So it's been two months now since I posted this picture on my Facebook page. I had been pleased to find that the folks from Kona Brewing of Hawai'i wanted to get me to interview them when they introduced their beers to the Chicago area. Well, after many delays caused by various factors: so many more events for my calendar articles, hunting for jobs, trying to finish some homework, I have just now finally edited my interview and can happily present it here!
I had planned to go visit the folks from Kona Brewing when they came to town in January, either at their opening party at Roy’s, or Hopleaf, or even at the hotel they were staying at. But we had car trouble in the family; I had to drive home and help out, and the whole week started getting away from me. But the Kona people insisted on meeting with me. Have they seen my page view stats? Well, I'm happy to do what I can. So they arranged to drive out to my house in their "Midwest Expansion Tour" mini-van before going to the airport.
Chicago was just one leg of Kona’s expansion into other markets. Kona president Mattson Davis and Media Relations guru Sally Murdoch were flying back back to Portland, home of the Craft Brew Alliance, in which Kona partners with Widmer Brothers and Red Hook, Meanwhile the van would be driven to Minneapolis for the next week's round of events.
The picture of the van in front of my house was a hit on my Facebook page (“Peapod? Who needs it!”). Sally presented me with a traditional lei, and I presented her with a picture of Princess Leia. Surely that joke was at least 35 years old, but it was better than offering a nice Hawaiian Punch. And at 10:30 in the morning, I was in the van, sampling beers and talking to Mattson Davis.
The first thing one might notice about the Kona beers on Illinois shelves is that they do not in fact come from Hawai’i. It may no longer be a big thing to Chicagoans who see their 312 coming from upstate New York, but Davis was ready with an explanation of why brewing on the mainland makes sense:
"Even just as we started rolling with Kona Brewing Company in 1995, we were aware that there was a second craft beer boom going on. We had a very sessionable beer for what is now over 8 million visitors who came to Hawai'i each year. We wanted to make sure that we really considered the islands and the limited amount of resources that we had. So in the fall of 1997, we decided we wanted to keep our beers as fresh as possible for the consumers, and also to make the least impact on the environment. It was at the time that we decided to brew our beer in other locations. And today we've calculated that in last year's sales, we've eliminated two and a half million cars worth of CO2 output by brewing our beer as close to market as we can."
Thus Kona became a partner in the CBA, which is partly owned by Anheuser-Busch, and which Goose Island was a part of before AB bought out the entire company. This arrangement allowed Kona to recreate its beers in the CBA's Portsmouth, NH facility. There, they try to overcome what Davis says is the biggest factor in the taste of Kona beers, the water.
"We've really spent a lot of time, and energy and resources, on what. We use a reverse osmosis system and then add brewing salts back into the water to mimic the characteristic of the water in Kona."
What makes the water at home such a challenge to replicate?
"The ocean. We're constantly managing salts and minerals from the ocean. And the more they develop Hawai'i, the more difficult that's going to become. Mimicking our water was a challenge in Portsmouth, mostly because of seasons. You have heavy snowfall in the wintertime, then runoff in the spring. You're dealing with one kind of water, and then as the summer and fall come around, you've got droughts, and you're pulling your water from a different place. That's something that we spend a lot of time with. And one of the things that we really got the benefit of working with Anheuser-Busch on; because their expertise is right up there. We could just send our beers out there and they would work with us. And now we're as proud of the Longboard Lager made in Portsmouth as the one in Kona."
Kona has its original pub in Kona, and has added a restaurant at the Koko Marina Center on Oahu, and a franchise restaurant at the Honolulu International Airport. Despite spreading its packaged beers the Mainland, Davis says the focus at the Kona brewhouses is still local. "Our Kona Brewers Festival on the second Saturday of March is in its 18th year. It raised over $80,000 last year for environment and educational programs. We do a lot of school garden programs and art programs in our area." The festival's Homebrew contest gets 450 entrants from all around the world; trying for the prize of a round trip to the next year's Festival.
"All our labels depict real locations in Hawai'i; the (Longboard Lager) Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach, the home where it all began; then on Big Wave, you got Makaha, the West Shore area of Oahu. We recently helped a culturalist who's quite a water man, buy a four-man surfing canoe, that he teaches kids about, which is really fun and very exciting. You've got Manua Loa and Kīlauea (volcanoes) on the Fire Rock; the Koko Brown has Koko Head and Koko Crater, with Maunalua Bay in the foreground. Then the Pipeline Porter is named after the famous surf break on the North Shore.
"We also put definitions of Hawai'ian words on the inside of our crowns. People really enjoy that. When we expanded from 25 to 50 words, I was surprised that, months later, people would say how "awesome" it was that they got the new words, and their friends are collecting them."
Davis described some of the other difficulties they have brewing beer in their 25 barrel system on the Big Island, many miles from raw materials: "We buy our malt in bulk, which, in just one year, has saved two swimming pools full of the empty bags. We have the problem of distance to deal with: if we were to call in on Wednesday, the product wouldn't even ship for ten days, because they have to hit the sailing on Friday. We would pay an additional $4,500 to get that grain to Hawai'i. And if everything worked – no heavy seas, any of that stuff – we would get the grain in two weeks. We also enjoy using bulk grain because it improves the quality; there's a lot less handling.
"In Hawai'i, to be successful, you've got to be innovative. We bought a brewery from Maui on 2000, and that allowed us so much flexibility because now we had two chillers, extra equipment, and so when things broke down, we didn't have to pay the overtime to keep the product coming, and we didn't have to pay double rates to FedEx. Right now, there's a 42% fuel surcharge for shipping to Hawai'i."
Despite its isolation from mainland malt and hop suppliers, Hawai'i has had a brewing since Primo started in 1850. Davis pointed out that while there used to be local soda companies that sold all over the islands, native sugar production has largely left, with only one producer in Maui. Hawai'i is riding the craft beer wave, too, with six breweries in the state, including another one in Hilo.
"We spend a lot of time at the pubs and at the brewery in Kona, brewing beers that are unique to our environment, using ingredients like lemongrass, ginger, or cacao. We make a beer with a yeast that was discovered on the slopes on Mauna Loa; Wyeast has one of them in their banks. We did a saison one time with oranges from Hawai'i's original naval orange tree in Kealakekua Bay (the "Naval" oranges and lemons were planted by Scottish surgeon Archibald Menzies in 1792, as a source of Vitamin C to future sailors to prevent scurvy). All the brewers took home 15 pounds of oranges, peeled them, and dried them in their ovens."
For March, Kona Brewing has announced that its Longboard Lager will be packaged in 16 oz. cans, and sold in a "Hang-10 Pint Pack." As in ten pint cans. According to Davis, “The 10-pack occasion is great for small gatherings because you can quickly grab it and head to the beach or barbecue knowing you’ve got enough brews to share. Plus each can is a full pint, which means more Longboard per can and more time to talk story with friends and family, like we do in Hawaii.”Also coming to stores is a "Big Kahuna" variety 24-pack, which includes Kona’s Longboard Island Lager and Fire Rock Pale Ale, plus two of its Aloha series seasonal offerings: Koko Brown, Wailua Wheat and Pipeline Porter.