When Mark Heath retired to Grenada in 2003, he seemingly had it all. The tropical climate made him the envy of friends and family back in his native U.K. The people on the southern Caribbean island were friendly and the living relatively inexpensive. He even bought his first boat, a Coronado 41, and was learning to sail.
“It was great until I realized we didn’t have any decent beer here,” he says. “It was lager or rum and that was it.”
It was then that Heath, who first began tinkering with home brewing as a teenager, decided that if he wanted something different, he would have to make it himself – with a little help from his wife Jill, daughter, Alice, and some expatriate friends with the same passion for a good pint.
“We brewed one beer, which we called ‘Hog’s Revenge’ because we used to experiment on people at Hog Island,” Heath says of the spot in Grenada’s Mt. Hartman Bay that is a favorite of cruisers who take refuge there every hurricane season. But without a license, he couldn’t sell his beer; instead, he gave it away – a concept that not surprisingly, proved popular.
“Originally we were just aiming at our friends and our social circle,” he says. “But everyone started to ask, ‘Why don’t you offer this on a bigger scale?’ ”
The idea of West Indies Beer Company was born. There were, however, plenty of growing pains.
“When I inquired about a brewing license, I got a lot of sucking through teeth and shaking of heads,” Heath recalls. “People would say ‘we already have a brewery here,’ or warned us that we’d never get a license.”
Eventually, he got a meeting with the government. “I remember picking up the phone and speaking with the controller of finance while I was in the [prime minister’s] office. And, they said, ‘Look, we have Mark here, this is a great idea. Let’s make this happen.’ And I thought brilliant, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly what we need.”
But a year and a half later, there was still nothing. No one in Grenada had issued a brewery license in more than a half-century, so the bureaucrats hadn’t a clue how to process one. Months of digging through archives and old laws dating back to before Grenada’s independence from Britain in 1974 finally yielded a license in January 2014.
Still, opening such an operation on an island naturally presented some sourcing issues. Yeast, malt, and hops (used in West Indie’s signature brews, including Windward IPA and Dockside ESB) must be brought in from the U.S. “If we run a little short on hops, it doesn’t mean we will quickly get some in. It means we have to change the brewing schedule or think of a different beer.”
In fact, the tenuous supply chain has been the inspiration for more than one new brew, Heath mentions. “Sometimes it’s driven by what we have on hand. It’s like: we have all this and some of this, what can we brew from that?”
One key ingredient is definitely not in short supply. The water coming off the island’s lush mountains is “fabulous,” as Heath describes it. “I look in the kettle when we fill it and I think I could dive in there. It looks so inviting because it’s crystal clear.”
The end product? “The beer is incredible,” says Tony St. Amant, a Canadian sailor and first-timer at the West Indies tap room, in regards to a mug of Rogue Pirate – described as a not-too-bitter, English-style pale ale. “For what I like, it’s about perfect,” he says.
Fellow Canadian cruiser Dan Daniels grew weary of the “very light, watery beer” he couldn’t escape from as he sailed south. Then he found Dockside ESB at the Grenadian settlement on Carriacou. Within 24 hours of dropping anchor at Grenada’s Prickly Bay, he was sidled up to the bar at West Indies.
Texan Gigi McFarlane, who is cruising with her husband Mike on their 43ft cutter Last Tango, is a long-time beer enthusiast. She’s tried the Windward IPA and likes it. It has “just the right amount of hops … without being too heavy,” she says, acknowledging that with at 6.8 percent alcohol content, it “packs a bit of a punch.”
Changing the Grenadian palate has been harder, although the locals are coming around, Heath says. “For us, the real pleasure comes when we get a rum shack up country and the guy says ‘we need another case of Old Mongoose,’ and we say we didn’t know you had the first case.”
If hoppy ales aren’t your thing, West Indies also offer hard cider, made out of the mangoes, watermelons, and pomegranates grown on the island. Heath’s wife Jill gets credit for that idea, which has proven a big success.
With a recently arrived shipment from China of shiny new 450-gallon vats – three times bigger than the current ones – production is set to ramp up. There are also already plans to order the first 2,000-gallon vessels by year’s end.
It’s still a drop in the kettle compared to Grenada Breweries Ltd., makers of the mass-market Carib and Stag brands. Keeping things small has led to a somewhat counterintuitive business practice: “We can’t advertise. If we advertise, then more people will want to drink our beer. But that’s not good – we just run out quicker and upset more people,” Heath says with a chuckle.
And he’s reticent about a five- or ten-year plan, other than to say that he hopes to cede more of the operation to his daughter.
“I would like to have more time and get back to sailing,” he says. “But I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”