While on vacation with the family this past week I had the opportunity to quickly hit the only two breweries on the big island: Kona Brewing Co. and Mehana Brewing co.
Kona Brewing Co.
Located in Kailua, which is probably the main destination town for most who come to the big island. Kailua has the cheaper hotels and the cruise ship port so this is the place where you will find the cheesy gift shops and companies that can sign you up for a wide range of outdoor activities. Fortunately, Kona Brewing is located on the north side of town where it is quieter. You can come into town, do some grocery shopping (we were staying in a house up north island), and enjoy a lunch and beer at the brewery without any distractions.
There is no doubt Kona knows what they are doing with beer. Their bottled selections, which are prevalent in stores all over the island, are clean, easy drinking, and nicely balanced. The brewpub has a variety of specialty beers on tap throughout the year. They currently had a couple of barleywines and a coconut brown that was fantastic (great balance of coconut and roasted malt). As you can see from the pic of the bottle (below), they also do Belgian style beers which they unfortunately didn’t have any on tap while we were there. The Castaway IPA is a regular on tap on the brewhouse and it hit the spot. Nice citrus hop notes that cut through the heat and quenched your thirst (generally speaking, malty does not work in the hot weather of the islands….why people brew porters in this climate is beyond me but I suppose if you live here you would need some variety after a while).
The one elephant out there about Kona is that they contract brew their bottled beer and then re-import it to Hawaii. I don’t have any problems with contract brewing in general but Hawaii (especially the big island) is a place that could use a few more jobs. With all of Kona brew’s efforts to “go green” and other things, wouldn’t it be a great story if they opened a small production brewery and canned their beer for the islands only. It seems like a reachable goal. Canning lines and lots of cans are more affordable these days and generally you can’t take glass to the beach anyway. As successful as Kona Brewing is, this could be the icing on the cake for them.
Since the brewery sees a lot of tourists come through, it seems to show on the staff. It took a while for our waitress to come back and ask if we wanted another beer to replace our long since empty glasses. We were more working on her schedule as opposed to where the beer line was in our glasses (a particular pet peeve of mine). I supposed you get a bit jaded dealing with tourists whom may have more laid back expectations in general or maybe our particular waitress was not about the beer. Anyway, moving on:
Mehana Brewing Co./Hawai’I Nui Brewing Co.
Located on the rainy side of the island in the city of Hilo, a beautiful area that is extremely lush and tropical. It also happens to be the wettest city in the U.s. We were rained on (dumped on!) at least four times during our visit around town.
Mehana is located in a warehouse area of Hilo (as warehousy as this town can get anyway). Mehana is a much smaller operation than Kona but I like the laid back vibe as opposed to the masses of tourists that hit Kona Brewing. They have a small parking lot on the side of the warehouse with a little sign that said they were open for tastings and tours. The big rollup door exposed their operation inside. Many fermenters, a brew system, bottling line, stacks of bottled product. Lots of kegs stacked up outside. I figured out later that Mehana had “joined forces” with Hawai’I Nui Brewing Co. and as far as I can tell they share the space and the equipment together.
I made my way inside following the direction of the sign that pointed to a small room that had merchandise for sale and about six taps. The lady there was very pleasant and asked if I wanted to taste anything. I was on very limited time but of course I said yes. She was quite knowledgeable about the beers that they had and that is great to see! I tried their Humpback Blue which was fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. A light and drinkable beer with a nice subtle Duvel like tone to it. My other favorite was their brown ale brewed by Hawai’I Nui Brewing. Nice level of roast that complemented the malt profile quite well. This beer also just won silver at the World Beer Cup.
Ideally, I would have hung out here longer and taken the tour (of which I may have been the only one) but alas the kids were stirring. I’m sure I would have been able to talk to a brewer and perhaps share a beer. Again, I like the vibe of the place and it is a worth it destination if you are a beer lover on the big island.
Beer on the shelves.
For craft beer, all stores carry Kona Brewing beers and it was my main beer since they are so prevalent. I particularly enjoyed the Big Wave Golden Ale. It has a nice level of malt balanced with subtle fruity esters and very drinkable in the heat. I love the Kona Fire Rock Pale as it is an extra malty beer, which is right up my alley. However, it isn’t that drinkable for me in the heat of Hawaii. I’ll still drink it at home though.
A couple of the more expensive/exlusive grocery stores, usually within the resort areas, carried the Mehana beer but it was quite pricey (up to 15 dollars a six pack!). It really is best to go to the brewery and buy it there for 9 a six pack…plus you can mix and match. These stores also have the Maui Brewing Company canned beers. Other than that, there was a little more variety to mainland beers you can buy (SN Torpedo, Newcastle, etc) but that’s it.
In the end, I really enjoyed experiencing the beers of Kona and Mehana/Hawai’I Nui. I was certainly happy to get back home a drink an uber hoppy beer that my palate had been missing. It is similar to vacation itself: there is a certain sweet spot of time for me where too much time there and you risk growing tired of the place. Too little and you don’t fully get to enjoy what an area has to offer. I look forward to going back though for sure.