Blues Cruise 2002
By Bobby Bush
This will be difficult for some of you loyal readers to fathom, but I do have a life outside and away from beer. Sometimes other obligations and interests interfere with my mad pursuit of different beers. Still founded in pleasure, this is one of those not-really-about-beer-but-let's-see-what-we-can-find-anyway tales.
Friends had told us about Blues Cruises of the past, though travel agency financial troubles imposed discontinuation for the past few years. This revival of the week long excursion, now called Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, was set to sail from Tampa in late January. Taj Mahal, Jim Thackery & the Drivers, John Mooney, Shemekia Copeland, Fabulous Thunderbirds, James Armstrong, Charlie Musselwhite, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Ike Turner and others were all signed up for the trip. And so were we. With a line-up like that, you can see why sometimes beer does occasionally take a back seat, because cruise lines are notorious for unimaginative beer choices.
First there was packing to do. This being a casual cruise on the old Regal Empress, there was no need for semi-formal attire. That left plenty of luggage space for beer. (What did you think, I was gonna take along a six-pack of suntan lotion?). Realizing that Caribbean beers tend toward the light, often rice extract variety of German lagers, I went for the gusto, meaning hops and darkness. Each bottle of Cottonwood Endo IPA was carefully, lovingly, individually bubble-wrapped. Luscious bottles of Deschutes Obsidian Stout and a couple of Belgian ales received the same packaging. Over a dozen 12 ounce bottles, along with a minimal amount of clothing, were precisely arranged in a big, blue clamshell suitcase, ready to go as checked luggage.
While I was relieved when the bag was not dripping dark liquid on the carousel at Tampa's airport, I still had some concerns about port security. Bomb and drug sniffing dogs, I feared, may mistake my fermented passion for a more sinister commodity. It was not until the bag arrived in our stateroom that I allowed a quick sigh of accomplishment.
Though I rationed these beers to myself rather judiciously throughout the week, I did consume quite a few bar beers. The ship's mediocre selection included the staple of tasteless US beers along with a few innocuous imports like Becks, Corona and Amstel Light. Boring. Luckily, my smuggled zip-loc bag of Cascade hops pellets allow me to bitter-up those bland beers. There was also a mixed drink of the day, usually a sweet, syrupy concoction. I must admit, in the heat of the moment, we had a boat drink or three.
Meanwhile, the music went on almost non-stop. There were three all-day cruise days, with music starting by the pool just after noon and continuing until about five the following morning. Each night ended with a fairly well organized blues jam, starting at 1:00 am. On land excursion days, the bands didn't start until later. At Cozumel, our tiny 700 passenger liner was moored beside the behemoth, 3000 passenger Princess Something-er-other. In a match right out of David and Goliath, we were the envy of all aboard the giant ship. Hundreds leaned over the rails to catch a glimpse of the dancing and experience the good-time jive of Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band's zydeco swing.
At each of the three stops, we searched almost in vain for indigenous beer. In Grand Cayman, we swam with the Stingrays and dined on fresh fish with Stingray Beer. The microbrewery is actually on the island, though the light lager is not brewed at the pseudo-brewpub/restaurant near the downtown area. The silk screen bottle made a nice keepsake, though the near tasteless beer was instantly forgettable. At a liquor store on the walk back to the harbor, we discovered a few rarities. Though they could have been the same beer in different bottles, Cerveza Cristal was my first taste of a Cuban beer. I'd had Kokanee from Columbia before. At Senor Frog's in Playa Del Carmen, I sampled the draft and bottle versions of Dos Equis XX Ambar (Amber), a caramel-ish lager. And at a port restaurant in Cozumel, I asked for dark beer and was rewarded with a beer no longer exported to the US. I took a six pack to go of dark, sultry Noche Buena, made by Cerveceria Moctezuma, the XX brewery. Mexico's only holiday seasonal beer, introduced in 1938, tasted awfully nice back on the ship.
Sometimes good beer is hard to find.
For more info on the Blues Cruise, see www.bluesin.tv.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush