Colin Presby brews beer for thousands of people aboard Carnival cruises

EC: This Cruise Ship Brewmaster Makes Beer with Seawater
Credit: gif by lauren kolm

The Red Frog Pub & Brewery, aboard the Carnival Vista, is one of the first breweries in the world to operate on a cruise ship. The man in charge of the operation is Colin Presby, a Pennsylvania native who started home brewing while he was in college. After pursuing a career in the craft-beer industry, Presby left life on the mainland in 2016 to live onboard Carnival cruises permanently. He’s currently one of the some 1,400 employees who keep the Carnival Vista running smoothly.

As the Red Frog began filling up with guests one evening, I sat down with Presby to discuss how to make beer on a massive moving boat.

Extra Crispy: How did you find out about the Carnival brewmaster position?
Colin Presby: I saw the job advertised on, which is where brewers look for work. It’s a specialized enough field where we’re not looking at Monster or regular job websites. I sent a resume and cover letter. Basically it was looking for a brewmaster at sea. I was hired on very early in the flow of things. The brewery space was designed, we had beer names and branding, and descriptions, but not the liquid.

I came on in late March 2016 and immediately flew to the shipyard in Monfalcone in Northern Italy and worked for a hectic month in the shipyard getting everything up and ready, getting the brews in the tank. Technically we were an Italian brewery briefly before the ship set sail because it was not a full commissioned vessel and it was stationed in Italy.

What were the challenges of setting up a brewery and making beer on a boat?
Once we got things up and running, the main challenges were really still logistical. It’s a matter of getting things to the ship. As a stateside brewer, I’m kind of spoiled by overnighting anything. You can order whatever you need and get it there the next day, whether it’s a live yeast culture or a replacement part. There’s been some adjustment for that.

This has been a very different experience on several levels. First of all, it’s the smallest brewery I’ve worked in with the smallest equipment I’ve worked on, but it’s also the largest corporation I’ve ever worked for by far. As the largest cruise line in the world, it’s hard to compare to that. At the same time, it’s the smallest and the largest and it’s also in terms of where we sell the beer, and how we present it, it’s kind of an interesting combination of a brew pub and a production brewery. It’s like a brew pub in that I see people drinking the beer and there’s that immediate gratification, and I can chat with them about the beer and get feedback. It’s very personal and hands on and direct with the guests. But it’s also like a production brewery in that we primarily focus on our flagships with some rotating seaonals because every six or eight days, it’s 4,000 new guests, so it’s a totally new crowd every week. It becomes a little bit tricky.

At a brewpub back home, I would spend a lot of time talking about the beers that are coming. I can’t really talk about that too much shipboard because people are here for their eight days. We do have a lot of repeat guests, but that’s months down the road. It’s not like, come back next week and try this.

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Credit: photo by natalie B. Compton

Where do you get your water from?
In designing Vista, they made a lot of good, forward steps with a lot of our engineering. We have a ton of redundancy in a lot of our systems, like power, propulsion, and a lot of the technical systems, which includes our water production system. We have a very large desalination and reverse osmosis plant downstairs where we take seawater and make the drinking water for the ship. We have enough capacity in that to make all of our drinking water. All of our potable water is made here on board. From my perspective, that gives me a nice stable chemical profile for my water. I can make some additional mineral adjustments for the specific beers I want to brew but in general I have a consistent starting point, and that really helps.

A lot of older ships will go through a process called bunkering, where basically they hook up a hose to the local water supply at whatever port they’re at and fill up. That becomes their drinking water. That would be really tough for me to deal with because it would be a different water every time. At this point, I have a fairly consistent basis and I can start there and brew.

Does the motion of the ship matter when you're brewing?
If we have a situation where we have heavy sea warnings, and the captain comes on and makes the announcement, and I’m scheduled to brew a batch, I’ll reschedule and push it back a day.

Otherwise in the fermentation process, it doesn’t affect things too much. It slows my settling time a little bit as the yeast gets roused back up. I just need to be a little more vigilant about purging the yeast from the bottom. And then into my serving tanks, because I don’t filter, there’ll be some settling still in the serving tank. For the most part it’s a nonissue. But when the serving tank is low and we have heavy seas—it’s gotta be both conditions—then we get a little more cloudiness and a little foamier pours. It’s only happened twice that I’ve had to take something off tap for the day.

So do you live on the boat?
I live on deck zero in a little cabin. I have my own cabin, which is a fantastic perk. It’s small but it’s my own. No roommate, which is nice.

How does your schedule work? Do you have days off?
I am a standard shipboard employee, which means a seven-day workweek. In fourteen days I’m working fourteen days. One way to look at a shipboard contract is that when you have your vacation, it’ll be six weeks to three months home. You can kind of think of that as all of your collected weekends. I get all of my weekends at once.

The sacrifice is that I work straight through constantly. I am able to some degree control my hours that I can get out in port from time to time and see some really cool places. I’ve had some really great opportunities, particularly during our European season, to get some time out and see things that I never would have had the opportunity to see otherwise. But I’m also at the mercy of the brew cycle.

How do you balance your personal life and this job?
It’s tough. It is. I buy the social media internet package every day, almost every day. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp—they're key to staying in touch with people back home, but it’s tough. I miss things. I miss people. I miss events in peoples’ lives. That aspect of it—ship life is not easy. It’s a lot of fun. I meet awesome people. My fellow crew members are fantastic. We’ve got this great constantly rotating group of people. So it’s not always the same people, but new people kind of move in and fit in and it’s this great environment on board.

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Do you feel like time passes by really fast and blurry in this eternal summer of ship life?
Yeah. I can’t tell you what day of the week it is. It’s home port, sea day, port day. That’s it. It’s some combination of those, so you lose track of the days of the week. Time passes really fast. It does. Months disappear. A lot of times you think in terms of Oh, it’s two cruises from now and then the cruise is gone. Then it’s one cruise from now.

Do you end up saving more money because you are living on a ship?
Oh yeah. For sure. Not discussing things in detail salary-wise, but a same salary on ship ends up as a whole lot more savings because I’m not paying rent, I’m not paying gas for my car. In Pennsylvania we have to drive everywhere. I’m not paying for food. If I get food, it’s a box of granola bars from Target once every week. It’s not a full cart of groceries. So I’m saving a lot of money that way. You’re able to bank a lot. That works out nicely financially. There are sacrifices, of course. It’s a lifestyle that I wouldn’t have necessarily seen myself doing before but there are aspects of it that are just wonderfully rewarding and fulfilling.

How long do you see yourself working in the cruise world?
A while. When I started, I didn’t know. I didn’t have a good idea yet. To be honest I took the job and thought, I’ll go see. Because I’m a craft beer guy, and craft beer is a very inward focused area. In the craft beer world we don’t do much outreach out. We do more reaching across. We look for people who already drink craft beer at this point and I’m going to do something cool to attract them, instead of reaching out to people who aren’t craft beer drinkers.

It was very interesting when I started because I didn’t know what Carnival wanted. I didn’t know what guests wanted, or how this would relate to me as a craft beer person. It turned out that from the very beginning, my boss, our VP of beverages, and everybody on the Carnival team has been very supportive of moving in a good beer direction. Whether that’s ideas about beer and food pairing, or brew some seasonals. From the very beginning my boss said, "Hey, if you want to brew seasonal, experimental beers, test batches, go ahead. We want it to be a brewpub." Pretty early on I was reassured with that. It’s been both personally and career-wise very satisfying.

You say you're hiring another employee soon. What kind of candidate are you looking for?
We’re looking for somebody with experience. But also somebody who’s able to come do this, because not everybody is. You have to be able to leave home for six months at a time, whatever entanglements you have, whatever that entails. You also need to be able to work in this environment, a shipboard environment. We also do drug tests, which might weed out some brewers. We might not get brewers from Colorado, I suspect.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.