There are important and interesting stories in Belize which just fade into unwritten history over the years, and no one ever speaks in print about these stories. One such story is the beer war of the 1970's between Belikin and Charger.
Belikin came on the scene in the late 1960's when so-called "import substitution" was all the rage in Caribbean economic circles. Before Belikin, we drank imported Heineken and Amstel beer, and Guinness stout, all for 50 cents a pint. When Belikin came on the scene the PUP government raised taxes on foreign beers, so most of us had to start drinking Belikin.
Belikin was not an especially tasty product in those days, and there was a dispute between UBAD and the Belikin people which caused us to boycott Bowen products for a few months in 1970. UBAD survived for a while by holding dances; we also ran a club down at the corner of Racecourse Street and George Street. So we were in the business of selling beer. We had a disagreement with the Bowen people over the bottles, but I don't remember the details.
The Bowen family, which held the lucrative Coca-Cola soft drink franchise before they went into beer, is a high ranking "Bayman" family in Belize. They are like royalty here, and trace their ancestry to the Battle of St. George's Caye and before that.
In the early 1970's a challenge to Belikin was raised by two brothers - Arturo and Orlando Matus, whose ancestors came here as ladino refugees from the Caste War in the Yucatan, a war which began in 1847 and lasted most of the second half of the nineteenth century.
The partnership between the two Matus brothers was a complementary one. Arturo, the older, was "street", and practical. He had opened his own business on Albert Street at the age of 21 in 1958, and had learned the hard way, through experience. Orlando was science, technology and business administration. A brilliant student at St. John's College, he had gone on to university in New Orleans, married an American wife, and returned to Belize very well qualified. Orlando and his wife would be in charge of making the beer: Arturo would handle marketing and public relations.
The one thing Charger had over Belikin was taste. In fact, the taste of the new Bowen Lighthouse beer is quite similar to the old Charger taste.
One thing Belikin had over Charger was the stout. When Charger was dominating the domestic beer market in the middle 1970's, Belikin Stout ruled that market. Tiger Stout, the Charger product, never really challenged Belikin Stout.
After UBAD folded in late 1974, I had satisfied my need for competition by going into dominoes, and our team, Tough Guys, became champions in 1975.
I really don't know where or when I met Arturo Matus, a man I call "Licenciado", but what I do remember is that he was one of only two people who contributed to my 1974 Collet division campaign - the other was Leroy Taegar.
Licenciado had asked me, in his quiet way, to take over the Charger football team, which was being managed by the late Oliver "Racku" Craig, Bullet's father. Following the Tough Guys' blackstick championship, I was "pumped up", so, along with the late Ashton "Ifa" Molino, the Tough Guys' captain, I went to Licenciado and told him I would take over the Charger football team.
This was three weeks before the football season was scheduled to begin. In othe words, I had to build a team in three weeks. I was young. No problem. I didn't know a damned thing about business matters in Belize, wasn't interested. Had I known then what I know now, however, I would have thought twice, probably thrice, about getting mixed up in the beer war. thought I was getting back into football, was too inexperienced to realize that football was a big part of the beer war, or would become so, even though Belikin had no football team as such.
I built a young team with great velocity which achieved much popularity. Dusty Panton and Sammy Gentle on the wings; Harry Cadle and Stud Hendricks (father of Christopher and Oliver) over the ball; Sandy Hinks, Albert Arnold, Guillermo Cutkelvin, the veteran "Aqui Esta" Frazer in the middle; the veteran Wallace "Rungu" Glenn as center defender and captain; Russell Vellos (yes, the Amandala editor) and Rudolph "Toad" Bowen flanking him; Noel "The Flying Fargo" Ferguson in goal. The youth who became a superstar on that team was supposed to play left wing but ended up as a national selection defender - Michael "Suffudge" Rushford. (Had met him at Wesley College in 71/72.) Have to mention my backup goalie - Norman "Mani Pratt" Humes. 'Nuff love. Also Donald "Dover" Lightburn. And my loyal sidekick, Edison "Mike" Michael.
The Charger football team was exciting and no doubt helped to sell beer. Charger beer became a red hot product in the City.
Looking back, I believe our beer competitor used their considerable influence to create problems for our team. But that's legal. By early 1977, with Charger leading the league in its second season, I gave up management of the team. Official football circles were victimizing the team.
The owners of the Charger team, the Matus brothers, should have dealt with that situation, but Evan X Hyde was only a couple years removed from the UBAD presidency, so I was still carrying that "racist" stigma. Orlando Matus was always uncomfortable with me. He had Hispanic business friends close to him who were telling him that I was a liability in his business. Licenciado, on the other hand, was always with me 100 percent.
Every Christmas Eve for the last 20, 25 years, Licenciado comes to my house. He brings a bottle of whiskey, and we sit and talk for hours. He tells me that there was a time, between 1976 and 1977, when Charger was offered the opportunity, by Bowen's bankers, to buy out Belikin. Orlando Matus declined the offer, on the grounds that he didn't want to create a monopoly, or something like that. In effect, he overruled Licenciado.
Today, Charger is just a faint, faint memory. Orlando Matus is in Louisiana, a defeated man. Belikin rules in Belize.
But there was a time when the Charger football team ran out onto the MCC Grounds Sunday afternoons in their green and white jerseys, and it was all excitement for the next 90 minutes. The Garden was crowded and rocking every Sunday those days. Berger 404, the champions, with Bailar; White Label with Sir Andie; J & E with Hubert Bradley; Landivar with the senior Albert Hoy. Ah, beloved, those were good days, real good days.
Trustee's recollections note: I remember the beer war very well. Orlando Matus and his brother were also good friends of mine. The two brothers didn't have any money and so they built their beer factory and business with loan money from the Bank of Nova Scotia. I tried to talk them into selling stock to raise the venture capital, but Orlando had it in his head, he wanted a wholly owned family business. According to newspaper stories after the collapse and foreclosure of the Charger Beer Company by the bank, the newspapers revealed that during the beer war, the Bowen family had bought up all empty returnee Charger Beer bottles. In Belize of that day, all containers were imported into the country and quite expensive with duties and shipping. So bottling companies had a bottle buy back policy. The memory I have, is that one of the newspapers ran an article talking about how Bowen the winner Beer Company got that way, by buying up all the competition empty Charger beer bottles and secretly storing them in a warehouse. This broke Charger Beer because they had to keep importing expensive bottles for their beer. Eventually they could not afford to do so and the loans were too big and the bank foreclosed, putting them out of business.