Beer Sherpa Recommends: Big Island Dark Sabbath
The island of Hawai’i (the Big Island) is one of the least visited, and has a population of just 185,000—13% of the population, though bigger than the other major islands combined. On this remote island on a remote archipelago is a remote town called Waimea, on an elevated saddle between the Kohala volcano (the island’s oldest) and Mauna Kea. It’s a grassland in which the island’s cattle graze in a semi-western tableau (if you ignore their view of the volcanic flats and ocean below). And yet in this small town is a wonderful little brewpub with excellent food and even better beer: the Big Island Brewhaus.
Founded by a longtime vet of Maui Brewing, it has an impressive range of lagers, hoppy ales, infused ales, and Belgian-inflected styles. It was so good we had to make a return visit, because even together Sally and I couldn’t work through their extensive taplist in one go. After the first visit, I was planning to Sherpa their 4.5% saison, Monk’s Brunch, which is among the best I’ve had. It starts out with a burst of peppery phenols, has a rich midpalate, and then finishes with a long blast of hop-and-ester tropical fruit. I am a small-beer fan, but that’s just coincidence here—it’s a wonderful beer, full stop.
But then we went back. As we were tasting through the rest of the beers, we came to a Belgian strong dark ale called Dark Sabbath. Like the saison, it was a straightforward example of the style, but just executed perfectly. Again, it was introduced with a peppery layer. Many strong Belgian ales are just too sweet (even—or especially—authentic Belgian ones). Here the brewery achieved a fine balance with the yeast spice, the soft but evident alcohol, and the style’s innate sweetness. It was dangerously drinkable, one sip leading to the next greedy sip. Again, one of the best examples of the style I’ve encountered. I give it the slight nod over Monk’s Brunch, but obviously have both if they’re available.
Beyond these, the helles and oktoberfest were standouts, as were the hoppy ales, which were modern if west coast in style (no hazy IPAs anywhere on the island that I found). Another specialty, Red Sea of Cacao, had local cacao, pink peppercorn and sea salt, and was a decadent treat.
In the lowlands, stronger and darker beers don’t appeal, but at 2,700 feet, the weather is cooler and these are perfect. The first time we visited, a tropical rain rattled the patio roof and we were looking for something warming. I settled into that big red (8.7%) with relish.
The brewery is ambitious—medals festoon the pub—but it’s pitched at locals who constitute most of the traffic. That gives it an unusual feel for a Hawaiian restaurant. Locals stream in, fist-bumping each other and gathering in clumps. On a Thursday night when we visited, musicians availed themselves of an open mic. Wait staff knew the regulars and chatted them up in that slow, easy island way. If there’s a downside to traveling in Hawai’i, it’s that you often feel like you’re traveling from one tourist bubble to another. The Big Island Brewhaus is one of the few places you won’t have that sensation.
The spirit of discovery is something we all love. That’s why many who are into beer seek out the “whales”—rare beers released in limited numbers. Personally, I love collecting exceptional breweries that few others know about. You won’t find Big Island Brewhaus on a list of the trendiest new breweries, or among the stars of the ratings sites. In fact, you have to work very hard to see it at all. That’s what makes it special. To find a little brewpub in this out-of-the-way cow town is lovely enough; to realize that it’s in that top tier of American breweries makes it all the more delightful. If you find yourself on the Big Island, either in Kona or Hilo, consider taking the drive up to Weimea to see it. It will be one of the highlights of your trip.
NB. There are other breweries on the island. The most famous is Kona, which I’ll discuss in a separate post. I toured the brewery with Ryan McVeigh, the master brewer. But there’s also a new brewery called Ola that’s been open just weeks. Located in downtown Kona, it has a spacious taproom and attached brewery. When we visited, brewer Sebastian Bach had six beers on tap. Like most breweries here, he works with local ingredients and has both a watermelon double IPA and a kiawe red ale. Kiawe is a seed pod that Bach roasts to infuse the beer with a rich, chocolatey flavor. A very light lager with a flash of American hops is also good, as is the standard IPA. (Based on my fairly small sample size, I’d say Hawaii is very much a part of west coast stylistically. The IPAs could all have come from Oregon.) if you’re visiting the town of Kona, definitely put Ola on your list. No food, but the debut beers augur well for this new arrival. (If you want food, Kona’s brewpub has great pizza and sandwiches—but beware, it’s the most popular restaurant in town.)