Kona Brewery was founded 20 years ago on the Big Island. Today they sell nearly 250,000 barrels a year across 40 states and 9 different countries. How in the heck does so much success fit onto such a tiny island?! Well, it doesn’t.
Kona Brewing Company brews most of it’s beer in Seattle, Portland or Boston. Munchies gives us the full story of how this brewery has gone to great lengths to put a little aloha in each of it’s bottles. The whole craft beer business often brings up the question of what is craft? Can a brewery that is produced all over the US away from it’s roots be considered craft? Does it matter? Who cares? Well, when you’re done reading this read why the US government does.
Often overlooked in a beer’s flavor profile is the impact of its primary ingredient: water. This is especially the case in Hawaii, where its pristine crystalline water—that is filtered by volcanic rocks underground—is one of the Aloha state’s most important natural resources.
“Hawaii County water is hard and high in calcium and chloride,” says Kona Brewing Co.’s brewmaster Billy Smith. “Fortunately, these characteristics are great for making beer and can help showcase the malt and hop flavor.”
Unless you trek to the middle of the Pacific, any Kona beer you’re drinking originated either in Seattle, Portland, or the suburbs of Boston. Hardly the setting for a proper luau. Regardless, with nearly a quarter million barrels of beer sold annually, across 40 states and nine countries, the brewery’s success is undeniable.
Which begs the question, what’s more important: a craft beer or its carefully crafted story?
This particular issue is a growing one among both the craft breweries (which have been accused of unfair marketing through their labels) and their loyal enthusiasts, who—as passionate as they may claim to be—cannot reliably tell the difference between some of their favorite beers.
Does Kona owe anything to consumers who believe they’re drinking something directly from paradise? A recent $3.5 million lawsuit against Beck’s was filed after customers discovered that the German beer is actually brewed in the US, earning Beck’s drinkers refunds of $50 each. It’s safe to assume that consumers of craft and big-brand beers alike do not want to be misled when throwing back a few cold ones.
Nevertheless, Kona isn’t peddling a bland brew. And they’ve taken steps to insure the influence of aloha within the bottle. How? By implementing expensive measures to emulate these water qualities on the mainland.
“I was one of the brewers at the brewery that brewed the first batch of Longboard Island Lager on the East Coast, so I know the challenges they face on the mainland, firsthand,” says Smith. Installing a treatment system to mimic the minerality of Hawaiian water, for one, was no simple task. The whole process took about five years before the recipes were correctly dialed in.
“Today, every week a sample is sent to the brewery in Kona to make sure the recipe at our sister breweries are ‘on.’” If the brewmaster can’t even discern a difference, the casual consumer is unlikely to fare better. Also, shipping ingredients to the middle of the Pacific, returning them shortly after assembly, would certainly add a lot of oil to each keg’s carbon footprint. For a product that deviates negligibly from its mainland counterpart, it would be environmentally irresponsible, to put it mildly.
Kona has never misrepresented the fact its beers are not entirely brewed in Hawaii anymore. (It says as much on its website.) Yet there is no denying that the branding intentionally goes hard on the aloha aesthetic—which, in and of itself, is often misrepresented and exploited. Bottle labels are peppered with all the dependable stereotypes: scenes of waterfalls, pipelined waves, backdropped by sunset, distant volcanoes, scantily clad hula dancers. The central logo even evokes a Polynesian-inspired tribal tattoo that, admit it, we all considered getting one day.
All this belies a product considered by many craft beer enthusiasts as a tropical-themed Budweiser (which wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to label, since it is distributed by Anheuser-Busch). The rough assessment isn’t helped by the fact that there are a number of independent, critically adored brands produced entirely on-island, including Maui Brewing and Kauai Beer Company.
For those of us mainlanders without vacation days or trusts funds, we can use our paltry earnings to either buy what Kona is selling—at a reasonable price—or not. As with anything else in our endlessly marketed existence, it’s not just the product we’re buying, but the narrative surrounding it.
In the case of Kona, if it makes people smile, everything else is bullshit.