Brewing Beer in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean

The town of Kailua Kona, Hawaii.

Kona Beer is a brand in a larger company's portfolio, and is brewed in large quantities at the Widmer brewery in Portland, Oregon. But the beer consumed on the island is brewed there, at the original 25-barrel brewpub in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. It turns out that brewing beer in a state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2,500 miles from the nearest hop field, is a fascinating challenge.

This winter, I spent ten glorious January days melting in the Hawaiian warmth, alternating between sunny patches and luminous turquoise waters. Amid that relaxation, Sally and I spent one afternoon with Ryan McVeigh, brewery manager and brewmaster at Kona Brewing learning about the originating brewpub of one of the hottest brands in the US right now. [As a full disclosure, I was at the time writing a biography about Rob and Kurt Widmer paid for by Craft Brew Alliance (CBA), which also owns the Kona brand.]

Ryan McVeigh

Ryan McVeigh

Kona Brewing is located in the town of the same name on the sunny side of the Big Island. It was founded in 1994 by a pair of Oregonians, Cameron Healy and Spoon Khalsa (connections to Oregon seem to abound on the Big Island). It puttered along like so many little breweries, getting the pub in 1998, releasing familiar beers along the way, before the owners finally explored a way to get to the mainland in 2003. Kona, even among Hawaiian cities, does not feel central. It has just 39,000 residents, and feels like a sleepy little beach town. If you know Kona beer today, it's probably as the 425,000-barrel juggernaut that keys the CBA empire, with its "Liquid Aloha" branding and national ubiquity. But it makes a modest 14,000 barrels in the original brewhouse, which has a gritty, small-brewery feel and a definite sense of place.

Ryan McVeigh is originally from the Mountain West (Colorado and Wyoming) and got his start brewing at The Ram in Boise. He came to Kona, starting as a keg cleaner, in 2005. Over time, he worked his way up until he was overseeing a brewing staff of 12. This is all pretty familiar for a small brewery, including the relatively large group it takes to run it. CBA is in the process of designing a new state-of-the-art, 100,000-barrel facility that will go in around the corner, but so far what exists of that plan is a vacant lot.

If the small brewery seemed familiar, what McVeigh has to do to keep it running smoothly is anything but. We were standing outside the grain silo, and he started describing how they got their malt. For starters, Ryan has to order it six weeks out and there's no way to expedite matters if he has an immediate, emergent need. This is a problem if they're short of grain or if something arrives that they don't need. Storage is a problem in the humid tropics where bugs, rats, mongooses (long story), or other hungry animals proliferate. The grain comes in 20-foot dry containers, and they have to be "vacuumed" out by a special device--a process that takes three hours. Hops are also slow to arrive, and as an added bonus, use different shipping methods, so that's a challenge, too. I can only imagine how difficult it is to correctly predict six weeks out which beers you're going to want to make--but apparently Ryan's getting good at it.


Just to illustrate how far from the image in your head the Kona brewery may be, the brewhouse is a really funky affair. They originally purchased it second-hand from a defunct brewery in Maui called Trade Winds. It is a direct-fire system and the vessel has a cone at the bottom with 45-degree angles. "It doesn't work super-well," Ryan admitted. "It's seriously just like a large homebrew system." It can only do single-infusion mashes, which is how all the original beers in Hawaii are made.

Trying to meet island demand is a challenge, and they've had to trick the system out to get it to 14,000 barrels a year. It makes sense that fruit would play a major role in a Hawaiian brewery, but form followed function here: "We really want to try to get as much sugar as possible," Ryan said--which is why they use the fruit. "Those extra sugars are a big benefit." (Not to beat my hobby horse too excitedly, but this is exactly the process that has led to so many classic beer styles. You find breweries doing oddball things because they're forced to by funky systems, tax law, or some other external force, and over time those oddball features become fiercely-defended markers of tradition.) No doubt Kona would have experimented with fruit anyway, but they were highly motivated because of the constraints their brewery placed on them.

I have no idea where the fruit or fruit essence comes from that goes into the bottles we get on the mainland, but when they're making beer at the brewery, they work with local farmers. The climate of the islands is ideal for tropical fruit, and Kona has made use of myriad famous and obscure varieties. In each case, Ryan has to find a farmer to source the fruit, then figure out how to process it and get it in the beer. My sense is that a big part of brewing at Kona is processing fruit.

The rest of the operation is familiar--a patchwork of different fermenters and tanks compiled throughout the years, the difficulty of juggling multiple different beers, some for wide distribution, some for sale at the pub, the homey feel of a crowd of visitors getting a tour. There were some surprises, like how Kona has a cold liquor tank rather than a hot one--chilled water being the rarer commodity in a state where the low temperatures are in the 70s--or how they gather the condensation off the compressors to water their plants, or how the yeast and diatomaceous earth used in filtering is picked up by coffee farmers because they attract bugs away from the plants.

But mostly, operationally, Kona looks like so many other small breweries you might have dropped in on in your travels. Its small-town familiarity was, in fact, the surprising thing given what a successful brand Kona is on the mainland.


Hawaiian Quirks

There were two other amazing facts that illustrate the unique challenges of brewing in Hawaii. The first is island distribution. Logistically, it's a challenge just because the state is an archipelago--customers are spread out over seven populated islands. And although the islands themselves are small, the distance they stretch is not--it's 270 miles from Kona to Lihue, Kauai. Getting beer out means delivery by both boat and truck. But here's the thing: there's a monopoly on shipping run by a single company. That company is located on Oahu. So instead of just shipping the beer out from the port at Kona, the beer first goes to Oahu, then around to the other islands. A keg of beer, instead of traveling directly from Kona to Maui (91 miles), instead goes to two stops and travels 260 miles.

(These are the kinds of things that make Hawaii expensive. Shipping malt and hops halfway across the Pacific, and then shipping finished beer hundreds of miles over truck and boat ain't cheap.)

The second unusual feature of Hawaiian life is the ground underneath a brewery's tanks: in many cases, it can't be purchased. Much of the land on the islands is owned by trusts that date back to the time of royal land ownership (more here). There are lots of these land trusts, and some are owned by former royalty, the state, or private companies. Queen Lili‘uokalani was the final monarch of Hawaii, and a trust she set up owns 6,200 acres of the islands, including much of Kona. The current Kona brewery and the future site are both on Lili‘uokalani Trust lands. What does this mean for companies like Kona/CBA? They sign long-term leases, usually in the 20 to 80-year range. At the end of the lease's term, the lessee must negotiate an entirely new lease to stay on the land. They never own it free and clear.

The New Brewery

Kona isn't able to keep up with even the draft demand on the island, and all the bottled beer is actually shipped from Oregon. CBA has committed to build a brand-new facility near the old brewpub capable of producing 100,000 barrels, all of which would be sold in Hawaii. Given the demand on the islands and Kona's success as an international brand, this is one capital project that seems long overdue.

Back in the 1990s, I drove my 1976 Volkswagen van onto the lot of a Honda dealership and traded it in for a shiny new car, a leap that surprised the salesman. That's something like what's going to happen when this new facility, which is ultra-modern, takes over for the second-hander they're using now. It will use a mash filter--an accordion-like device that delivers amazing efficiency--and an internal calandria in the brew kettle. They are going to have a bioreactor that will treat water, trub, and yeast and generate energy. "It will take all our effluent--everything that goes down the drain--basically down to zero," McVeigh said. It doesn't stop there. They plan to put a solar array on the roof. They're upgrading from a filter system to a centrifuge. And they're adding a CO2 capture system.

We’ll probably break even on electricity and may even be putting it back into the system. This will be one of the greenest breweries in the US—possibly the world.
— Ryan McVeigh

It's a $20 million project, being designed entirely from the ground up and purpose-built for the brewery's needs. (Given the cramped, improvised space they've been using for 24 years, the possibilities seemed to leave Ryan a bit dazed.) They'll be adding a canning line, which is not just the cool thing to do, but a good fit for a state that has locally-made cans, but no local bottle-maker. It's going to have a taproom and carts that whiz people back and forth between the two breweries. The design--you can see a rendering above--is modern and sleek and I'm sure it will be most impressive. The brewery is already a major tourist attraction, and this should bring in even more people.

Linda L for Yelp.jpg

I, for one, will probably prefer visiting the old pub, most of which sits under open skies outside the small bar area. You can smell the ocean while watching palm trees sway above. This, much more than a glossy, steel-and-glass taproom, sets the mood for a long, relaxing session. Either way, visiting the brewery in Kona is and will remain a different experience than drinking a Kona somewhere on the mainland. The sense of where the beer starts, and how it's more than a marketing gimmick, is hard to ignore when you're sitting there in the flesh. I personally recommend starting with the Hanalei, a fruit-infused session IPA, when you arrive.