When we last dropped in on our resident beer connoisseur cruise reporter, he was examining brewery tours and favorite beers in the cruise ports (click here to go there). This week, goes to the heart of the matter: Which cruise lines offer the best selection and most interesting brews, which ships offer the best beer-drinker's ambience and amenities, and which brews rank among the favorite beers at sea.
What's on Tap? (and Bottles, and Cans)
Topic number one is selection, and while some lines stick with the standards -- regular and light Bud, Coors, Miller and Michelob with Heineken, Corona, Becks, Bass, Grolsch and Guinness appearing frequently as import choices -- some go a lot further, often stocking local brews from their sailing regions. Since beverage managers often have discretion as to which local brews they choose -- and since not all beers are carried at all times -- remember that the polling numbers that appear below are entirely unscientific and probably unreliable to boot. Call it my tribute to the current political season.
In terms of overall selection, Cunard (www.cunard.com) is the king of beers, with a list of 37-plus choices throughout the year. On draught, you'll find selections like Stella Artois (their best-seller), Carlsberg, Guinness, and British ales like Tetley's, Boddington's and Bass. The selection in bottles adds even more international flavor, bringing in Grolsch (Holland), Pilsner Urquell (Czech), Singha (Thailand), Tiger (Singapore), Ringes (Norway), Erdinger and Holsten (Germany) and Hoegaarden (Belgium).
Coming in a close second is Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com), whose regular 35-brand list includes quality brews like Bass; Boddington's; Foster's (in the 25-ounce oil can!); Harp, Murphy's Stout, and Murphy's Amber (Ireland); Kirin and Asahi (Japan); Newcastle Brown Ale (UK) and Singha (Thailand). On Alaska sailings, RCI's ships stock Midnight Sun's Fireweed Honey Wheat Beer and Kodiak Nut Brown Ale (brewed in Anchorage); Grant's Hefe Weizen and Lazy Days Summer Ale (Washington) and Alaska Brewing Company's Alaskan Amber, Alaskan Pale Ale, and Alaskan ESB.
Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing is a regional powerhouse, also supplying Alaska sailings of Carnival, Cruise West, Clipper, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian and Lindblad Expeditions. On adventurous Glacier Bay Cruiseline, Alaskan Amber is the number-one seller.
Third place in the choice awards is luxury line Crystal (www.crystalcruises.com). Despite their protestation that "we don't have a huge beer-drinking crowd" (like that'd be a bad thing?) the line still stocks some 30 selections, including Carlsberg, Kirin, Sapporo, Ringnes, Tsing Tao and Asahi Dry. They even offer a special $2 "Beer of the Day" from noon to 5:30pm in all bars.
Coming in fourth is Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com) with 27 brands, though their list is heavily weighted toward mainstream domestics and reliable imports such as Bass and Dos Equis. In Hawaii, the line stocks locally brewed Kona Longboard Lager, while Alaska itineraries feature Alaskan Amber.
"We try to stock local beers of good name wherever we're sailing," says Radisson's food and beverage director, Oliver Hammerer. "Victoria Bitter and Fosters in Australia, Tsing Tao in China, KEO in Cyprus, Alhambra in Spain, Castle Lager in South Africa, Brahma in Brazil, Bombay Beer in India, Maccabee in Israel, Nastro Azzuro in Italy, Baltika in Russia . . . just to mention a few."
Carnival, like NCL, concentrates heavily on American brews, though quality imports like Pilsner Urquell, Bass, Boddingtons, Grolsch, Red Stripe and Fosters pepper the list. Sailings from Galveston feature Texas-brewed Shiner Bock, while Alaska sailings feature the ubiquitous Alaskan Amber.
Small-ship lines share some kinship with small-batch breweries, so it's no surprise they generally offer an interesting selection.
On Alaska and Pacific Northwest itineraries, Lindblad Expeditions' ships (www.expeditions.com) stock Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Obsidain Stout and Quail Springs IPA (Oregon); Flagship Maritime Pacific Red Ale (Washington); Granville Island Lager and Pale Ale (Vancouver, BC); and almost the whole line of Alaskan Brewing Company's beers, ales and stouts. Ditto on Alaska Brewing for Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com), which on Alaska itineraries also stocks Midnight Sun Brewing Company's Kodiak Brown Ale and Sockeye Red (Alaska), Full Sail Amber (Oregon), Pyramid Hefeweizen (Washington) and Bridgeport Porter (Oregon). Sailings in Baja stock up on Bohemia, Corona Extra, Modello Especial and Pacifico.
At Clipper Cruise Line (www.clippercruise.com), purchasing director Bruce Tschampel has a personal interest in regional brews. "Being a beer lover, I'm very aware that having local beers adds some 'flavor' to the locations we sail. We treat beer just like we treat local seafood, wine and produce -- we try to find the best representation of the area. Local beers are traditionally some of the best-sellers onboard." In Alaska, Clipper sticks mostly to Alaskan Brewing's various brews. In Panama, the line stocks Atlas and Panama; in Mexico, Pacifico and Negra Modelo; in Costa Rica, Imperial; in Argentina, Quilmes and Isenbeck; in New Zealand, Lion Red and Speights Pale Ale; and in Canada, Moosehead and Alexander Keith's Pale Ale. (The latter brewed in Halifax, where Keith's offers one of the best brewery tours going -- see previous article).
Even cruise lines that lack a truly outstanding beer selection often have some surprisingly good choices hidden in the fridge. Costa Cruises (www.costacruise.com) stocks the delicious Paulaner Weissbrau and the very Italian Peroni. On European itineraries, Princess (www.princess.com) stocks John Smith's, Stella Artois, Boddingtons, Carlsberg and Peroni.
Best Onboard Beer Bars
But selection isn't everything. After all, what good's a great beer if you have to drink it in a crappy bar?
On Royal Caribbean's huge Voyager-class ships (Voyager, Explorer, Adventure, Navigator and Mariner of the Seas), beer drinkers can choose between several amenable venues. On the indoor, main-streetesque Royal Promenade, an English/Irish-style pub offers dark woody interiors, acoustic music in the evenings and a handful of beers on tap: Heineken, Murphy's Stout and one "utility" brand like Miller Lite or Bud Lite. Does the choice of Murphy's over Guinness mean RCI is siding with Cork in its long battle with its Dublin rival? Apparently not. "We used to offer Guinness," says Jaye Hilton, RCI's manager of corporate communications, "but they have a special tap system that they aren't able to support regularly for us shipboard, so we've had to drop it and just go to the special cans with the gas pellets in them."
Right across the promenade, Voyager, Explorer and Adventure of the Seas have a comfortable if not too distinguished sports bar where big, raucous crowds gather to watch games on the big screen. All three ships (plus their Voyager-class sisters Navigator and Mariner of the Seas) also offer a second, golf-themed sports bar way up on the top deck, with windows letting onto the basketball court and other sports facilities just outside.
More down to earth are the sports bars on Norwegian Cruise Line's older Norwegian Dream and Norwegian Wind, with their comfortable round booths and total lack of chi-chi. These are real "pitchers of Bud" kind of bars, the kind that bring a warm glow to many a beer fan's heart.
NCL's newer Norwegian Spirit, Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Star go a bit more theatrical with their British-themed pubs, which feature piano entertainment, big-screen TVs for sports and fish-and-chips for the obligatory salt jolt. Star also has a covered outdoor Bier Garten high on deck 14, overlooking the pool. Stocked with German pilsner, hefeweizen and wheat beers, it also offers beer amenities like weisswurst and pretzels.
Cunard's Queen Mary 2 has a pub to match her fantastic beer list. Though too big to be cozy, the Golden Lion is English through and through, serving fish-and-chips, bangers-and-mash, and other pub food for lunch. Beer tastings are offered regularly, with each participant savoring six half-pints apiece. Future plans call for special tastings and lectures conducted by the former chief brewmaster from Becks.
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (www.windjammer.com) is a special case for beer lovers. While the line's selection is limited (Bud, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Heineken and Guinness, with Carib and Red Stripe holding the flag for Caribbean brews), the atmosphere on board is like your favorite neighborhood bar -- except you get to live there for a week. "Windjammer is definitely a beers-drinker's cruise line," says rep Marc Burton. "Then again, we do a lot of rum too. It sure would be a toss-up."
Of course, to some people the optimal place to drink beer on a cruise ship is in the hot tub. Among the lines that offer beer buckets, beer helmets and other mini-coolers you can take to the pool with you are Carnival (about $1.50 savings on four bottles), Costa, NCL (six beers in a bucket for the price of five) and Princess (five in a bucket for the price of four).
Can You Judge a Cruise Line by Its #1 Selling Beer?
I have no idea, but it's a thought.
According to my thoroughly unscientific poll, Corona, Bud and Heineken are tied for the honor of being the #1 beer at sea. Various cruise lines report their faves as follows:
Crystal: Corona, Heineken, Budweiser
Cunard: Stella Artois
Glacier Bay: Alaskan Amber (on Alaska itineraries)
Holland America: Corona
Lindblad: Corona, Budweiser
NCL: Budweiser, Heineken
Princess: Dos Equis
Radisson: Heineken, Budweiser, Miller
Royal Caribbean: Corona
- Windjammer: Heineken, Carib Bud Light
And now for a topic that'll make most beer connoisseurs grimace: light and low-carb brews. While the proliferation of high-tech gyms and spas aboard today's cruise ships might point to a trend against calorie-heavy pleasures, my results were mixed. Carnival and Holland America report that light beers sell as well or better than regular beers, with low-carb Michelob Ultra making inroads as well. "Light beers do better than regular beers," says Steve Kirsch, Holland America's food and beverage director, "though Michelob Ultra is starting to pick up, especially with the women." Royal Caribbean and Windjammer report a similar low-carb trend.
Results are mixed with NCL, which reports minimal consumption of low-carb brews, though Bud Light is a big seller, with numbers not far behind regular Bud. Radisson Seven Seas sells light and regular beers in approximately equal amounts.
Passengers on the small-ship lines seem to be resisting the siren song of light and low-carb beers. "I think most of our guests think carbs are the thing that feeds gas into their V-6," says Cruise West's director of hotel operations, Mike Forte.
Mary Jo Viederman of Lindblad Expeditions concurs: "We sell light beer, but our guests aren't interested in low-carb beers -- and the same with food." Glacier Bay reports minimal light and low-carb sales, as does luxe line Crystal.
Before we run off for a pint or two, here's a little gift to help buck you up when the low-calorie angel starts whispering in your ear: Hard as it is to believe, a good stout such as Guinness actually has fewer calories than many seemingly lighter beers: There are 125 calories in a 12-ounce glass of Guiness, compared to 143 for regular Budweiser, 145 for Sam Adams Pale Ale, 155 for Michelob, 160 for Pilsner Urquell and 166 for Heineken. Even light beers aren't too much lighter, with Bud Light coming in at 110 calories, Coors Light at 102, and Miller Lite at 96. (Figures reported by RealBeer.com online at www.realbeer.com/edu/health/calories.php).
To your health!