Christine Elumba, co-owner Kohola Brewing, in Maui.
By Phil Galewitz
Ah, Hawaii! Amazing beaches, volcanoes, Pearl Harbor – even 14,000-ft mountains.
Yeah, yeah, but it has some amazing breweries that can’t be missed, too.
In all, Hawaii has a dozen breweries scattered among its tropical islands and several should be on any beer lover’s itinerary. On a recent trip to the Hawaii, some of our best times were visits to breweries in Maui, the Big Island and Oahu.
After a day of snorkeling off the coast of Maui, we headed to Maui Brewing, the largest brewery in the state. Maui is one of two Hawaii breweries with large distribution in the mainland US. The other is Kona Brewing, though most Kona beer is sold in the mainland.
Sitting on five acres of land, Maui brewery has a large taproom with an outdoor deck where you can see the Pacific Ocean about two miles away and often get to listen to live music with palm trees blowing in the wind. The taproom has about 30 beers on tap and offers wine and cocktails, too.
Owner Garrett Marrero had just returned to his brewery from picking oranges off his estate with some employees when he met me and a friend for a tour of the facility last October. Those orange peels were going into a new beer made from produce grown on Maui. That beer, POG IPA, 7.1%, is juicy, hoppy and full of tropical flavor. The acronym stands for Passionfruit, Orange and Guava.
In addition to using his own orange trees, Maui Brewing tapped several local fruit suppliers and searched remote areas on the island to select fruit for this limited brew that’s based on a famous Hawaiian breakfast beverage. POG IPA reflects the innovative spirit behind Maui Brewing, its close ties to the Hawaiian Islands and ingenuity that has fueled its rapid growth since 2005.
Garrett and wife, Melanie, started Maui Brewing after buying a brewpub called Fishing Game Brewing Co and Rotisserie that made beer but also ran a sports bar, a high-end restaurant, a fish stand and a cigar lounge. Garrett and Melanie quickly discovered they needed to focus on the beer and to pair foods with local ingredients.
Today, Maui Brewing is available in 23 states and has nearly 400 employees. Its growth will accelerate in 2018 as the company expands their main production site in Kihei, which includes opening a 250-seat full service restaurant. The company already runs a large brewpub in Honolulu and has its original brewpub on the north side of Maui.
Maui’s flagship craft beers include Bikini Blonde Lager, Big Swell IPA, Coconut Hiwa Porter and Pineapple Mana Wheat. All are delicious no matter where you drink them but nowhere better than watching a sunset from beach in Maui.
Running a business in Hawaii adds extra expenses with higher shipping costs because of its distance from the mainland. But Maui Brewing has found ways to control costs. By the end of this year, the brewery expects to run on 100% solar power. “We have to run more efficiently because of where we are,” said Garrett, who grew up in San Diego said. The brewery is also diversifying with plans to start making distilled spirits as well as offer its own cider.
While the company has expanded fast, Garrett said the primary goal is to serve Hawaii, where 75 percent of its beer is now sold. Visitors can get some Maui brew while flying Hawaiian airline.
“I don’t have dreams of becoming a Budweiser. Its OK to be a small craft brewery and move and shake as you will,” said Garrett, who last year was named Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration.
One thing you learn on any brew tour of Hawaii is how several of the breweries are interconnected. For example, Kohola Brewery in Maui is located in Maui Brewing’s original production facility in Lahaina. William and Susan Ramirez and Ian and Christine Elumba – two husband and wife teams from Southern California, own the 25-bbl brewhouse which Maui Brewing left in 2014.
The warehouse has its taproom adjacent to the brewing operations so you can smell the hops and see all the brewing equipment. Christine, a former hospital nurse, said her experience triaging patients has helped her juggle the many duties running the brewery. “I keep cool and work well under pressure and try to connect with customers like connecting with patients,” she said on a visit last fall. The name Kohola is Hawaiian for whale – Lahaina is an old whaling town. “Garrett helped pave the way,” Christine said, standing amid the hi-rise tables behind a large bar.
Kohola’s beers were all quite drinkable including mainstay Red Sand, an American-style Red Ale that is medium bodied with bready, malty flavors and aromas. This beer is named after the “pocket” Red Sand beach in Maui.
Though it’s only one block of main coastal highway through the town, Kohola has a hidden feel that’s fine with locals and gives it an intimate charm.
After leaving Maui, a trip to the Big Island brought us into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and my first look at lava. It also brought us to the town of Kailua-Kona, home to the Ironman Triathlon and Kona Brewing. The brewery, which started in 1994, still has its headquarters in this gorgeous seaside town. The brewery was sold in 2010 to Craft Brewers Alliance, which also makes Redhook and Widmer Brothers beer. Kona’s Big Wave Golden Ale is the company’s top selling beer.
The brewpub is just a 5-minute walk from the beautiful harbor and has a 2,000 sq ft lanai to sit back, try one of 15 brews on tap and enjoy great food ranging from pizzas to seared ahi. The brewpub is also where you can taste locally made Kona beer since those sold on the mainland are made and bottled in Portsmouth, NH and Portland, OR.
The most craft brewers in Hawaii were in Honolulu and each one was worth a visit including Honolulu Beer Works, Beer Lab HI and Aloha Beer Co. While Honolulu Beer Works had a great vibe and complimentary valet parking, our favorite was just down the street at Waikiki Brewing Co.’s newest location in neighborhood of Kaka’ako which opened into the street with its bar and could see brewers mashing in. Its eclectic beers included Jalapeno Mouth, an amber made with fresh jalapeno cherries and Black Strap Molasses Porter with chocolate and coffee flavor.
If history is your thing, there’s no place better than The Brewseum, which houses Home of the Brave Brewing Co and a museum of World War II memorabilia and history of beer making in Hawaii.