What’s your idea of the ideal vacation? Mine is relaxing at the beach, soaking up the sun along with the local food, drink and culture. Hawaii offers all of that. The weather is almost perfect, there’s always something to do, and the cuisine fuses the best of Asia and America. Best of all, there’s plenty of good beer—if you know where to look.
Brewing in the middle of the Pacific can be an adventure. Almost everything has to be shipped in: grain and hops, which aren’t grown there; packaging material; even bottles. Additionally, real estate and electricity are expensive, wages are high, and the state slaps a hefty tax on beer. One brewery owner estimated that it’s 40 percent more expensive to brew beer in Hawaii than on the mainland.
Despite these challenges, craft brewers thrive in Hawaii. Oahu, the most populous island, has three brewpubs. All are near downtown Honolulu; and, with a bit of planning, it’s possible to arrange a mini-pub crawl. On my last visit, I did just that.
On the Town
First, though, I arranged for a designated driver, namely, Hilo Hattie, the owner of a chain of boutiques. At my Waikiki hotel, I boarded a motorized trolley to her store west of downtown, bought a hat to replace the one I’d left on the plane, and then walked next door to the Big Aloha Brewery (580 North Nimitz Highway, inside Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch and Crab), a high-energy restaurant created by Sam Choy, the Emeril Lagasse of Hawaii.
To reach “Da Brewery,” I navigated past a 35-foot-long sampan surrounded by tables full of people eating big portions of island comfort food. Underneath the brewing tanks, I enjoyed a sampler that included Kiawe Porter, brewed with island honey; Ehu Red Ale; Kakaako Cream Ale, a style rarely found this far west; and brew master Dave Campbell’s renditions of English best bitter, Bavarian hefeweizen, and California common beer.
Hilo Hattie’s trolley next took me to Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant (1 Aloha Tower Market Place), part of a chain I’d visited on earlier trips west. I walked through an airy restaurant serving casual aloha fare, which opened up to a wooden lanai, or deck, where office workers gathered to watch the ships cruise past and admire the sunset from one of downtown’s best vantage points. The German-inspired beers include Blonde Bock, which packs a 7 percent alcohol punch; a malty version of märzen; Golden Export; and an unfiltered Dunkles. They all go well with a plate of garlic fries, the aroma from which will greet you the moment you walk in the front door.
Next up was the Brew Moon Restaurant & Microbrewery (1200 Ala Moana Blvd., inside the Victoria Ward Center), a sleek, ultra-modern establishment on the second floor of a shopping complex. The dining room, which overlooks Ala Moana Park, is decorated with friezes depicting the brewing process, the phases of the moon, and the plantation that stood there before developers moved in.
Since I was there for beer and pupus, as snacks are called, I grabbed a seat on the lanai, watched the rain showers fall on the mountains above, and ordered a pint. Brew Moon’s rotating tap selections offer everything from a Belgian trippel to a Bavarian schwarzbier; there are also five year-round beers. My generously hopped pale ale was the perfect accompaniment to the famous “bar crackers,” thin pizza crusts sprinkled with Gorgonzola and garlic and slightly blackened.
The Conventional and the Audacious
While Brew Moon survived economic upheaval—local investors stepped in after the Massachusetts-based chain went bankrupt—not everyone has been so lucky. Maui has seen a series of brewpubs come and go.
Today, the only survivor is the Fish and Game Brewing Co. & Rotisserie (4405 Honoapiilani Highway, Lahaina), a classy restaurant a few minutes’ drive north of Kanapaali Beach. As the name indicates, it specializes in fresh seafood and meats roasted over the local version of mesquite. Brew master Thomas Kerns, an Oregon native, has turned out an audacious range of beers, including an imperial stout and a brown ale made with hemp seeds, along with more conventional offerings like a British session ale and Primo Pilsner, which honors a lager brewed in Hawaii for nearly a century.
On Kauai, craft brewers have enjoyed mixed success. One brewpub closed shortly after I visited; another reinvented itself as a nightclub. But Waimea Brewing Co. (9400 Kaumualii Highway), “the last watering hole before the International Date Line,” is still alive and well. The pub and restaurant are in a traditional plantation house, whose open windows allow the gentle trade winds to circulate. Waimea’s flagship brew, Waialeale Ale, is named for a nearby mountain said to be the rainiest place on Earth; there’s also a porter, a pale ale, and an India pale ale honoring Captain James Cook. Freshly caught fish and a batter made with the brewery’s pale ale go into the fish and chips. Other island-accented dishes include honey-mango ribs and nachos topped with kalua pork.
Kauai is also the home of Keoki Brewing Co. (2976 Aukele St., Lihue), started by businessman George Wells (“Keoki” is Hawaiian for George), who followed his dream of brewing in paradise. What began as an avocation now keeps him busy full time. Keoki’s mainstay beers are Kauai Gold and mahogany-colored Hawaiian Sunset. It also custom brews Hawaiian Sunset Pink Beer, the lager served at Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel, as well as special beers for several other resorts and restaurants. The brewery exports a version of Pink Beer, along with a mango-flavored beer, to beer connoisseurs in Japan.
The Big Island of Hawaii boasts two breweries. I included both on a day-long circle-the-island tour, where I took in the natural beauty—everything from black sand beaches to tropical rain forests to the still-active Mauna Kea volcano. Historic Hilo town, on the rainy east coast, is home to Mehana Brewing Co. (275 East Kawili St.), a family-owned operation whose name means “from the heart.” When I arrived, a woman poured samples and showed me the guest book, where visitors from as far away as Turkey and Argentina had signed in, and told me about her grandchildren on the mainland. Mehana brews five beers: a kölsch-style ale; a dry-hopped pale ale; a red ale; a lager; and Roy’s Private Reserve, a mild ale created for restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi’s “Euro-Asian-Pacific” cuisine.
The resort-studded west side is the home of Kona Brewing Co. (75-5629 Kuakini Highway, Kailua-Kona), the state’s largest. Its owners have branched out into the brewpub business, adding a restaurant that serves pizzas made with spent grain from the brewery, dishes featuring island food such as Kona limes and macadamia nuts, and baskets of handcrafted Hawaiian kettle chips. Kona Brewing still brews its original offerings, Longboard Lager and Fire Rock Pale Ale, and has added six year-round beers, including a wheat ale made with a touch of passion fruit. It also serves four seasonals: a ginger beer brewed with locally grown ginger root, coffee and coconut stouts, and a barley wine.
If you’re planning a visit to Hawaii, bring sunscreen and a thirst for beer, and don’t forget to brush up on the local lingo. The first word you’ll need to learn is Hipahipa! That’s “Cheers!” in Hawaiian.