The mid-pacific Hawaiian Island chain is an icon of the American summer ideal. Its cultural identity is every bit as interesting as its strategic and military history because this is the element that sets it apart from its mainland master. From Elvis to Sunny Garcia to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Hawaii has a prolific paradise dynamic that extends to people beyond the influence of the sun, surf and fresh air. The laidback informalness is palpable wherever you go. It doesn’t feel competitive like many other parts of the States, which makes it easier to relax straight off the bat.
On my flight over I carried a low craft beer optimism in my heart. I had not yet had a chance to fulfill my longing to immerse myself in the American mainland good beer revolution and was not expecting much from its satellite in the pacific. Fortunately I was about to have my own ignorant eyes opened to a craft beer presence that perfectly suited the landscape.
The first drink stop on the tour was at Kauai Island Brewing on the picturesque island of Kauai. If possible avoid driving to this place, as the day I dropped in I found them serving some of the best beers in the entire fiftieth state (coming from Australia it is worthwhile to note that as at the time of writing the local drink driving laws in Hawaii allow up to 0.08% BAC for anyone over 21… and curiously as much as 0.02% BAC for anyone under 21 – the legal drinking age). In any case, don’t drive. It could seriously limit your enjoyment at the brewery. Now, onto the brews: I had the Captain Cook Hopped Ale/IPA based on an extreme sense of curiosity around our shared early-European connection. It’s hard to not overstate how impressed I was with this beer, I’d given myself and undertaking to shed my normal preferences and to try to totally embrace the countrywide love of IPAs – and this was the first one I tried (even though it was only billed as a hopped ale on the menu from memory) it ended up being a highlight of the trip. I found it to have a impressive dankness and resiny quality with a dry middle and an acidic finish.
After that I went for the Canefire Red. This was a drink with a creamy rich body that reminded me of a proper Irish red. It had a lot of caramel coming through from the malt, a little cinnamon spice from the hops and a nice all-round sweetness. It reminds me of a beer a friend made as a homebrew a while a go and it’s one I’ve always been trying to recapture, for that reason alone I would have loved to taste this one with a little aniseed or clove just to offset the sweetness a bit. I was also able to sample the Brewer’s Special Belgian Porter before leaving. The smell was something akin to spent coffee grounds and grain-dust. It was there in the flavour too which was something else, along with honeycomb and a molasses bass note. To me it was more stout than porter and a fantastic beer. It might seem a little crazy to want to travel halfway across the pacific to revisit a single brewery – but in this case, it’s not (and fortuitously Hawaii is an easy stopover enroute to the US mainland).
Destination number two was the Kona Brewing Company, Hawaii island. I tried quite a few of their offerings on this trip both at the brewery and other venues as the brand’s profile in bars and restaurants seems to be quite prolific. During the visit I tried the Lychee Lager, it was an okay beer – a nice lager with some rich Vienna malt flavours and toastiness present, unfortunately the lychee completely disappeared (probably a function of the fruit being so mild for such a rich style of beer, would like to taste a version with double the amount of the lychee ingredient). After that was the Lemongrass Luau which I really liked. It’s a Blonde Ale that had this fantastic Thai green curry quality. Last was the Paia Porter which is a cocoa, chocolate and caramel concoction that was also extremely easy to drink and had the right amount of body to complement the hot Hawaiian sun.
To say that the island of Hawaii known colloquially as ‘The Big Island’ isn’t somewhere you would come for the alcohol selection alone is probably fair (there’s just not enough locally produced fare to make it worth it in its own right), but what is available is still really enjoyable. This was hands down my favourite part of the chain for other reasons, Volcanoes national park was an excellent place to explore (near the Hilo side of the island) – it was easy to feel like you were lost in a dramatic and desolate, prehistoric landscape. Kona on the far Eastern side couldn’t have been more different. It’s collection of beaches, restaurants and bars in a relaxed community atmosphere. The strip along Ali’i Drive in particular reminded me a little bit of Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, if you’re over that way Humpy’s is definitely worth a visit.
Honolulu and Waikiki in particular need no introduction. For many people this city on O’ahu is the only part of the Hawaiian Islands they ever get to see. Pint & Jigger is a perfect craft bar and a must for any enthusiast, with uber-friendly, knowledgeable staff & just a short car ride from the waikiki area. I recognised immediately that this venue had gone out on a limb to put on some really quality taps that I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere on the islands. I had two really outstanding beers here. The Featherleggy Bulrusher Sour Stout has this thick raisiny, spirit-like character but without being completely oppressive. The balance was impeccable, a really wonderful beverage. Also on offer was the Scotch Silly, an apple and sherbert laden beer that reminded me a little of both Rodenbach and Thorogoods Billy B’s Dark Malted Apple Beer. For some context, the venue carry spirits as well for the less tolerant among us. Considering the limitations of being a small venue, their curation really offered a point of difference from the 100 tap joint downtown (~80 of which were not craft beers at all) and I’ll definitely be heading back here again.
Our last stop in Honolulu was Brew’d Craft Pub. Situated at the bottom of the hill behind Waikiki in what seemed like a nice little cosmopolitan hub with a couple of other restaurants dotted around, Brew’d again had a tap list that set it apart from most of it’s competition. I tried a few new beers here too, most memorable among them were the: Fuego del Otono which is a slightly spicy and entirely savoury saison, Samuel Smith’s Organic Strawberry fruit beer (which I liked a lot) it was basically carbonated, fermented strawberry juice, and Golden Road’s Berliner Weisse
Some honorable mentions to a couple of great beers I tasted while researching this post – Gigantic Pipe Wrench Double IPA (served at Humpy’s Kona), The New Belgian Brewing Citradelic IPA and the Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout.
So what did I learn? My overriding impression of Hawaii was like being in any other pacific island chain and yet, thanks to its total Americanisation, it’s completely different at the same time. To me it’s like Hamilton island, Whitehaven and Ko Samui all rolled into one. Admittedly I would love to have had a closer look at the coffee and spirit production happening in the region – but I was weak and started with what I knew… or thought I knew, but ultimately it’s just more reason to return on another fact finding mission for research purposes only – definitely not for fun 😉
Your friend in the bottle, Brew Deity