Best Cruises for Beer Lovers

A frosty mug of Speight's, "the pride of the south" (of New Zealand, that is). Photo" Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises Celebrity Cruises
By Matt Hannafin

Somewhere in the middle of the last century, humorist H. Allen Smith took a sip of an unnamed but probably representative American beer of the time and said, "Put it back in the horse."

I recently surveyed the major cruise lines and learned, without surprise, that those kinds of brews -- which beer aficionados deride as "fizzy yellow beers" -- still rule the roost in the cruise world.

Maybe it's the fact that I live in Portland, Oregon, the craft brewing capital of America (and maybe the world), but faced with that knowledge, I find it almost impossible not to evangelize.

So far, the cruise industry has only barely dipped it toes into the passionate waters of the craft brew world. Luckily, a few have definitely upped the draw for beer lovers over the past couple years, both with onboard offerings and beer-oriented shore excursions. Here's a sampler tray of the best cruises for drinking beer, and at least one very promising addition on the horizon.

A frosty mug of Speight's, "the pride of the south" (of New Zealand, that is). Courtesy Celebrity Cruises, which offers a pub tour in Dunedin.
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Model passengers down a pint with lunch at QM2's Golden Lion Pub. Photo: Courtesy of Cunard Line Cunard
A tradition-minded fixture on all three Cunard (www.cunard.com) ships, the Golden Lion Pub offers a nice list of draft and bottled beer along with a menu of English pub favorites like fish-and-chips, bangers-and-mash, and cottage pie.

On tap you'll find Guinness, Boddingtons, Bass Ale, and several others, while the bottle selection includes the fine Old Speckled Hen and Spitfire Real Ale. The rooms themselves lean more toward "spacious and comfortable" than the more traditional "warm and cozy," but the beer vibe still abides.

Photo Caption: Model passengers down a pint with lunch at QM2's Golden Lion Pub. Courtesy Cunard Line
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Carnival Magic's RedFrog Pub. Photo: Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines Carnival Cruise Lines
Ready to rock on the new Carnival Magic, the 100-seat, indoor/outdoor RedFrog Pub was designed with a laid-back, Key West sort of vibe. After the ship debuts in Europe in May 2011, guests can order from a menu of Caribbean favorites (Bahamian conch salad, grouper fingers, firecracker Jamaican chicken wings, and the like); play Foosball or table shuffleboard; listen to the jukebox; do a rum-tasting; and order from a beer list that includes a selection of the Caribbean's best brews. Can't decide? Get a "beer flight" to sample several beers.

Photo Caption: Carnival Magic's RedFrog Pub. Courtesy Carnival Cruise Lines
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The RedFrog Pub's house brew, ThirstyFrog Red Lager. Photo: Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines Carnival Cruise Lines
The top feature on Carnival Magic's new beer menu will be ThirstyFrog Red Lager.

A medium-bodied beer created specifically for Carnival Magic's RedFrog Pub, ThirstyFrog Red is one of the only custom-brewed private-label draught beers offered on a cruise ship today.

The other is 687 Red Lager, served at the 687 Sports Bar aboard Disney Cruise Line's new Disney Dream, which debuted in January 2011. (Both the bar and the beer are named for the "block number" by which Disney Dream was known at the shipyard, before she was named.) According to Disney, the brew is "malty and slightly sweet, made with Noble hops grown in central Europe," but I can't verify that personally. (When I was aboard, they hadn't tapped the first keg yet.)

Photo Caption: The RedFrog Pub's house brew, ThirstyFrog Red Lager. Courtesy Carnival Cruise Lines
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The Wig & Gavel Pub on Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas. Photo: Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International Royal Caribbean International
On Royal Caribbean's huge Oasis-class ships (Oasis and Allure of the Seas), Freedom-class ships (Freedom,Independence, and Liberty of the Seas), and Voyager-class ships (Voyager, Adventure, Navigator, and Mariner of the Seas), beer lovers can head for the indoor Royal Promenade boulevard and its fixture English-style pub, which goes by various "&" names like the Globe & Atlas, Wig & Gavel, Dog & Badger, Bull & Bear, etc.

Done up in dark, woody style, each offers the best beer menu in the Royal Caribbean fleet, featuring 38 brews that range from the prosaic (Bud, Coors Light) to the very good (Chimay Blue) and pretty good (Newcastle Brown, Redhook Long Hammer IPA, Widmer Hefeweizen). On tap is Murphy's, a stout from County Cork, Ireland, that has long competed (with limited success) against Dublin-based Guinness.

"We've found that Murphy's is a little more popular on our ships than Guinness, because it's less common," says Bob Midyette, director of fleet beverage operations for Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises. Chalk one up to curious taste buds.

The pub menus even take a stab at educating guests, listing the beers' countries of origin and ABV (percentage of alcohol by volume), providing definitions of more than a dozen beer types (IPA, stout, bock, pilsner, etc.), and throwing in some beer history and famous quotes.

There are even some "beer cocktails" for sale, ranging from classics like the Black & Tan (a nice mix of Guinness Stout and Bass Ale) to weird heresies like the Michelada (Corona with Bloody Mary mix and lime juice).

Photo Caption: The Wig & Gavel Pub on Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas. Courtesy Royal Caribbean International
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"Streetside" seating at the Dog & Badger Pub, in the Royal Promenade on Caribbean's Independence of the Seas. Photo: Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International Royal Caribbean International
"We do find, on our fleetwide menu, that people do drink based on their itinerary," says Royal Caribbean's Bob Midyette. "So if we pull into Venice, for instance, we see an uptick in sales of Peroni. People definitely get into the mood of where they're going."

While the English pubs on Royal Caribbean's ships provide by far the best beer selection among the line's bars, the others stick to a selection of standards designed to be familiar to an international group of cruisers, and to work with the line's world-ranging itineraries: American Bud and Coors; Australian Foster's; European Stella Artois and Pilsner Urquell; Jamaican Red Stripe; Mexican Dos Equis and Corona; Asian Kirin and Singha, etc.

Each ship also has the option to source a local beer in its sailing region -- say, Brahma in Brazil, or an Alaskan beer while sailing the 49th state. According to Royal Caribbean's Midyette, though, those Alaskan beers weren't flying off the shelf last season, maybe because of the weather.

"We definitely see the drink environment change based on the temperatures outside," he told me. "Clearly, in Alaska, frozen drinks aren't that popular."

Photo Caption: "Streetside" seating at the Dog & Badger Pub, in the Royal Promenade on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas. Courtesy Royal Caribbean International
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An architect's rendering (subject to change) of Celebrity Silhouette's Michael's Club. Rendering courtesy of Celebrity Cruises Celebrity Cruises
When she launches July 2011, Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Silhouette will feature a reinterpretation of the line's old Michael's Club lounge, which started off in the 1990s as a cigar bar (back when that was cool), then morphed into a piano lounge (which was OK). On Silhouette¸ the space will become a bar dedicated to craft beers and premium spirits. While I wasn't able to get full details of what they're planning, I did learn that the selection will include quality selections from brewers Duval and Chimay (Belguim), Rogue (Oregon), Belhaven (Scotland), and Samuel Smith (England). They're also planning "several activities highlighting beer," but aren't going public with them quite yet.

Every fall, Celebrity's ships do an Oktoberfest promotion with brewers Fransizkaner and Beck's, which includes a deck party with German music, German sausages, and other home-style dishes, plus lots and lots of beer.

Photo Caption: An architect's rendering (subject to change) of Celebrity Silhouette's Michael's Club. Rendering courtesy Celebrity Cruises
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O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill on NCL's Norwegian Epic. Photo: Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Cruise Line
Spanning the full width of NCL's very wide Norwegian Epic, O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill (named for NCL's CEO, Kevin Sheehan) is a multi-purpose kind of bar. You'll find three bowling lanes to one side, pool tables and dart boards to the other, multiple TVs for sporting events, and a dining section serving comfort food on its port side. The bar area is to starboard, serving a decent if not applause-inducing selection of domestic and international beers.

I've always liked NCL for its down-to-earth nature and sense of fun, so I appreciated a comment I got from Corey A. Shannon, the line's corporate beverage development and operations manager, when I asked her what "good" beers her line stocked. Her response? "All beer is good."

Photo Caption: O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill on NCL's Norwegian Epic. Courtesy Norwegian Cruise Line
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Maltings Beer and Whiksey Bar on NCL's Norwegian Gem. Photo: Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Cruise Line
Across the Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com) fleet, several other bars cater to beer lovers.

Norwegian Jewel, Pearl, Jade, Gem, and Epic all feature a whiskey-and-beer bar that stocks about 65 whiskeys and 45 beers. Norwegian Dawn, Spirit, and Star have a British-themed pub with piano entertainment, a big-screen TV for sports, and tasty fish and chips. Spirit and Star also have a covered outdoor Bier Garten stocked with German pilsner, hefeweizen, and wheat beers.

Special beer-tasting events are offered across the NCL fleet, concentrating on beers specific to the sailing region or exploring the differences between beer types. In the Caribbean, tastings might include brews like Red Stripe, Kalik, Presidente, Carib, Dos Equis, and Sol. In Hawaii, it might be Kona Brewing Company's Longboard Lager, Fire Rock Pale Ale, and Pipeline Porter; Maui Brewing Company's Big Swell IPA; and Mehana Brewing Company's Volcano Red Ale and Humpback Blue. Tastings cost $15, which gets you six 4-ounce samples plus a ticket redeemable for a full-size beer later in the day at whatever bar the tasting was held. A beer-knowledge contest fills the dead air between sips, with about 20 questions based on beer history and fun facts.

Photo Caption: Maltings Beer and Whiskey Bar on NCL's Norwegian Gem. Courtesy Norwegian Cruise Line
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A colorful Dublin pub. Photo: Courtesy Celebrity Cruises Celebrity Cruises
Around the world, various cruise lines offer beer-related shore excursions at select ports. Less group-oriented travelers can also usually plan independent visits.

In Dublin, one of the world's great pub towns, travelers can visit the home of Guinness at the Guinness Experience, a 19th-century building near the brewery that houses an audiovisual presentation taking you through 250 years of Guinness history.

In Bruges, Belgium, the Bruges Sights & Beer Tasting tour includes a tasting of four different Belgian brews at a local café.

Over in Tallinn, Estonia, the Old Town with Beer Tasting tour lets you sample three beers during lunch.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, a kilted guide and bagpiper leads the Historical Pubs and Seaside Ceilidh tour, visiting local pubs. Elsewhere in town, Alexander Keith's Nova Scotia Brewery offers the most amazing brewery tour I've ever taken, with costumed actors taking you through portions of its brewery that have been restored to the way they looked when Mr. Keith established his business in 1820.

Photo Caption: A colorful Dublin pub. Courtesy Celebrity Cruises, which is among the lines offering Walking & Pub Tours in Dublin.
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The author and his Dad, downing pints of Guinness at Dublin's venerable Stag's Head Pub. Photo: Matt Hannafin Matt Hannafin
One of the most classic of all beer experiences, a pub crawl through Dublin typically includes visits to the Duke Pub, where actors recite Irish verse, prose, and drama; Davy Byrnes, a pub that appears in James Joyce's Ulysses; the Long Hall, with its gorgeous Victorian interior, and/or O'Neill's, where I had many a lunch (and pint) while going to school in Dublin in the 1980s.

Those who opt to create their own tour have more options than they could visit in a year, much less a day. Some notables include The Stag's Head, a near-hidden gem off Dame Street, with a gorgeous late-Victorian décor; the very Victorian Doheny and Nesbitt, which may well be the prettiest traditional pub in town; and The Brazen Head, which claims to be the city's oldest pub, dating (they say) to 1198. Nestled on the south bank of the Liffey, it's at the end of a cobblestone courtyard and was once the meeting place of Irish rebels Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone.

Photo Caption: The author and his dad, downing pints of Guinness at Dublin's venerable Stag's Head Pub.
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Franklin Street runs from the cruise docks through the heart of Juneau, Alaska's capital city. Photo: Courtesy Celebrity Cruises Celebrity Cruises
In Juneau, Alaska, visitors can tour the Alaska Brewing Company (www.alaskanbeer.com), whose beers often make their way onto cruise ships sailing the state. The brewery started small in 1986 when Geoff and Marcy Larson had the idea of bringing a local gold-rush-era brew back to life. It worked, and now Alaskan Amber, Pale Ale, Stout, ESB, Winter Ale, and Summer Ale are found everywhere in Alaska and are starting to make their way to the Lower 48, too. Try a taste of their Alaskan Smoked Porter, which, like wine, ages over time, becoming mellower as it goes.

In Skagway, the Skagway Brewing Company (www.skagwaybrewing.com) first opened its doors in 1897, during the gold rush. It folded in 1904 when the rush petered out, but was reopened for another five-year run in 1997. A third owner reopened the place again in 2007, with much the same beer menu, including the delicious Oosik Stout.

Photo Caption: Franklin Street runs from the cruise docks through the heart of Juneau, Alaska's capital city. Courtesy Celebrity Cruises, which is among the lines offering a Bike & Brew Glacier View tour that includes an Alaskan beer tasting at a local restaurant.
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Roll out the barrel on a beer-themed excursion in Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Photo: Courtesy Celebrity Cruises Celebrity Cruises
From Dunedin, New Zealand, the Historic Pubs of Port Chalmers tour walks you around this historic old port, visiting several pubs where you can sample New Zealand beers such as Speight's, Lion Red, DB lager, Mac's, and Monteith's. At one of the pubs, you'll get a little "beer-and-food pairing" with a platter of New Zealand cheeses that complement the brews.

Roll out the barrel on a beer-themed excursion in Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Courtesy Celebrity Cruises, which will be offering the tour next winter during Celebrity Century's cruises down under.
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The author and his Frommer's co-author, Heidi Sarna, at O'Sheehan's aboard Norwegian Epic. Photo: Brian Major Brian Major
What's the definition of a good bar, on land or sea? When my Frommer's co-author Heidi Sarna and I were aboard Norwegian Epic last summer, we used the centrally located O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill as our usual meeting spot for vital ship-reviewing business.

Somehow, though, we always ended up staying, talking, and having a couple beers rather than heading off to do the work that we'd planned. And that, I think, is the definition in a nutshell. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Cheers.

Photo Caption: The author and his Frommer's co-author, Heidi Sarna, at O'Sheehan's aboard Norwegian Epic. Courtesy Brian Major
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