Issue 15.5: October/November 2012

Amber Waves

Story by Jesse Katz

Photos by Robert Caplin

 

On the shores of the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, as three thousand thirsty men and women awaited the opening of the spigots, kumu Keala Ching raised a ho‘okupu of breadfruit, taro, sweet potato and coconut before the ancient Ahu‘ena heiau. He chanted of compassion and healing, of love’s dominion over anger, then walked barefoot across the lu‘au grounds to the sands of Kamakahonu Beach, where he beat the pa ipo while a school of yellow-skirted dancers consecrated the seventeenth annual Kona Brewer’s Festival with hula. “They always ask me to make sure that what is done here is culturally appropriate—that whatever happens, it goes in its rightful way,” says Ching, a spiritual adviser with the Na Wai Iwi Ola Foundation.

 

It was a hazy Saturday afternoon in March, exactly a year after the Japanese tsunami left this stretch of seaboard in ruins, and for the next four hours the bighearted spirit of craft beer people—joyous, tolerant, spontaneous, green—filled the Kona Coast. At $60 a head, celebrants hoisted four-ounce pours of piquant IPAs and herbal Belgians, nutty ambers and cloudy witbiers served up by half a dozen local brewers and another thirty out-of-state participants. They snapped pictures and slapped palms, sporting the latest in beer couture: “Beer today, gone tomorrow,” “Abs of ale,” “I love my water with barley and hops” and the timeless Ben Franklin adage, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

 

“Look around, everyone is happy,” said Joe Crawford, a commercial pilot who happens to fly 767s for Hawaiian Airlines, hastening to add that he was not due back in a cockpit for several days. “This is not some ‘special’ group. This is normal America here.”

 

Tom Kerns has been brewing beer for nineteen years, sixteen of those in Hawai‘i. These days he runs his own brewpub, Big Island Brewhaus, in Waimea, where he crafts beers that consistently win medals on the national and international stage.

What’s the hallmark of a great beer?
Balance and character in equal portions. But most importantly, I want to be inspired by flavor.

What’s the hardest thing to get right when you’re making beer?
The balance of flavors and attaining the results you set out to. In designing beers, a brewer—just like a chef—wants his creation to taste a certain way, and sometimes flavors don’t always live up to what you think they might.

What’s your favorite of the beers that you brew?
That’s a tough one. They’re all my children, you know? Depending on the mood I’m in, either our Overboard IPA or our White Mountain Porter.

Favorite local craft beer besides your own?
Big Swell IPA from Maui Brewing. I was the founding brewer there, though, so I did design it.

Favorite local ingredient to brew with?
The local honey. I’m amazed at the variety we get on the Big Island. We make Golden Sabbath, a Belgian-style beer with macadamia nut honey, and Mandarin Gold, an Imperial golden ale brewed with mixed blossom honey.

Weirdest local ingredient you’ve ever brewed with?
I just made a breadfruit beer, ‘Ulu Pia, a light cream ale. I ripened the ‘ulu and put it in cheesecloth bags and put them in the beer right at the end. I wanted to capture ‘ulu’s subtle flavors.

What’s different about brewing in Hawai‘i?
The isolation. But with that comes a captive audience.

How do local beers stack up against their global counterparts?
I think we stack up equally well with all of the great craft breweries. I think our beers are world class. The quality and character is there.

Best hangover cure?
Sleep, water and bacon.

You’ve got a meal of poke, lomi salmon and poi: What beer goes best?
A beer we just brewed and released: Paka Bock. It’s a rich smoky lager with cherry and beechwood smoke.

You’ve got a six-pack of your favorite local beer: Where’s the best place in the Islands to drink it?
Besides our own beer garden, I’d have to say 69 Beach by Kawaihae.

—Interviewed by Julia Steele

Like wine in the ’70s and coffee in the ’90s, beer is enjoying its artisanal moment in the United States, long the domain of yellow mass-produced fizz. As recently as the 1980s, the nation had fewer than fifty breweries, nearly all making interchangeable lagers designed to be accessible (i.e., chuggable) and packaged in suitcases of eighteen or thirty. Today we still have those four dozen large manufacturers; they control 95 percent of the beer market. But the other 5 percent now includes eighty-eight regional breweries, 789 microbreweries and 1,063 brewpubs—and most of them are exploring the full spectrum of grains and yeasts, including limited seasonal releases and even smaller cask-aged batches. America’s beer renaissance is old news in some quarters, Portland, Seattle, Denver and Brooklyn among the most venerated, all places where the cold and rain invoke darker, heavier, more intricate beers. Polynesia, where the fruity parasol-crowned cocktail is an institution, would not seem like beer country, at least not for anything but a lightweight pop-top.

 

But it is. Hawai‘i has beer cred—a reputation for innovation, inspired by locally harvested ingredients, that has made the state an unlikely contender on the international competition circuit. Tom Kerns, probably the most decorated beer maker in the Islands, has won dozens of medals over the past decade: at the World Beer Cup, the Great American Beer Festival and the  North American Beer Awards. During his tenure as head brewer at Maui Brewing Co., he created recipes that pushed the boundaries of Hawai‘i flavors, from Maui Gold pineapple to macadamia nuts to the tens of thousands of pounds of hand-toasted coconut that fuel the company’s signature brew, the sweet, murky CoCoNut PorTeR. Since 2011, Kerns has run the Big Island Brewhaus in the upcountry town of Waimea, where his offerings include a White Mountain Porter infused with Hamakua Coast coffee that took silver in last year’s US Open Beer Championship.

 

Over in Hilo, at the tasting room of Hawai‘i Nui Brewing, the state’s lone commercial bottler of beer, you can sample more US Open champs: the malty Hapa Brown Ale, a 2010 gold medalist, and Mauna Kea Pale Ale, winner of a silver.

 

On the other side of the Big Island is the headquarters of the behemoth, Kona Brewing Company, an award winner but also a lightning rod. Despite marketing its beer as “liquid aloha,” Kona Brewing does nearly all its brewing on the Mainland, and not just for the continental US market but also for sale back in the Islands. Whatever might be said of a Hawai‘i brand mostly made outside of Hawai‘i, Kona Brewing has paved the way for the rest of Hawai‘i’s indie brewers, promoting the Islands and expanding the palates of visitors. Founded by the Oregon family behind Kettle Chips, Kona Brewing’s original brewpub remains the company’s finest achievement, the only place (along with its sister pub at Koko Marina on O‘ahu) where the Kona Brewing taps consistently lead to locally produced beer. At the U-shaped koa bar, you can try a brewed-on-the-spot piney Castaway IPA or a caramely Lavaman Red Ale or the acclaimed Da Grind Buzz Kona Coffee Imperial Stout, a silky, coal-black potion with hints of dark chocolate and burnt vanilla that drinks like an 8.5 percent-alcohol mocha. Under the stewardship of its president, Mattson Davis, the brewpub has become not just a watering hole but a fixture of Big Island civic life: It is home to most of the company’s 170 Hawai‘i employees, including a “sustainability coordinator,” and through its sponsorship of the Kona Brewer’s Festival, which brings out the hospitality-industry showman in Davis, it has helped raise $555,000 for local charities.

 

“At the end of the day, it’s not about how many barrels of beer we do or how much money we make; it’s really about people, about principles,” says Davis, 47, who grew up in Spokane and studied socioeconomic geography at Portland State University. “There’s been many, many carpetbaggers who have come into this state, said they’re real, set up shop and then left in the middle of the night. It’s very important to me that we stay true, that we stay authentic.”

 


 

Dave Campbell started brewing beer when he was a senior at Punahou and turned serious in college. In the 1990s he founded Oahu Homebrew Supply and began brewing professionally. Today he’s the brewmaster at the just-opened Aloha Beer Company in Honolulu.

What’s the hallmark of a great beer?
Balance. Finding the balance where all of the ingredients play off of each other and make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

What’s hardest to get right when you’re making beer?
Getting that balance.

What’s your favorite of the beers that you brew?
I make eight beers right now, and that’s like asking a mother who’s got eight kids which one’s her favorite—you know she has one but she isn’t telling. That said, I just made a beer I hadn’t brewed in years, Steamship Lager, that’s great. It throws out all kinds of aromas and flavors.

Favorite local craft beer besides your own?
I like different beers from each brewery. It sounds very diplomatic but it’s the dead truth. I like Fire Rock Ale from Kona Brewing, Hapa Brown Ale from Hawai‘i Nui, La Perouse White from Maui Brewing.

Favorite local ingredient to brew with?
Hands down, local honey, the stronger the better. My absolute favorite is kiawe honey.

Weirdest local ingredient you’ve ever brewed with?
Some guys do weird for shock value. I think leave all that stuff out and you can make wonderful products with traditional ingredients. When it comes to weirdness, I’ve brewed with more weird people than weird ingredients—and I was happy when those batches were pau, believe me.

What’s different about brewing in Hawai‘i?
We’re still educating people here about craft beers. Also, because of our weather, we don’t have many seasonal beers.

How do local beers stack up against their global counterparts?
We’ve won a disproportionate number of medals for the number of brewers here. We hold our own.

Best hangover cure?
Simple: Don’t drink too much.

You’ve got a meal of poke, lomi salmon and poi: What beer goes best?
I’d be reaching for a nice crisp pilsner, something light and refreshing. If I only had the poi, I might go for a more malty beer.

You’ve got a six-pack of your favorite local beer in hand: Where’s the best place in the Islands to drink it?
On my deck in the back of Waimanalo. Sitting on my deck with beer, pupu and friends is my favorite thing in the world.

—JS

The old German drinking song “Es gibt kein bier auf Hawaii” is the lament of a man whose fiancée wants to honeymoon in Hawai‘i. He calls off the wedding for a reason any Bavarian would understand: “There is no beer in Hawai‘i.” Until 1898, when the Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co. was founded, that jab was largely true. The ocean was too wide, refrigeration too impractical, to be transporting perishables. “Beer didn’t last the voyage,” says Allan Spitzer, a Honolulu chemical and lab supply executive who is among the longest-standing members of HOPS, or Home Brewers on Pacific Shores. To operate Hawai‘i’s first brewery, Honolulu Brewing sent off letters of inquiry to a German enclave in Watertown, Wisconsin, where Spitzer’s great-uncle Hartwig Harders answered the call. At the turn of the century, Harders set sail for O‘ahu and became Hawai‘i’s original brewmeister. “If you wanted it,” Spitzer says, “you had to brew it here.”

 

Honolulu Brewing’s most famous creation was Primo, an icon as much as a beer. Though it was never confused for a premium brand—that was a status held by the “green bottle” beers, such as Heineken—it was nonetheless locally brewed, a source of enduring pride and nostalgia. By the 1960s, three of every four beers consumed in Hawai‘i was a Primo; for a time, retailers had to ration sales to two six-packs per customer. Its popularity led Schlitz to acquire Primo in 1963 and expand production, but the cumbersome and costly logistics of brewing in the Islands soon took a toll. In 1979 Schlitz shut down Hawaiian operations and moved Primo to Southern California. In 1982 Stroh Brewing acquired Schlitz, but by then Primo had come to be viewed as a cheap imposter masquerading as a Hawai‘i beer. Primo folded in 1997. When it was reintroduced in 2008, despite being marketed as “Hawai‘i’s Original Beer,” it was still a a thoroughly Mainland production, owned by Pabst and brewed at the Miller plant in Irwindale, California.

 

When Kona Brewing opened shop in 1994, before it became the biggest name in Hawaiian beer, it made everything in Hawai‘i, at its Kona-Kailua brewpub. Davis joined the company in 1997, after managing a boutique pizza chain in Portland, only to find that the brewery was still mom-and-pop, producing a mere three thousand barrels a year—one barrel equals thirty-one gallons—and doing the packaging onsite with a refurbished wine bottling line salvaged from an Oregon vineyard. “Everything,” Davis says, “was cattywampus.” If you had asked him at the time what he thought Kona Brewing might become someday, if you had said “go deep, think large,” the most extravagant figure he would have permitted himself to utter was ten thousand barrels. “To triple this thing,” he says. “That was my wildest dream.”

 

As Davis soon discovered, the only thing holding Kona Brewing back was Hawai‘i itself: the backward logic of brewing on an island. Doing business on the world’s most isolated parcels of land is always more complicated than Hawai‘i’s enchanting image would suggest, the very remoteness that makes it such an attractive destination forever throwing up obstacles. Creating the beer is almost simple—the cheapest part of the equation—but the minute a brewery goes from kegs, for use in bars and restaurants, to retail packaging, which is how 90 percent of beer in the United States is consumed, the formula gets loopy.

 

As with most beverages, the packaging materials—from the bottles to the six-pack carriers to the crown caps—cost more than the liquids they contain, and in Hawai‘i, where every item must be imported, the markup is even higher. Because a glass container is more fragile with nothing in it, transporting empties across the ocean is 25 to 30 percent more expensive than full bottles—all the more absurd if those empties, once full, are destined for market back on the Mainland. Add to that Hawai‘i’s excise tax of 93 cents a gallon on packaged beer, one of the nation’s highest, compared to, say, Oregon’s, which is 8 cents, and Big Island electric rates of over 40 cents a kilowatt hour versus about 7 cents in Portland. “It didn’t make sense financially but it really didn’t make sense logistically —burning all that fuel,” Davis says. “We’re all about being fresh and local, minimizing our carbon footprint.”

 

In 1998 Kona Brewing outsourced its entire bottling operation to the West Coast —to Oregon, and later Washington and New Hampshire—and as sales continued to grow, much of its draft production as well. Kona’s reach assumed new proportions in 2010, when it was purchased for $13.9 million by the Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance, a publicly traded $150 million-a- year corporation that includes Redhook Ale Brewery and Widmer Brothers Brewing; 32 percent of the CBA’s stock is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev—as in Budweiser —the largest brewer on the planet. Freed from crisscrossing an ocean, Davis not only tripled production but tripled it again, then tripled it again and now, at 175,000 barrels a year, is more than halfway to tripling it once more. Available in thirty-one states, Kona Brewing has grown so wildly that its Hawai‘i sales alone have reached forty thousand barrels, which means that 75 percent of what the company sells in the Islands has to be shipped in from the Mainland.

 

As a business proposition, the move was utterly rational, a textbook lesson in economies of scale. The country’s biggest craft brewers have banked their growth on the same blueprint: the Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams, brews not only in Boston but also in Ohio and Pennsylvania; Sierra Nevada, which produces eight hundred thousand barrels annually in Chico, California, announced earlier this year that it would soon be constructing a three hundred thousand-barrel East Coast hub near Asheville, North Carolina. In an era of globalization, international brands stray even farther from their roots: Chances are good that your “Irish” Guinness was brewed in Canada (by Labatt) or your “Australian” Foster’s was made in Fort Worth (by Miller).

 

As a cultural matter—as a question of geographic identity, of what we mean by Hawai‘i beer—Kona Brewing’s strategy has been more divisive. The state’s other brewers, who think of themselves as an antidote to the beverage conglomerates that make most of America’s beer, insist that the craft movement should be different, truer to the place from which it arose, less susceptible to the compromises that expansion and efficiency demand. They incur the expense of brewing in the Islands, of honoring the value inherent in the Hawai‘i name, only to watch Kona Brewing pass off its beer, 93 percent of which comes from the Pacific Northwest or New England, as something indigenous. For years every Kona Brewing label read: “Handcrafted. Kona, Hawaii.”

 


 

Kim Lutz, originally from California, started out as a homebrewer. Five years ago she moved to Hawai‘i to brew for Maui Brewing Co., and for the last two years, she has been the lead brewer at the company’s brewpub in Kahana.

What’s the hallmark of a great beer?
Being able to taste the vision and passion of the brewer in the beer.

What’s the hardest thing to get right when you’re making beer?
Consistency. I brew on the pub scale—two hundred gallons at a time—and I don’t use sensors and computers. I eyeball everything, and that means it’s more variable and might not be as consistent. It’s handcrafted.

What’s your favorite of the beers that you brew?
The Pueo Pale Ale and the Freight Train IPA. I like to experiment with the different flavors the hops can give.

Favorite local craft beer besides your own?
The liliko‘i IPA at the Big Island Brewhaus. It’s tart and fruity.

Favorite local ingredient to brew with?
Tangerines from Upcountry Maui. I use them in our La Perouse White at the pub—the skins, the juice, everything puréed.

Weirdest local ingredient you’ve ever brewed with?
Last year I made five hundred gallons of a Maui onion beer for the Maui Onion Festival. I used caramelized and charred onions in a light brown ale, easy on the hops. People really liked it.

What’s different about brewing in Hawai‘i?
We’re really isolated here. And there’s the expense of shipping in ingredients.

How do local beers stack up against their global counterparts?
I feel like we can compete with them all: Mainland brewers, the English, the Germans, the Belgians. We’ve gone up against them with our beers, and we’ve medaled. We’re doing great.

Best hangover cure?
A mango açai bowl or a Bloody Mary.

You’ve got a meal of poke, lomi salmon and poi: What beer goes best?
A spicy and refreshing beer I make called Ginger Saison. It’s a Belgian golden ale made with Maui ginger, a peppercorn blend and coriander.

You’ve got a six-pack of your favorite local beer: Where’s the best place in the Islands to drink it?
The cliffs at Honolua Bay at sunset.

—JS

Like thousands of vacationers before him and thousands since, Garrett Marrero made his way to the bar at Kimo’s, the waterfront landmark in Lahaina, and ordered a Longboard Lager. Wherever he found himself, Marrero liked to drink local, as a matter of taste and fellowship—to sample whatever was fresh, distinctive and imbued with that intangible dimension that poets and philosophers have for ages known as a sense of place. Growing up in San Diego, that meant the aggressively hoppy ales of Stone; as an economics and international relations major at UC Davis, it was the floral tartness of Sierra Nevada; as an investment adviser in San Francisco, Marrero turned to the citrusy tang of Triple Rock. Longboard Lager was lighter than those big California beers, a crisp, dry, hazy golden brew, but Longboard was still the flagship of the Kona Brewing Company, and on that summer afternoon in 2001, as the waves crashed against the Maui shore and Lana‘i and Moloka‘i hovered in the distance, the moment begged for a Hawai‘i beer.

 

“That’s when the bartender says, ‘You know, that beer’s made closer to you than it is to me,’” recalls Marrero. “And I’m like, ‘Huh, what do you mean?’ I was drinking that, not knowing the truth. That insulted me as a tourist.”

 

In umbrage Marrero found opportunity. He quit his job, sold his suits, snatched up the mauibrewingco.com domain name and set out to become the premier brewer of exclusively Hawai‘i-made beer. Starting in 2004 with a pub in Lahaina’s Kahana Gateway Shopping Center, then converting an old gymnastics studio into a brewery, Marrero based his enterprise on aluminum cans, which are locally manufactured and lighter to ship. Along the way, sometime last year or the year before, Maui Brewing eclipsed Kona Brewing in on-island production— Marrero now calls his operation “Hawai‘i’s largest craft brewery” even though Kona Brewing claims to be “the largest craft brewery in Hawai‘i.” Underlying the semantic gamesmanship are the stats: although Maui’s 18,000 barrels pale to Kona’s 175,000 barrels, all of Maui’s beer is brewed in Hawai‘i, while only 12,000 barrels of Kona’s beer comes from its Hawai‘i plant.

 

“I don’t mean to call them out, but their whole objective is to hide the origins of their beer,” says Marrero, who is 33, intense and chiseled in his Maui Brewing muscle shirt. Despite his protestations he seems to relish the role of watchdog—to be the monster that Kona Brewing created —seizing any opportunity to puncture its myths. He has accused the company of hucksterism and deception. He has testified (unsuccessfully) in support of legislation that would have required any product labeled “Hawaiian” to be made entirely in Hawai‘i. “Craft beer,” he likes to say, “is about integrity.”

 

As a sign that Marrero’s crusade has grown too nettlesome for Kona Brewing to ignore, Davis revealed just after the Kona Brewer’s Festival that he intends to begin phasing in a new label this year. Where before Hawai‘i was the only address, the packaging will now list all the places Kona Brewing makes beer: Kona; Portland; Woodinville, Washington; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “We’re not going to have a press release or make a big deal about it,” says Davis, who could not help thinking of Marrero as he described the amended design. “But when it happens, it’ll take all the wind out of his sail.”

 

To suggest that such a change will quiet Marrero underestimates his distrust of Kona Brewing—and perhaps the mileage he gets from playing David to a beer-making Goliath. A more complete label is “a step in the right direction,” Marrero says, but not one that will clarify matters for the consumer. Of Kona Brewing’s four locations, only three make the beer that could have ended up inside a bottle; Kona itself is the one place the beer could not have come from. “They’re just creating more ambiguity,” Marrero says.

 

In return, Davis offers a weary smile. “We’re actually very similar people,” he says. “I just happen to be fifteen years older.”