By most measures, Hawaii isn’t a leading craft beer state, and empirical evidence from my half dozen visits to all the main islands supports this. Overwhelmingly, cocktails and light lagers seem to be preferred by locals and tourists. Beer lovers have to deal with a limited selection, high prices and questionable quality with the beers from the mainland.
Fortunately, it is getting better. Homebrewing is on the rise, which will no doubt seed future brewers, and Hawaii is now home to about a dozen breweries, half of which are on Oahu.
While most brewing ingredients are expensive and have to be shipped from the mainland (as an example, grain and hop prices at homebrew shops in Hawaii are roughly twice as expensive as Washington state), Hawaiians have access to a myriad of high-quality adjuncts, including coconut, Kona coffee, honey, taro and all sorts of tropical fruits.
Earlier this month, I took a trip to the Big Island and noticed an improvement in the craft beer scene since my last visit just four years ago. Beer selections in bars and grocery stores has gotten much better, the quality and selection at breweries has improved, and there are now five brewery brands on the island. Even though brewery growth has been painfully slow, I’m glad to see it and I hope it continues.
Kona Brewing Company’s flagship brewhouse is in Kailua-Kona, just a short walk from Alii Drive, the town’s main drag. You’re probably familiar with this brewery because it distributes to all 50 states. Under strict guidance, Kona Brewing Company also brews its bottled beer and mainland draft beer in Portland, OR, Woodinville, WA, and Portsmouth, NH, as part of its partnership with Craft Brew Alliance Inc. (Redhook Brewery, Kona Brewing, Widmer Brothers Brewing and Omission Beer).
Kona makes a solid lineup of beer, including Castaway IPA, Longboard Lager and Pipeline Porter, but these aren’t the reasons you should visit the brewpub on the Big Island. You should go for the many local-only seasonals and specialties, which are, in my opinion, some of the best beers the brewery makes. In the past, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Kona’s coffee beers, one particularly delicious wild ale, and a variety of hop-forward offerings.
On this visit, I was especially fond of Lemongrass Luau, a light wheat beer brewed with local ginger and lemongrass. It was refreshing, citrusy, bright and immensely quaffable.
No visit to Anchorage, AK, is complete without a stop in Humpy’s, which is a great beer bar with a unique atmosphere and tasty food. So when I heard one opened up in Kona years back, I just had to visit. And I’ve been back many times since.
The Humpy’s in Kona is two stories (with a bar and taps on both levels), and just about every seat in the open-air building has a spectacular view of the bay and its amazing sunsets.
Beer bars across Hawaii are limited by what the few distributors bring in, but I couldn’t imagine a selection being any better than Humpy’s. Roughly three dozen taps were nicely represented by breweries such as Clown Shoes, Belching Beaver, Midnight Sun, Left Coast and many Hawaiian breweries, plus your more common breweries, such as Deschutes, Widmer, Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas. My favorite find was Belching Beaver’s Peanut Butter Milk Stout.
By the way, the original Humpy’s in Anchorage is named after the nickname of the pink salmon. The Humpy’s in Kona has been creatively reworked to feature a humpback whale on the logo.
Less than an hour from Kailua-Kona, in the cooler and higher-elevation town of Waimea (one of a few Weimeas in Hawaii, so the USPS calls this town Kamuela), you’ll find the Big Island Brewhaus. I love this brewery because it offers a wide selection of unique beers. On this visit, I discovered quite a few jewels.
The Black Hole Stout was rich, robust and roasty, and it had a creamed-coffee sweetness that was nicely balanced by a dark chocolate burntness.
I also enjoyed the 8.5%-ABV Golden Sabbath Belgian-style ale made with Hawaiian honey. This beer was spicy, estery and fruity, with delightful background notes of honey.
But my overall favorite was Big Island Brewhaus’s imperial red ale named Red Sea of Cacao. It had a luscious, velvety smooth texture, and it offered complex notes of molasses, chocolate milk, salted nuts, vanilla and peppercorns. My wife and I washed it all down with Fish Bites and a quesadilla filled with bacon, blue cheese, pineapple and caramelized onions. It was a divine experience.
Mehana Brewing Company and Hawaii Nui Brewing
Mehana Brewing has had a confusing and tumultuous past. Here’s my best attempt at summarizing it: Hilo Soda Works, circa 1920s, began brewing beer under the name Mehana in the early 1990s. About the same time, the Keoki Brewery got started on Kauai. In 2007, Hawaii Nui Brewing was formed and it acquired Keoki, and then Keoki’s brewing equipment was relocated to Hilo. In 2009, the original owners of Mehana retired and Hawaii Nui merged with Mehana. After some bankruptcy troubles in 2013, Mehana and Hawaii Nui emerged under new ownership. As I understand it, many Mehana recipes survived all these changes, and Hawaii Nui beers are based on both new recipes and some from Keoki. As far as I can tell, things seem to be back on track and going well for these brands.
On this trip I enjoyed Mehana’s Tsunami IPA, which has a sweet, honey-like malt base and a snappy hop bitterness that is loaded with tropical fruit notes. I also thought Hapa Nui’s Hapa Brown Ale was a decent offering, with bold flavors of toast, bread crust and nuts, along with a healthy bitterness.
While walking down Alii Drive in Kona, I was excited to come across a sign for Paradise Brewing Company. At first, I thought it was one of those non-brewing taphouses with “Brewing Company” in its name, but I was happy to learn otherwise. Currently, Paradise only produces one beer, and the actual brewhouse is not on the premises, but it plans to brew more.
Established in 2014, Paradise’s first beer is called Pali Uli Golden Ale. It’s a light-bodied beer that won’t challenge your palate, but I found it to be nicely balanced (it had a fitting level of bitterness complemented by a subtle, honey-like sweetness), well made and highly sessionable. It has 4.9% ABV and 20 IBUs, and it’s described as an “island-style golden ale that’s bright and tropical.”
Paradise Brewing Tap & Grill also features more than a dozen other craft beers on tap, and the brewery hopes to offer more Paradise beers as soon as it secures a better brewery location that’s closer to the bar.
Hawaii is relatively easy to get to from the Pacific Northwest, and there are many reasons to visit. Fortunately, craft beer is now one of them.
Read about other beer-hunting adventures in Iceland, Idaho, Minnesota, Utah and Victoria, B.C.