“I am a drinker with writing problems” – Brendan Behan
Having previously elaborated on Belize’s culinary situation, I feel it’s high time I said a few words about another aspect of the local culture, an aspect I’ve sampled and indulged in many many times during my year here – the demon drink.
Many countries around the world were colonised by Europeans, and the invading foreigners brought many things with them – slavery and diseases being two that immediately spring to mind. But they also brought beer (or at least European brewing techniques and traditions) with them – the French influence in South-East Asia means you can now get a wide range of very tasty lagers in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; Germans introduced European-style beer to China; and the Spanish were setting up breweries throughout South America almost as soon as they’d finished killing off the locals. (Throughout the Americas, indigenous peoples were drinking fermented alcoholic beverages, made from local ingredients like corn, long before any foreigners arrived. But the invaders were the first to bring ingredients like barley, and brew beer as we would recognise it today).
Unfortunately Belize wasn’t so lucky – it was colonised by the British, whose expertise in beer begins and ends with bitter, a dark, flat beverage, served at room temperature. Preferably by an old, fat, ruddy-faced, cardigan-wearing landlord in a country pub. Or, more likely, by an overly made-up, blonde, scowling Eastern European woman in a Wetherspoon’s. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a pint of bitter – it’s nice to relax by the fire in a pub sipping a pint of ‘Bishop’s Finger’ or ‘Bumblethwacker’ or some other boutique ale, watching the TV or reading the paper, and eating a packet of dry-roasted nuts. Bitter has a depth of flavour that means it can be enjoyed, rather than just knocked back, and the fact that it’s at room temperature isn’t a problem in a country where, for much of the year, room temperature is the same as the freezing point of nitrogen. But in the tropics, taste gives way to refreshment, and what you need is something light and cold. So lager is the way to go (and when you ask for a beer virtually anywhere outside of Europe, lager is what you get, whether you like it or not).
Belikin is the beer of Belize and it’s everywhere – ask for a beer and you’ll get a regular Belikin, a 4.5% lager in a 284 ml bottle that, while not the best lager I’ve ever drunk, is as good as many other country’s brews. Especially when it’s served on a hot day, chilled to the point of glaciation. Bowen and Bowen (Belikin’s brewers) also produce Belikin Premium, a 4.8% lager that’s stronger and tastier (and at 342 ml, the only one that comes in a decent-sized bottle), but more expensive and not so widely available. And for the ladies there’s Lighthouse, a 4.2% light beer that comes in the tiniest bottle you’ve seen outside of a hotel mini-bar (237 ml to be precise). Lighthouse is my favourite beer, as it’s lighter but just as tasty as the others; but it’s not the best value-for-money, as the titchy bottles are often the same price as a regular. And if you’re thirsty, it’s gone in two gulps! There’s also Belikin Stout, which packs a 6.5% punch, and is sweeter and lighter than Guinness (and virtually indistinguishable in every way from a regular beer, save for the colour of the bottle top – if it’s opened and served cold enough, I have a hard time knowing which one I’m drinking). Bowen and Bowen also have a license to brew Guinness, but it’s nothing like the rich, malty, creamy-headed stout that takes a good barman/maid several minutes of pouring and settling and pouring to serve – rather, it’s Guinness Foreign Extra, which is bizarrely popular in many places around the world (except Ireland, where the locals would probably gag at the thought of it), and which is a whopping 7.5% alcohol and tastes like a combination of gasoline and creosote.
One aspect of drinking Belikin is that the bottle the regular beer comes in is made from glass so thick, heavy and opaque that you’re never quite sure if you’ve finished – the dark glass means you can’t see if there’s any beer left in the bottle, and the weight of it means it always feels like there is. Shaking the bottle, looking through it, peering into it, and finally knocking it back to find there was nothing left anyway, are the all-too-common signs that it’s your round again. Making up for this brewer’s idiosyncrasy is the Belikin Calendar, a handy way to remember dates, whilst enjoying the photogenic delights of twelve of the local ladies, and reminding yourself that you deserve a drink after work.
Bowen and Bowen brought their first brewer, ingredients and equipment from Germany in the 1960s, which is why Belikin tastes like so many other lagers of the world. Although the sugar and water it’s made with are local, which gives it its local flavour. Due to aggressive marketing and business savvy (or by cosying up to a corrupt government, depending on who you ask), Bowen and Bowen have managed to virtually monopolise the beer market in Belize – the only other Belizean beer that ever existed (called Charger) disappeared years ago, and all other Central American beers are banned (people have been fined for bringing in beer from Mexico and Guatemala, and had their liquid booty poured away [or confiscated and drunk by the customs officers]). There are no American beers available (thankfully, as anyone who’s ever drunk Budweiser will confirm), and the only European beer you can buy is the globe-spanning Heineken (although high taxes and import duties mean that it’s considerably more expensive than anything local). Due to a CARICOM (Caribbean Community, the local equivalent of the EU) treaty, Caribbean beers are allowed, although the only one I’ve ever seen is Jamaica’s Red Stripe. Bowen and Bowen also have the exclusive rights to bottle and distribute Coca Cola’s drinks (Coke, Sprite, Fanta, etc.), and they produce Crystal, the county’s most popular bottled water. Did someone say virtual monopoly? Somewhat unsurprisingly, when Barry Bowen (who was responsible for most of the above) died in 2010, he was the richest Belizean in the world.
And then there’s the rum. Although Belize is in Central America, it shares many cultural traits with the Caribbean, and like those islands, rum is far and away the national spirit. Although sugarcane is indigenous to Asia, Christopher Columbus brought it to the island of Hispaniola in his second visit to the Americas. Sugar became so valuable that in colonial times it formed one side of the triangular trade between the Americas, Europe and Africa (sugar was shipped from the Caribbean to Europe, profits from the sale of which were used to buy manufactured goods, which were shipped to West Africa to be bartered for slaves, who were then shipped to the Caribbean to work). Rum’s association with the Caribbean includes the British Royal Navy (where it was mixed with water to make Grog), piracy (where they made a similar drink called Bumbo), and as a kind of currency (financing not just the slave trade, but everything from organised crime to military rebellions). Mexican farmers brought sugar cane into the country over one hundred years ago, and today much of northern Belize is home to cane fields and sugar mills (many of which are owned by multinationals, including Tate & Lyle).
Like other English-speaking Caribbean countries, Belize is known for its dark rums, which have a fuller taste and more of the underlying molasses flavour (Spanish-speaking countries are known for their gold rums, which are lighter). Belize also produces some white rum, which is what you get if you have a rum-based cocktail, like a Panty Ripper (coconut rum and pineapple juice).
Some Belizeans also mix rum with roots and herbs in a privately-produced drink (or home-made medicine) called Bitters. Bitters can be prepared with any alcohol, but the most commonly-used liquor employed to extract the ‘medicinal’ qualities of the ingredients is rum. Each Bitters drinker has his own blend that he prepares himself. After gathering the appropriate ingredients in a container, strong dark rum is poured in and the mixture is left to steep, the longer the better. In addition to packing an alcoholic punch that could floor a camel (some of them are 60% or more!), this concoction is reputed to be good for everything that ails you, particularly gastro-intestinal irregularity. Or maybe it just knocks you out so that you can’t even remember you were ill.
The two main rum producers in Belize are Cuello’s and Traveller’s. Cuello’s (based in the northern town of Orange Walk, or Sugar City as it’s also known) makes Caribbean Gold and Caribbean White. Caribbean White is good with Sprite or orange juice (or Fresca, locally-made grapefruit-flavoured soft drink), but the gold version is sweeter and tastier and goes very well with Coke. Cuello’s also make a range of ‘foreign’ spirits, with faux-posh names like Trafalgar Gin and Czar Vodka (I’ve never even tried these – I believe in playing to your strengths, and the bottle’s pictures of Nelson’s Column and red stars don’t exactly scream quality either). Traveller’s also make white and gold rums, plus dark rums, and (like Cuello’s) a selection of much-less-popular gin, vodka and brandy. Their white rum is Cristal Lite, a low-calorie spirit that’s perfect for people who are watching their weight but still want to get hammered on the booze. But their flagship drink is 1 Barrel, a dark rum that’s Belize’s best-selling liquor. It’s won several awards at international rum festivals, tastes smooth and sweet (almost too sweet), and its caramel-ly taste goes perfect with Coke. Or Coke and lime juice for a Cuba Libre. Or cranberry juice for a Cran Barrel…