The tides are turning in Hawaii. Craft beer culture is evolving as brewers embrace local ingredients and distinctly Hawaiian philosophies to produce world-class beer.
“To me, what really moved Hawaii’s beer scene forward was the commitment to craft beer around 2012 to 2013,” says Josh Demello, blogger for Island Beer Union (IBU). “What we are seeing now is the growth from the past six to seven years of true beer enthusiasm.”
The success of Kona and Maui Brewing Company (MBC), which launched in 1994 and 2005, respectively, augured a brewery boom and ensuing wave of beer festivals, gastro pubs, and innovation. Prior to that, Demello says, Hawaii’s craft beer culture was “more like how Oregon was in the late ’90s” in regard to the sophistication of process and tinkering of styles.
Kona and MBC notwithstanding, most craft beer from Hawaii doesn’t have the marketing, distribution, and resulting sales of breweries on the mainland. Some of that has to do with location, of course; but Hawaii beer culture is a product of its environment in more ways than one.
Lōkahi, an ethos prioritizing land, spirit, and community as much as profits, is part of Hawaiian culture and informs some of its businesses — including new craft breweries.
Naehalani Breeland, co-owner of Ola Brewing, describes Lōkahi as the harmony and unity between the Akua (a higher spirit), the Aina (the land), and the Ohana (the community). “The spirit of Hawaii is very much integrated into everything we’re doing at Ola Brew,” she says.
Some breweries on the mainland also pursue sustainable business practices and community involvement, of course. They each have their reasons: Some do it because it saves money, and others believe it’s the right thing to do. Breeland and her business partner, Brett Jacobsen, see Ola Brewing’s community-funded, farm-to-fermenter model as less of an option than an identity. “We kind of see [Lōkahi] as our triple-bottom-line business model,” Breeland says.
“Living on the islands is like living on a canoe. You really have to get along,” Demello says. This includes people and resources. Lōkahi is put into practice by pursuing a closed loop of sustainability and self-reliance.
Ola Brewing’s methods reduce costs and increase revenue for the farmers and their community owners. If they can sustainably produce beer on a remote island, then, theoretically, brewers can pull it off anywhere, Jacobsen says. If other brewers nationally and globally can learn from Ola’s vision, “that’s how we know we’ve made it and are actually doing what we intended to do,” he says.
Garrett Marrero has a slightly different approach to how his business and Hawaiian culture intersect. He is the founder and owner of MBC, Hawaii’s largest craft brewer and the only 100 percent island-brewed beer distributed across the mainland. He believes in the importance of the land and community, though he doesn’t vocally credit it to Hawaiian ethos.
After being named America’s Favorite Solar Craft Brewery in August 2019, Marrero vowed to make MBC grid-independent by the end of the year. His eventual goal is to donate leftover power to local non-profit businesses in Hawaii to offset their cost of doing good for the community.
“It’s about the right thing to do and it’s right financially,” he says when pressed about whether this was business or Lōkahi. “It’s our responsibility because the community has given us so much,” he says.
Lōkahi may be a lofty concept, but it has pragmatic benefits. Without the Aina or Ohana, brewers in Hawaii say, there are no ingredients, no beer, and no one to drink it. This sentiment gets compounded as climate change continues to impact agriculture and community. Hopefully, brewers around the world are paying attention to Hawaii. We’re all sharing the same canoe, after all.