Colin Presby remembers a Carnival cruise he took when he was 21 and just getting into craft beer.
“I remember it being kind of frustrating as a beer drinker, because you get on the ship, you go to the nightclub, and there’s Heineken, Corona, Bud Light, but that’s about it,” he said. “In the last 10 years, we’ve really come a long way in terms of selection, in terms of education, in terms of bringing beer on ships up close to where it is on land.”
These days, Presby’s job is to make Carnival a destination for craft beer fans like him — as well as a place for dedicated Corona drinkers to discover something new.
As the brewmaster for Carnival Cruise Line, the 34-year-old makes beer, talks about beer, gives brewery tours, and spends a lot of time cleaning equipment aboard the 3,960-passenger Carnival Horizon, where he lives for several months at a time.
He oversees two other brewers, one of whom is stationed on Carnival Vista, a sister ship that Presby sailed on previously. The vessels, which launched in 2016 and earlier this year, are the only ones in North America with breweries on board.
Carnival introduced its first brewpub with a dual goal: Offer guests a great experience on the ship and deliver quality beers, said Edward Allen, vice president of beverage operations for the cruise line.
Another line in the Carnival Corp. fleet, Germany’s AIDA Cruises, had first put a brewery on a ship several years earlier, but no North American line had one until Carnival. Unlike the German operator, which worked with a land-based brewery, Carnival wanted to use its own recipes.
“We wanted to make sure we were brewing unique beers to Carnival,” Allen said.
And when it came to the face of that endeavor, the list of must-haves was long: “We were looking to find someone who would be exciting, who would be engaging, who would really own the brewery and make it their own,” he said.
The candidate needed a strong background in brewing and chemistry, a solid work ethic, and an understanding of ship life.
“Colin brings a passion not only for brewing, but for teaching and explaining beer and working with our guests that is hard to find,” Allen said.
Presby, who lives in Pennsylvania when not on a ship, has been brewing professionally for more than eight years; a chemistry professor introduced him to home brewing his senior year. He was head brewer at a small brewpub in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, when he came across Carnival’s ad on ProBrewer.com, an industry site.
“It talked about ‘Make great beer and travel the world,'” he said in an interview aboard Horizon during a stop in New York City. “I thought that might be pretty interesting.”
He started the job in March of 2016, when Carnival Vista was still in an Italian shipyard. The company had names of beers and flavor profiles in mind, and it was Presby’s job to work out the recipes. For the next ship, he got more freedom to choose what to brew.
Presby’s operation on Carnival Horizon is housed in Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse | Brewhouse, a Guy Fieri joint that offers ship-brewed “Parched Pig” beers. There’s a farmhouse ale, smoked porter, West Coast IPA, and toasted amber, the favorite on most cruises. He also makes seasonals, from a pumpkin ale to a guava wheat beer.
He brews two to three times a week, usually from 5 p.m. to midnight so guests can see what he’s doing and interact with him. The process is the same as it would be on land, though the water comes from a different source: the ocean. The ship creates drinking water through a reverse osmosis and desalination process — which Presby points out gives him a “very stable mineral profile.”
Presby said he wants to appeal to sophisticated beer drinkers, but also those who don’t know their way around an IPA.
“The beers we’re making are accessible but not pedestrian,” he said. “So it’s still cool enough that the beer snobs get excited about it — and the fact that it’s a brewery on a ship — and accessible enough that people who aren’t are still excited.”
Presby is intent on establishing a “fleet-wide brewing program” that offers consistent flagship beers, but also gives brewers the flexibility to be creative. He is working to foster an authentic brewery atmosphere on ships, selling growlers that passengers can fill and offering branded T-shirts, a recent addition.
“Plenty of places can carry lots of beers, but it’s about the personality and experience of the venue,” Allen said. “We look at both of our breweries right now as these quaint brewpubs that happen to be aboard a moving ship in the middle of the Caribbean.”
One tradition was evident on a recent ship visit in late August: The first person to make it to the pub on day one of a cruise gets a free beer and their picture taken for posterity.
The Donnelly family of Queens — mom Megan, dad Dennis, and kids Cailyn and Ryan — arrived early at the Pig & Anchor, though they just missed being first.
Dennis Donnelly said they chose Carnival Horizon because it had features they hadn’t seen on cruise ships before — “the brewery being one of them.”
His wife wasn’t such a beer fan (“I would drink one if it was free,” she said), but Dennis said he planned to try the amber during the cruise. That’s the most popular, he was informed.
“I have good taste,” he said.
Carnival hopes to appeal to more passengers like him with their future plans.
The upcoming Carnival Panorama, due next year, will have another Pig & Anchor with a brewery, and a still-unnamed ship will carry the line’s fourth brewery when it launches in 2020.
“The feedback is so positive that I think we’d be foolish not to look to put breweries on our future ships,” Allen said.
Presby, who goes by “Colin the Beer Admiral” on social media, is eager for his fleet to grow. After a vacation in October, he will return to Carnival Horizon, which is now sailing from Miami. Over time, as he hires more brewers and the number of onboard breweries grows, he expects to spend more time doing multiple short-term visits rather than staying on one ship.
“If you ask me what my job’s going to look like in five years, I don’t really know because of the way it’s growing and because of this idea of we’re trying to normalize brewpubs on ships,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes.”