By dthompson ~ April 30th, 2010. Filed under: Features.
Tapping an IdeaBy Marilyn Mower
If you think the words brewery and Bahamas don’t fit together, relax, you are not alone. Despite the fact that few things go better with a fishing trip than a cold beer, the ancestries of most Bahamians—British, African and Afro-Caribbean—aren’t those historically associated with that golden elixir born of barley and hops. In fact, the first Canadian-backed attempt to brew beer in the Bahamas failed in 1966,
Enter Jimmy Sands. Jimmy grew up in the wine and spirits business courtesy of his father Everette Sands, who was a founding partner of Butler and Sands, the largest distributor in the Bahamas. “I started working in this business when I was just a little boy not much higher than the counter,” he says. “I wasn’t old enough to drive, so after school I would hop in my boat, run it down to Bay Street and tie it up at the docks. Then I’d sweep the floor, or make deliveries in that same boat or do whatever they told me to do. We all worked in the business and I loved it. I really did.” A grin as broad as a Bahamian beach spreads across his face while he talks about his youth in Nassau. Despite that fact his family has lived in the Bahamas for some 350 years, Jimmy speaks with a Scottish accent, acquired during his teenage years at boarding school.
We caught up with Jimmy, not in Nassau but in Freeport, Grand Bahama, where he runs Bahamian Brewery and Beverage (BBB) from its headquarters on Queens Highway. Behind the unimposing corrugated steel façade of a typical industrial building gleams a startlingly modern brewery. It’s an exciting masterworks of shining stainless steel, complex piping, bright green epoxy floors, flashing computer screens, and clinking bottles. Upstairs, busy offices compete for space with a clinical-looking laboratory where the product is constantly tested at every step, and a bright and social tasting room where the end results are tested in a much different way. While the brewery has been giving tours on an as-requested basis, it’s just started offering organized brewery tours to tourists.
“There is a beer made in the Bahamas, but it’s a Dutch beer made by a Dutch company,” says Jimmy of his competitor, Kalik. “I had this idea to brew beer by Bahamians for Bahamians and had the plan completed and a brew license ready to go when my dad sold the business. For four years I sat on the beach turning ideas over in my head, planning the details of how I would build a brewery when my non-compete clause expired,” he says.
Jimmy put his forced retirement to good use studying the players in the industry. According to Bahamian Investor magazine, Kalik, introduced in 1988, was accounting for 50 percent of market share by 2007. Jimmy lined up investors, established a budget reputed to be in the neighborhood of $15 million and set about creating some competition.
His research lead him to the Benedictine Weinhenstephan Abby, the world’s oldest (1040) still-operating brewery and technical institutes in Bavaria. This led him to Brewtech, the largest German brewing supply company, which has a track record for setting up breweries in the Caribbean and South America. Brewtech designed the installation for Jimmy’s beer based on his specifications and even helped him find a brew master to craft the taste. All of the complex “works” of the brewery were manufactured in Germany, tested, disassembled and shipped to Grand Bahamas where an all-Bahamian crew—from architect to brick layer—created the 20-acre facility and then he recruited an old friend, Donnie Delahey, Jr., to be his general manager.
Rather than build the company in Nassau, Jimmy deliberately chose Grand Bahama, the island of his mother’s birth. “There hasn’t been much going on in Grand Bahama, but it’s got all this wonderful water and business advantages through the Hawksbill Creek agreement that Nassau can’t offer.” Bahamian Brewery uses spring water, rather than desalinated water. As the Bahamas doesn’t raise hops or barley, those are imported from Germany. In late 2007 the Right Honorable Prime Minster of the Bahamas, Hubert Alexander Ingraham, and the Sands family officially opened the Bahamian Brewery and Beverage.
Fast forward a bit and BBB now crafts four beers: Sands, Sands Light, High Rock, Strongback Stout, and a non-alcoholic malt beverage called Triple B. From watching a vat first start bubbling the ingredients of the wort—the technical term for beer-in-progress—to walking me through the cooling process before yeast is added to begin the fermentation, and then on to the huge vats where the waiting game is played while the yeast digests the sugars, through the filtration, bottling and pasteurizing process—it is as clear as the Sands’ bottles that both Dieter and Jimmy are men who love their work and love explaining it, too.
Why has he succeeded where others have failed?
“I knew what style of beer Bahamians enjoy,” Jimmy says in a humble sort of ‘aw shucks’ way that marks his personality. The proof is that BBB has grown from 14 employees to 70 and he’s already enlarged the cellar so that he has the capacity to serve the demands of Nassau and the Out Islands. In a down economy, the business has met his expectations. Is exporting in the future? Maybe, one day. Right now, Jimmy is just interested in growing a business for his children to inherit and taking pride in a Bahamian-made product. To arrange a tour and tasting, check bahamianbrewery.com or call 242-352-4070.