Tiffin Project

Holland America Missing the Boat on Craft Beer

by Rick Green on November 12, 2012

Zaandam departing Vancouver.

While beer geeks, like me, look enviously to Washington and Oregon as beer Nirvana, the Hawaii cruise I just returned from made me realize that craft beer is still embraced by a minority of people even in those states. And while one would think that travel is about appreciating and celebrating the uniqueness of place, that concept, ironically, often doesn’t extend to beer in the tourism and hospitality industry.

When I boarded the Zaandam in Vancouver, I honestly didn’t have great expectations as to the beer I would get on board. Having previously worked in the cruise industry in Vancouver, I had some idea as to what was typically delivered to the ships. However, that was many years ago. I had hoped that given the significant growth of the craft beer industry, it may have similarly changed. After all, Holland America’s head office is in Seattle. Alas, that doesn’t seem to have made much difference.

Alaskan Brewing display beside Zaandam pool.
On my first visit to the Zaandam’s Lido deck, I felt hopeful upon spying promotional poolside displays for Alaskan Brewing beer. But when I scanned the bar menu, the sad reality hit home. Alaskan Amber, Pale Ale, Summer, and White were the only craft beers on the ship. The remainder consisted of 17 international industrial lagers, Bass Ale, and Guinness. Perhaps, I thought, that might change when we’d arrive in San Diego or reach Hawaii. Nevertheless, I resolved to take every advantage of sampling local craft beer in every port we called at.

As it turned out, the Zaandam did not take on any Green Flash or Stone, Kona or Maui brews. In fact, the ship’s beverage staff was not even aware of those breweries. Unfortunately, their ship-board resources for researching local products are very limited. The Holland America fleet’s beer, wine, and spirits selection is determined at corporate headquarters. Variety and affinity with food don’t appear to be considerations taken into account when it comes to beer. Locality also seems to be given short shrift. Could this be why the Zaandam’s Alaskan beer tasting seminar wasn’t popular when we were en route to Hawaii? Apparently, this has also been a problem with wine. When the Zaandam first sailed to Australia, guests complained about the lack of Australian wines on the ship.

Zaandam bar menu beer selection.
Were Holland America to more fully embrace local craft beer as part of a comprehensive culinary tourism program, I believe it could offer sufficient added value to its itineraries. An indication of this on my cruise was the popularity of presentations by the ship’s Hawaiian travel guide and a Honolulu-based guest lecturer. A Hawaiian barbecue on the Lido deck one evening was also very well attended. How great would it have been to have enjoyed the food with Kona Pipeline Porter (with Kona coffee) or Maui Mana Wheat (with pineapple juice)? Even Primo would have been better than Bud Light or Corona.

But more than having a better beer selection, a series of craft beer shore excursions might also have been designed for this trip. Given the relatively short amount of time in port, these would conveniently highlight the local flavours of Victoria, San Diego, Maui, and the Big Island – something not possible with wine on this itinerary. And to continue enjoying these at sea, the ship’s stateroom beer packages could include product from the featured breweries, rather than just the five American and three international macro lagers offering absolutely no redeeming local characteristics.

Zaandam berthed in San Diego
With the four Alaskan Brewing beers available on the Zaandam, there is a glimmer of hope that Holland America will eventually come around to adopting a more contemporary understanding of beer. Who knows? They may make even make it sufficiently attractive to the beer aficionado, opening up an entirely new cruising market. Until then, if you should find yourself sailing on the Dam ships and thirsting for something other than soda or swill, be sure to research ahead of time the best places to find local brews in your ports of call.

~ RG

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

shelora November 13, 2012 at 4:32 pm

You poor thing! :)
I hope you wrote a similar missive to the cruise ship company. You seem like just the right kind of person to given them advice. Hell, you might even create yourself a job.

Rick Green November 13, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Holland America also missed out on spirits. When I was ashore in Honolulu, I found three different brands of Hawaiian rum, a macadamia nut liqueur, and a Kona coffee liqueur, none of which were on the ship at any time. So, there definitely are still areas for them to further develop culinary tourism.

HAL did respond to me and said they would share my craft beer suggestions with their beverage team. At the very least, a project could develop out of this. We’ll see…

paulkamon November 13, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Rick, you know as well as anybody that these big cruise lines are not looking to add value, rather they are seeking more efficient ways to extract profit.

Perhaps there is a smaller boutique cruise line that uses a different business model that can make the shift and lead the way?

Same with the air travel. I’m curious to see what Virgin Airlines new flight to Vancouver offers on the menu.

Rick Green November 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm

To a certain extent, that’s true, Paul. However, make the experience overly banal, you will eventually lose customers when the novelty of gimmicks and come-ons wears off. Gluttony and sloth only have so much appeal before people become bored and look for more from their experience.

The boutique lines certainly have more flexibility in changing with the times. However, you will pay for that privilege. Regent, Seabourn, and Silversea, for example, are beyond the price range of most people.

HAL is very interested in knowing what their customers’ experience was like. They were strongly encouraging everyone to complete guest satisfaction surveys at the end of the cruise. Of course, what they do with that information remains to be seen. Nevertheless, I think that given the changing trends in the travel market, HAL will need to adapt if they wish to maintain high booking levels. Travellers are looking to get a more educational experience from their journeys with an emphasis on what is distinct in a given locale. That means a movement away from the generic towards greater customization.

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