neck of the bottle, a la Corona.
It's the best (marketed) beer in the Caribbean
But for native islanders, this logic doesn’t necessarily compute. On St. Martin, as is the case in Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Bahamas, the local residents have a taste for dark beer - stouts and porters - served ice cold.
Foreign Extra is Extra Exotic
First brewed in Dublin in 1802, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout has been brewed by a number of licensed breweries around the world since the 1960s, and is hugely popular - it accounts for 40% of worldwide sales of Guinness, despite being sold almost exclusively in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Surprisingly, this variety of the globally famous beer can’t be bought anywhere in the United States*.
The main difference between Foreign Extra Stout and the standard variety is alcohol – depending on the country, the alcohol level ranges from 5% to 8%, compared to Guinness Draught’s 4.1%. The variances are the result of the way it's distributed - the wort is shipped from St. James' Gate in Dublin, then brewed according to local tastes in various markets around the world, with adjuncts (sorghum in Nigeria, for instance) and adjustments to fermentation as regional markets demand. The specimens I acquired on St. Martin and Anguilla had a bit of a sour pinch in the aftertaste that I don’t normally associate with Guinness. They were served numbingly cold, and went down incredibly easily (straight from the bottle of course; a beach is no place for a pint glass).
Not the most obvious choice on the beach
The other dark tipple that I found commonly on bar menus and for sale in beachside markets was Mackeson Triple Stout. Nearly impossible to find in the American market, Mackeson is a major player on the bar menus of the West Indies. Its popularity appears to have been preserved as part of a cultural time capsule from the Caribbean islands’ past; in this case, it's a carryover from the 1870s, when milk stouts were enjoying their heyday in southeastern England, and the trend caught on in the colonies. Although Mackeson as a brand has only been around since 1907, and has been available in the UK ever since, today it's brewed under license by Carib in Trinidad, and is sold throughout the region, regardless of former colonial allegiance. I found it on English-speaking Anguilla, but saw it for sale throughout the French side of St. Martin as well.
It’s lower in alcohol (4.9% ABV) than Guinness Foreign Extra, but more aggressive in flavor, with a sweet pleasant maltiness. Overall they were quite pleasant, and seemed entirely appropriate for the heat of the day. Both had a cooling and restorative effect that seems paradoxical for a such cloying dark beers.
But maybe it isn’t as paradoxical as it seems; perhaps, just as spicy food promotes sweating and is a reliable antidote to hot weather, there's a real explanation here. Maybe the added nourishment in heavy beers strengthens the body’s defenses against the ravages of heat and replaces the nutrients lost by perspiration. Is Guinness the 18th century’s malt-based equivalent to Gatorade? I'm not sure, but I'm happy to continue the research. I had no trouble sipping three of them over the course of a couple of hours relaxing in the shade, without a single lime in sight.
*As of May 2010, Guinness Foreign Extra is being test-marketed in Atlanta and New York, so it may soon become easier to find. Sadly, this news doesn’t help me at all in San Francisco, but time will tell.