Fri | Feb 21, 2020

The History of Desnoes & Geddes

Published:Monday | July 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Their meeting was simple enough. One morning, two youngsters came upon each other in the offices of West Indies Mineral and Table Water Company.

"Good morning, can I help you?" said the first young man.

"I ... I've come to work," the newcomer stammered. "I've been promised a post."

"And how do they call you, then?"

"My name is Geddes, Thomas Hargreaves Geddes."

The other smiled. "Glad to make your acquaintance! I've been here a bit. I'm Eugene Desnoes."

And so, for the first time, Desnoes and Geddes shook hands. Neither of them could have imagined that this ordinary courtesy would mark the beginning of an extraordinary partnership. A partnership that has lasted 79 years and has given the world Red Stripe, The Great Jamaican Beer.

Neither of their families was wealthy, so neither young man could have hoped to be sent overseas for a costly professional education. Eugene left school at age 12 and was sent to work at the West Indies Mineral and Table Water Company. Young Tom found similar menial work there, and the two became firm friends. Tom remained for 17 years, resigning to operate an aerated-water company of his own. By then, Eugene had already become the owner of a similar firm. In 1918, they joined forces to form Desnoes and Geddes Company Limited, better known as D&G.

The company became well established in making popular aerated waters (what are now called soft drinks or sodas) and distributing the best imported liquors. But Desnoes and Geddes also shared what seemed an impossible dream: to build a brewery to produce a Jamaican beer of international quality. It would be more than a decade before that dream would become a reality.

From the beginning, the partners adopted a simple creed: a good product, hygienically prepared, for a fair price.

But in those early days, hyperbole was in fashion, and some producers of local kola wine claimed their products would do everything from building red blood cells to strengthening digestion and increasing the number of brain cells. D&G advertisements simply stated: "Our kola wine is pleasant to taste, beneficial to the body, and costs no more than other brands."

All business in those days centred around bustling downtown Kingston, and D&G was no different. The partners later acquired property on Orange Street, including their old company, West Indies Mineral and Table Water Company, to enlarge their soft-drink production. Their acquisitions also included a confectionery firm and a number of bars - some 40.

In 1927, D&G announced the opening of the Surrey Brewery on Pechon Street. The first Red Stripe Beer - more like an ale, heavy and dark - was brewed a year later (1928). The birth of Red Stripe would later be considered a milestone in Jamaican history. When Jamaica became an independent country in 1962, a columnist for The Daily Gleaner wrote, "The real date of Independence should have been 1928, when we established our self-respect and self confidence through the production of a beer far beyond the capacity of mere colonial dependents."

The light, golden Red Stripe we enjoy today was first brewed in 1934, the creation of Paul Geddes (later Jamaica's first brewmaster) and Bill Martindale. So successful was the new Red Stripe that by 1935, Jamaica's governor, in alarm, sent a dispatch to London warning: "This local industry turns out a beer so excellent and at so cheap a price that the English beers are unable to compete."

The answer was prompt: "Tax local beer - but not British imports."

PUBLIC OUTCRY

A public outcry followed, and the order was quietly withdrawn. It was only in 1940 that the British were able to levy an excise tax on the local beer and other goods since "Jamaica would have to pay its share of the cost of World War II".

But fate has a sense of humour. The same World War II brought large contingents of Canadian and American troops to Jamaica. Red Stripe sales soared.

In 1947, the company received the franchise to bottle Pepsi-Cola. The demand for soft drinks had grown to such an extent that the carbonated-beverage plant was removed from Orange Street to the Pechon Street plant. The demand kept increasing, and D&G installed its first automatic bottling line.

Over the years, the business remained a family affair, and the baton was passed on to Peter Desnoes and Paul Geddes. Like their fathers before them, Peter and Paul had big dreams. They envisioned a new, ultra-modern plant, and they decided to gamble everything - selling some downtown property and using deeds of others as loan securities - to buy land and begin construction of a plant that was to be the marvel of Jamaica. The old Surrey Brewery on Pechon Street was phased out in 1958 when the ultra-modern plant at Hunt's Bay went into operation. This was the most modern brewery in the Caribbean, and with its capacity, the horizons of D&G widened considerably.

The next 30 years constituted an era of significant expansion for the company. Along with Red Stripe, the company had a remarkable portfolio of products, including international favourites like Schweppes Tonic and Bitter Lemon, Heineken, Dragon Stout, 7-Up, Guinness, McEwans, Ting, Malta and Dandy Shandy. D&G Ginger Beer, Ginger Ale, Soda Water, along with five flavours of D&G Sof Drinks, are long-time Jamaican favourites.

D&G became a public company in 1970, and the company remained under the control of the Desnoes and Geddes families until 1993, when controlling interests were acquired by Guinness Brewing Worldwide.

That early-morning handshake between Desnoes and Geddes has resulted in a legacy of innovation and excellence and is a statement of the remarkable spirit of Jamaicans. There's only one way to celebrate all this - with Red Stripe, The Great Jamaican Beer.