The wisdom of Joe Sixpack: Great beer is a state of mind

Joe Sixpack discovers that in a small-town bar in St. Martin, even Heineken tastes good.
Joe Sixpack discovers that in a small-town bar in St. Martin, even Heineken tastes good.
Posted: July 05, 2012

GRAND CASE, St. Martin — "You got anything," I ask, draining the dregs from the frosty, green bottle, "other than Heineken?"

Sebastian, the bear of a man behind the bar, smiles, swings open the tiny cooler, pauses and says, "We got P residente … and Heineken … and Presidente … and Heineken … and … "

"I get the idea. Another Heineken, please."

He smiles again, pops the cap and hands over a beer that I wouldn't otherwise be drinking if:

a)    This wasn't the tropics and

b)    It weren't 95 degrees in the shade.

Weird thing is, these ice-cold Heinies are tasty. It's the same beer they sell back home (though brewed somewhere in the islands, not the Netherlands), the same beer that invariably tastes skunky.

Yet, on this day in this place, I can't imagine drinking anything better. It is crisp and malty and cleans the sweat across my brow.

It's not like I haven't been trying to find a better beer.

Yesterday, I popped in and out of a half-dozen shops and found: Amstel Bright (stronger than Amstel Light, but not much better), Carib, Red Stripe and Desperado (awful tequila-flavored lager). I eventually put my hands on Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the superior export version of the world's leading stout, and Mackeson XXX, a sweet English stout now brewed only for the Caribbean market.

But these are strong, dark beers. They're one-and-done.

It is only as I head into my third or fourth bottle of Heineken, that one of the great truisms of drinking occurs to me: Beer is universal, but great beer is a state of mind.

In other words, no matter where you go, you can always find the best beer in the world.

Today, my state of mind is decidedly fixed on "island time" — slow-paced, relaxed and barefoot. I'm in Grand Case, a small town at the northern end of St. Maarten/St. Martin, the Dutch/French island somewhere east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.

There's no sign, but I'm told this lovably ramshackle joint is called Sesame Kafe (after its two owners, the aforementioned Sebastian and another guy named Sam). Eight stools, a grill, a TV showing the Euro Cup and plenty of cold beer — all you need on vacation in the heat.

For some inexplicable reason, there's a rack hanging on the back wall that's fully stocked with small bags of Herr's Jalapeño Potato Chips — Chester County's finest, made 2,700 kilometers to the north.

I make new friends, boo when the Greeks give up a goal, order another round. Eventually the conversation heads toward the row of bottles on the back bar. This being the Caribbean, there is a good bit of rum.

"You want something sweet or something strong?" asks Sebastian. Strong, of course.

He crushes a bit of lime, covers it with a shot of thick, clear liquid — cane syrup — and tops the glass with white rhum agricole. Unlike the industrial stuff made with molasses, this is distilled from cane sugar for a far more vibrant flavor.

It's called Ti Punch, said Sebastian. "You can put ice in it, but the authentic way to drink it is straight up." I do, and it puts me into a warm, happy daze.

Later, Mrs. Sixpack joins me and marvels that a tourist would wander into a place meant for locals. I tell her it just seemed to be calling me.

Postscript: Waiting for my flight back to the U.S.A., I order a glass of draft Heineken at the airport bar. Light, tasteless and completely forgettable, it sucks.

Can't wait to get back home.

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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