kona brewing company opening
Cameron Healy and Spoon Khalsa (top) launched Kona Brewing Co. in 1994 and rolled out the first kegs and bottles of Pacific Golden Ale and Fire Rock Pale Ale on Valentine’s Day in 1995. Photo courtesy Kona Brewing Co.

Twenty years ago this Valentine’s Day, commercial brewing returned to Hawaii. It was on that Tuesday in 1995 that Kona Brewing Co. rolled out its first kegs and bottles of Pacific Golden Ale and Fire Rock Pale Ale from its brewery in an old newspaper pressroom in Kailua-Kona on the western edge of the state’s Big Island.

The last brewery to operate in Hawaii, the Pacific Brewing Co., vanished in late 1990 after just four years. It had churned out 4,000 barrels annually at its peak for retailers as far afield as California, but Hawaii’s unique distribution and tax challenges (the state charged brewers 92 cents for every non-draft gallon produced) proved too much.

A similar fate confronted the Hawaii Brewing Co. That brewery, which opened at Kapiolani Boulevard and Cooke Street in Honolulu in May 1934, was the first American brewery to be completely constructed west of the Rocky Mountains after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. (Hawaii was a U.S. territory then.) In an example of the consolidation wave that swept American brewing in the mid-20th century, Chicago-based Schlitz took over Hawaii Brewing’s Primo beer brand in the 1960s. By then, it was the only one brewed in the state.

That didn’t last. On May 15, 1979, Schlitz shipped the last cases of Hawaii-brewed Primo and transferred production to Los Angeles.

Kona’s future, then, seemed far from assured. Nor had Cameron Healy’s previous venture. The Oregon native had sworn off alcohol and entered a yoga commune while a college student in Eugene; he started a bakery called the Golden Temple in 1972 to help support the commune. After that, Healy grew what became Kettle Foods into an international company, its signature product a more naturally made potato chip squaring off against those from the giants such as Frito-Lay.

A 1987 trip through northern Europe not only knocked Healy off the teetotal wagon—he discovered Belgian beers—but also planted the seed of an idea for a brewery. His son, Spoon Khalsa, suggested Hawaii, and the pair launched Kona in 1994. It had been years since the tourist-laden state’s last brewery, Pacific, had packed up. A new one couldn’t miss.

Yet, success took its time. Kona, under the aegis of president and CEO (and eventual co-owner) Mattson Davis, grew in those first years only modestly, to 3,000 barrels of production by 1997.

It finally turned a profit with the aid of a brewpub, and, starting in 1998, it began brewing on the mainland as well. (The vast majority of Kona’s production today is on the mainland, in fact, and the brewery operates under the Craft Brew Alliance corporate umbrella.) By the close of the 1990s, Kona was one of the 10 largest microbreweries in the U.S. And commercial brewing was here to stay in the most far-flung state of the union.

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Tom Acitelli is the author of  The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.

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