Curious about the Craft Beverage scene in Hawai’i? We are too! It’s actually where I grew up, so naturally when I nominated myself for the task of researching craft beverage by each state, I decided to begin here.
When I began to pull all the information together, I thought it would be relatively easy. The more I researched, however, the more I realized how rich Hawaii’s history is with beverage – from Kona Coffee to it’s own fermented spirit – and how that all ties into today’s beverage culture.
The below guide to Hawai’i aims to give you, our Craft Beverage Jobs reader, a comprehensive view of what you can expect in Hawai’i. Whether you want to know where to visit on your next beach vacation, if you’re looking to get a job brewing in the state, or if you’re just curious like we are.
Table of Contents
- History of Beverage in Hawai’i
- Business Landscape & Beverage Laws
- Coffee in Hawai’i
- Craft Beer in Hawai’i
- Wine and Mead In Hawai’i
- Craft Spirits in Hawai’i
- Craft Soda, Teas, and Kombucha in Hawai’i
- Beer, Wine & Coffee Events in Hawai’i
- Craft Beverage in Hawai’i Twitter List
- Craft Beverage Jobs in Hawai’i
The history of beverage in Hawai’i goes back to the ancient Hawaiians, which goes as far back as 300 – 800 CE. Hawaiians made an alcoholic beverage from the root of the ti plant.
In the late 18thCentury, English seamen were in Hawai’i looking for a strong beverage to supply their ships for the long journeys home. They turned to the native Hawaiians who shared with them their ancient recipe. The original drink Hawaiians brewed was more beer-like, but this “hawaiian moonshine” was made when the whalers distilled the ti root in iron pots. The beverage was named “Okolehau”, which translates into “iron butt” because the pots looked like… butts.
Today, Okolehau, which has a earthy/sweet characteristic all its own, is still produced and consumed, and is enjoying a bit of a comeback thanks to the few modern Hawaiian distillers in operation.
Around the same time that Okolehau was first being made, coffee cuttings from brazillian coffee plants were brought over and large coffee plantations were established throughout the islands. Coffee production and export was huge business for Hawai’i until 1899 when the world coffee market crashed.
After the coffee market crash, settlers on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, including many Japanese, started to pick up some of the fallen pieces of the coffee market and began cultivating micro farms where they then began to develop the unique production practices that goes into today’s Kona Coffee.
Beer in Hawai’i had a rocky start. Hawaii’s first commercial brewery was The Honolulu Brewery (est 1854). It closed 3 short years later in 1857, after which beer was not the easiest of drinks to locate. This was the theme over the next few decades as breweries opened and failed in short order.
As it is an issue today, primary beer ingredients like hops and barley are not island grown. That makes sourcing and production costs pretty high. Add to that the anti-alcohol stance first from the missionary population and later from prohibition (though not a US state, Hawaiian law mimicked US laws in many ways), and brewing was not sustainable in Hawai’i early on.
Primo, the first beer brand to really establish itself in Hawai’i (1901) was able to survive prohibition, became a darling staple of American GI’s during WW2, and ended up being part of big beer consolidation in the 1970s. The Primo brand is currently owned by the Pabst Brewing Company, and today the Primo brand is experiencing a new found popularity.
It’s notoriously more expensive to do just about anything in Hawai’i, so starting a brewery, coffee farm, or launching any business in the state is not easy.
The state, however, is working to make things easier for craft businesses with the passage of favorable laws. In August, 2014, the Governor of Hawai’i passed a bill loosening restrictions on beer producers – making it easier for the growing craft beer movement to take hold. The specifics of the law (S.B. 3042) was to remove brewpub production limits and allow growler sales. This change will no doubt make a significant impact in the growth of craft beer in Hawai’i in the future.
In terms of wine, Hawai’i is considered a “reciprocity” state. This means that the few producers of wine in Hawai’i are allowed to ship their products out to other states that allow wine shipments to be received. Conversely, residents of Hawai’i can receive direct wine shipments.
The most popular craft beverage of Hawai’i is certainly Kona Coffee. It’s one of Hawaii’s most popular exports and is enjoyed and coveted world-wide. Coffee is also grown and produced on all other major Hawaiian islands, and Maui and the Ka’u region of the Big Island are starting to gain their own reputations for growing world-class coffee.
The production of Kona Coffee is an art form, and is deep in tradition and history. Because there is just so much to discuss and cover surrounding Kona Coffee, we recently published a whole post on Kona Coffee in our 2015 Guide to Kona Coffee.
The guide covers growing conditions, production practices, classification, and lists Kona Coffee farmers.
Craft Beer didn’t really get started in Hawai’i until the mid 1990’s when Spoon Khalsa and his dad, Cameron Healy, started the Kona Brewing Company on the Big Island. I grew up in Kona and remember Spoon bringing his homebrew to the beach where we had mutual friends. It took only a few short years for Kona Brewing Company’s beer and brand to explode in popularity, and it’s probably not hard to attribute a lot of today’s craft beer popularity in Hawai’i to Kona Brewing Company.
With the recent emergence of two of Hawaii’s craft brewers out of bankruptcy (Hawai’i Nui & Mehana Brewing Co – both purchased by the same person) and back into production, there are currently only 7 craft breweries in operation (brewing in Hawai’i) and at least 5 that are currently “in planning” throughout Hawai’i.
The Brewers Association reported that Hawai’i brewers produced 25,082 barrels per year in 2013 (ranking 41st).
When asked to comment on the growth of craft beer in the state, local resident and Certified Cicerone, Bill Carl, had this to say:
The growth of craft beer in Hawaii has been unprecedented in the last few years and especially in the last 365 days. In the last year we have been witness to beautiful brands such as Breakside Brewery, Belching Beaver, Knee Deep, Hoppin’ Frog, and Gigantic just to mention a few. The role of the distributor has been a huge development as some established companies have gone to great lengths to ensure that the beers are kept properly while other small distributors have opened to facilitate the growth of craft beer in Hawaii. The explosion of craft beer centered bars such as REAL a Gastropub, Monkeypod Kitchen, Feral Pig, Humpy’s and Brew’d have exposed the Aloha state to an array of terrific brews so that many retail and grocery stores have taken notice and upped their selections as well. The brewing scene in our Island home is only on the cusp of what it will be in a few years with many new tanks being installed as we speak. Hawaii used to be known as a craft beer desert and we are starting to emerge as a craft beer paradise!
It also appears that Hawaii’s craft beer community is starting to organize. There is a Hawaiian Craft Brewers Guild, however there is no website or much information about them online.
List of Operating Craft Breweries – Brewing Beer in Hawai’i
- Big Island Brewhaus
- Honolulu BeerWorks
- Kauai Island Brewery & Grill
- Kona Brewing Company
- Maui Brewing Co
- Kauai Beer Company
- Hawaii Nui & Mehana Brewing (recently both acquired and out of Bankruptcy)
List of Craft Brewers “In Planning”
- Palolo Valley Brew Co
- Home of the Brave Bev Co
- Lanikai Brewing Co
- Waikiki Brewing Co
- Kailua Brewing Co
- Rustic Island Craft Brewery
One interesting development in Hawai’i and Craft Beer is a multi-faceted collaboration between Maui Brewing Company and Stone Brewing Company (San Diego).
The two entities have collaborated at many intersections in the past, but they’ve recently joined again to create a craft beverage distributorship in Hawaii. Maui Stone Craft Bev was founded by founders of both breweries and its goal is to bring a variety of quality (and fresh) craft beer (in addition to Stone) to the islands – utilizing Stone’s modernized distribution operation that ensures cold shipment.
Though there is really no real wine or mead industry in Hawai’i, there are a few producers in operation, and they are worth mentioning. While high quality grape wine is made on both Maui and on the Big Island, it’s the fruit and honey wines these producers make that makes them so interesting.
Volcano Winery on the Big Island produces a variety of wine. In addition to Pinot Noir and an estate Cayuga white, they produce fruit, honey, tea, and nut wines.
Maui’s Winery aka Tedeschi Vineyards is famous for its pineapple sparkling wine – or Maui Brut made in the “methode champenoise” style. The winery, which began in 1974, has the distinction of serving its Maui Brut at Ronald Regan’s inauguration in 1981.
Nani Moon Meadery on Kaua’i is Hawaii’s only dedicated meadery. All ingredients used to produce Nani Moon are 100% local and organic. With so many beautiful tropical plants pollenated by the island’s honey bees, Hawai’i mead should be on everyone’s craft beverage list.
Vodka from pineapple and deep sea mineral water, oh my!
There are only a handful of distilleries in operation in Hawai’i, but they are all creative and contributing to an inspired culture surrounding distillation. This small group of craft spirits producers are thinking outside of the box and using local resources to produce uniquely hawaiian spirits.
In addition to several distillers producing Okolehau, Hawaii’s first distilled spirit, producers like Pau Maui Vodka use gold pineapple to make their vodka and Ocean Vodka uses deep sea mineral water in their distillation process.
- Koloa Rum Company
- Pau Maui Vodka (Haliimaile Distilling Co)
- Island Distillers
- Haleakala Distillers
- Aloha Distillers
- Ocean Vodka (Hawaiian Sea Spirits)
The below list of “misc” craft beverage producers is probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential for Hawai’i. There is definitely an attitude in Hawai’i towards living a healthy lifestyle so there seems to be a lot of room for growth here.
- Tea Hawaii (Tea)
- Onomea Tea Company (Tea)
- Hawaiian Natural Tea (Tea)
- Mauna Kea Tea (Tea)
- Cloudwater Tea Farm (Tea)
- Waialua Soda Works (Craft Soda)
- Big Island Organics (Small Batch Juices)
- Hawaii Kombucha (Kombucha)
There is something magical about Hawaii’s beverage events. Growing up, I attended many a Kona Coffee Festivals, and in recent years was lucky to score a ticket to the coveted Kona Brewer’s Festival (it always sells out).
This year, we’re actually involved with the Kona Brewers Festival – assisting them both with their social media and as sponsors of the event. I can tell you from experience, if you’re a fan of craft beer, you haven’t lived until you experience the Kona Brewers Festival. To drink some of the best craft beer made with your toes in the sand is quite something!
- Kona Brewers Festival March 11-14, 2015
- Kona Coffee Festival November 6-15, 2015
- Maui Brewers Festival TBD
- HI Food & Wine Festival Aug 29 – Sept 13, 2015
There’s a great community of craft beverage producers, the restaurants and distributors that support them, and the fans that love them active on Twitter. We’ve compiled a Twitter List of the people of Craft Beverage in Hawai’i, and invite you to follow them.
Want to work in paradise? While there are not a ton of craft beverage jobs in Hawai’i that come across our desks, they do come. You can check out what’s available here:
So there you have it! A thorough look at the craft beverage industry in the state of Hawai’i. If we have missed something, please do contact us or leave a comment below. We will add to this post as we find updated information or as things come to us – be that new producers to add, producers to remove who are no longer in business, events, etc.
We will be posting our next look at Craft Beverage by state in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!