RENDERED 3: A History of Malta

The story of a German taste in the Caribbean, and coerced migration

Welcome back to RENDERED. Stay tuned to the end for a special announcement! Now, without further ado, let's get into this month's essay.

Malta is a unique drink that I examine here on two levels: first, it represents the intersection between Germany and the Caribbean (here, I focus specifically on Puerto Rico). Second, it is a product that serves as my foray into a particular aspect of Puerto Rican history: coerced migration. 

I recently had a hankering for an ice-cold malta: it's a perfect accompaniment to crispy, salty food (my favorite kind). Carbonated, densely sweet and just slightly bitter, it's a powerfully flavorful drink that brings me to a happy place. When I was growing up, we always had those squat little bottles of sunny yellow-labelled Malta Goya smiling at me when I opened the fridge. I'd have one once in a while, usually with a plate of rice and beans. When my mother was a kid, she would drink malta with a raw egg cracked into it. My brother savours it as one would a special dessert that brings back memories of childhood. Others enjoy it poured over ice, mixed with evaporated milk, or served with sweetened condensed milk.

Here in France, I was surprised to find a variety of maltas in stock at a local market. This got me curious:  where did it come from?

As my research usually begins for these essays, I started with an Internet search. It seems that malta, or malzbier, was born in Germany. So, how did it get to be so synonymous with the Caribbean, or more specifically, in Puerto Rico?  

What is malta?  It is a carbonated non-alcoholic soft drink, deep brown in color, made from barley and hops. Barley grains are moistened and allowed to germinate, which allows sugar-producing enzymes to develop. The grains are then dried, roasted, and soaked in hot water, which allows the grain's starch to convert to sugar. The result is 'wort,' a brown, sweet liquid, to which hops are added and boiled. (To make beer, this mixture would be fermented.)  From here, different companies add varying proportions of caramel colorants, sweeteners like sugar or corn syrup, and extra B vitamins to the product before bottling. 

Malta is made all over the world, but production is primarily centered in the Caribbean. Outside the Caribbean, malta is also made in countries like Nigeria, Germany, and Denmark.

To make malta, you need barley and hops. 

Barley originated in the Near East (the oldest traces of barley were found in modern-day Syria), and spread throughout Europe, North Africa, and east to India and China. Dating back 5,000 years, beer can be traced back to Egypt, Babylon and Sumeria. The drink seems to have spread north from there, where it became the everyday beverage of the commoner. We still associate parts of Europe with the so-called "beer belt," including Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and the UK. Barley traveled across the Atlantic with European "explorers," notably the Spanish, who brought it along with other ingredients like sugarcane to their colonies.

Hops, related to the cannabis plant, are the female flowers of a vine native to the Northern Hemisphere, and have been cultivated in Germany since the 8th century, eventually spreading to Flanders (Belgium) by the 14th century. People discovered that it added a nice flavor to beer, plus it helped stay off spoilage and preserve the mix longer. Hop shoots are eaten as one might enjoy asparagus in Belgium, Northern France and England around this time of year. 

Malzbier was preceded by "Braunschweiger Mumme," one of the first dark beers ever made, heavy in malt, and named for a city in north-central Germany. (In English, it is called "Brunswick Mum.") The earliest record of Mumme, according to the city of Braunschweig's website, dates to 1390. Mumme was originally brewed into an alcoholic beverage, and thanks to that alcohol, high sugar content and vitamins, it held up well on overseas voyages and even in tropical climates--notably, the Caribbean.  "Sailing ship Mumme," with extra alcohol and a thicker, more syrupy consistency, was produced from the 17th century, and would be drunk instead of tea or coffee, and eaten with some smoked ham or sausage--sailors would even drink Mumme to ward off scurvy. By the 18th century, though, Mumme was made alcohol-free, as it remains today.

In the early 19th century, Spain was losing control of its colonies left and right, thanks to various independence movements throughout Mexico and South America. Spain's Caribbean colonies weren't as lucrative as the colonies they were rapidly losing control over. Independence movements meant losses of power, profit, and subjects of the Spanish crown (as in: men who could become soldiers). 

In 1815, the Royal Decree of Graces (Real Cédula de Gracias) was issued in English, French, and Spanish, and encouraged European movement to the island. The English title reads: "His Majesty's Royal Decree Containing the Regulations for promoting the Population, Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture of the Island of Portorico."  Trade was opened up, entrepreneurs were given attractive business opportunities (eg. tax exemptions and land), ports were open for business, and European immigrants were welcome (as long as they were Catholic). From this point, we begin to see an influx of settlers from countries including Spain, Germany, and Ireland, enticed by the offer of free land. Unfortunately for some, this offer was too good to be true. Many Canary Islanders, for instance, ended up being exploited for money to pay for passage across the Atlantic, while others were sold into slavery once they arrived. 

By 1825, only Puerto Rico and Cuba remained under Spanish rule, and there were independence movements brewing there as well. The Spanish crown needed to stack the deck in their odds and bring in people who could offer unwavering loyalty. By strategically controlling the movement of people to Puerto Rico, the Spanish tried to stamp out any talk of uprising or revolt, and continue to exercise colonial exploitation. 

We know that there was considerable movement of German businesspeople and laborers to Puerto Rico from the 18th to 19th century from other Caribbean islands, including Curaçao and Saint Thomas. There was major interest for Germany to have a solid business relationship with Puerto Rico, to cash in on the lucrative markets of sugar, coffee, and tobacco. By operating via Puerto Rico, it also saved buckets of money, as German businesses could circumvent the high fees the British had been charging to trade through the island of Saint Thomas.

“La Estrella,” a linoprint portrait of Julia de Burgos, the iconic Puerto Rican poet. Her father was Francisco Burgos Hans, a man of German ancestry on his mother's side. It is not clear that there were any German customs or traditions that their family observed.

The know-how for making Mumme/malzbier/malta likely travelled around the Caribbean via Saint Thomas, or indeed another nearby place where Germans did business. It may also have come from German businesspeople or laborers in the mid-19th century to Puerto Rico, or with any of the Germans and German-Americans who decided to make Puerto Rico home after World War I. The Cervecera de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico's first brewery, has been open since 1937 and producing its Malta India since 1939. Brahma Malzbier, a 4%-alcohol malzbier made in Brazil, was introduced in 1914--this is the oldest brand of malta that I was able to find.

Puerto Rico changed hands from Spain to become an American colony in 1898. Puerto Ricans became American citizens in 1917 via the Jones Act, and President Woodrow Wilson wasted no time in sending Puerto Rican soldiers to combat in Europe during World War I, and imposing a taxation and import scheme to funnel the island's riches away, along with the autonomy of the people. 

Later, with FDR's New Deal came reform capitalism, which shifted the focus from social growth, economic redistribution, and cultural autonomy to measures designed to increase the socioeconomic growth (or, money-making potential) of the island--the infamous "trickle-down" effect. The land was redistributed, prioritizing manufacturing, sugarcane, and low-income housing, leaving just 3% to small land plots for farmers. 

American sugar companies rendered the fertile land on the island into a sugar monocrop. Sugar profits went to wealthy business owners who resided in the United States, and all they had to pay were measly wages to sugarcane workers. The island's wealth was systematically shifted upward to American corporate interests, and it did not trickle back down. Lack of investment in infrastructure, education, and social services created waves of Puerto Rican movement to the mainland United States for work and economic opportunity, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, which was the case for my family. 

Today, the island is still recovering from Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes of 2019-2020, on top of the current coronavirus pandemic. Despite contributing billions of federal tax dollars to the United States Treasury, there is insufficient access to federal aid programs. Residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote for the President, and there is only one nonvoting Congressional representative (the same is true for other American territories: Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.)  Delegate of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Stacey Plaskett, recently wrote an article lamenting the racist consideration of those American citizens who live in "unincorporated territories," who are treated like second-class citizens, and subjected to taxation without representation in Congress.

This stings even more when you read about wealthy Americans currently seeking to move to Puerto Rico in order to save on taxes, and receiving incentives to bring their business over to the island.  The 4% income tax is attractive to those who live in states with high taxes, like California. For some, the island is a playground for those who wish to pay fewer taxes and live large, in a country where more and more citizens are struggling to stay. 

(Left to right) Supermalt, made since 1972, a drink popular in Afro-Caribbean communities in the UK. Malta Corsaire, made in Guadeloupe. Malta Guinness, produced in Nigeria since 1990. Malta Lorraine, made in Martinique (and the winner for best taste of this group, in my opinion). Vitamalt, a hugely popular malt drink, first exported to the West Indies from Denmark in the 1960's.

Malta is, I know, just a drink. But it is a flavor of the Caribbean, this place that captures my curiosity. It is a drink that wouldn't have any resonance within me, were it not for the generations of movement that enabled its spread. Movement across land and ocean, for a host of reasons ranging from nefarious to honorable. Movement that brought me into existence.

A few years back, I wrote about tasting morcilla and quenepas brought in via suitcase, the memory of which has become a personal metaphor for growing up in a diaspora. Food has been a major gateway into my understanding of Puerto Rico and its history. 

What does it mean to be part of the Puerto Rican diaspora? As each generation passes, how much fades with it?  I often feel like an imposter, that I'll never be "enough," nor a legitimate daughter of Borikén. If this kind of self-doubt and alienation comes after just one generation, what would that mean for my generation's children, and theirs?  What do we make of this imposed Americanization, or coerced cultural estrangement?

I realize that I will have to find my own answers to these questions. But I also know that I will savor malta differently from now on, with gratitude for the generations of movement that brought me here, that I can enjoy the peaceful privilege of putting my feet up and feeling the sunshine on my toes while I sip away.

All that from an innocent-looking soft drink. Who knew?

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