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Honolulu Welcomes a New Wave of Craft Brewers

Building off the success of Neighbor Island breweries and local beer-focused restaurants, a new generation is brewing plans to turn O‘ahu into a beer destination.


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Waikīkī Brewing Co.

Photos: Steve Czerniak

At 6 a.m., Kalākaua Avenue belongs to the early-morning delivery trucks, lone joggers and spare handfuls of surfers heading out for dawn patrol. It is an in-between time for Waikīkī: The roving throngs of nightlife seekers have dispersed, while the shoppers and swimsuit-and-towel-clad sun worshippers have yet to take over the sidewalks. These quiet morning hours now also mark the start of the beer brewing process for Joe Lorenzen, owner and head brewer of the newly opened Waikīkī Brewing Co. 

 

Tucked in the back of Cheeseburger Waikīkī, the 1,800-square-foot space is small for a brewpub, but feels larger because the walls open out to sidewalk seating. The Chico, California-born 34-year-old was formerly the manager for that site of the popular hamburger restaurant chain. When the Mainland-based owners paid a visit in 2012, he convinced them to convert the awkward banquet space that ran along Ala Moana Boulevard into a small brewery. While they worked on permitting, Lorenzen attended correspondence brewing school and topped it off with practical experience at a Vermont brewery. In March of this year, Waikīkī Brewing Co. opened with eight beers on tap, a roster of six classic craft standards and two novelty brews.

 

By 9 a.m., the grain for the daily batch of beer will be simmering in a large stainless-steel tank, which Lorenzen or his assistant brewer stirs occasionally with a paddle. The resulting grain-infused water will be siphoned into another tank, where it will be boiled with hops, before being chilled and transferred again to begin the fermentation process. Throughout the day, Lorenzen will oversee brewing, using downtime to chat with customers who trickle in during the day. By pau hana time, the outdoor bar, which serves a menu made to pair with beer, will be packed with the downtown post-work crowd and curious tourists. “Whatever I could have imagined the best possible outcome could be,” he says about the positive response from the public, “this is it.”

 

(Left) Waikīkī Brewing Co. (Right) Beer is made from four ingredients: grain, hops, yeast and water. 

 

Waikīkī Brewing Co. is one of the latest in a string of new brewery openings on O‘ahu. Though craft beer is big business on the Mainland—national sales grew 18 percent last year and a new brewery is estimated to open every 1.5 days—the trend appeared to have bypassed O‘ahu until now. Only Gordon Biersch remains from the first wave of craft breweries that arrived in the 1990s, while other entries have quickly come and gone, felled by mismanagement and steep obstacles to success. Conventional wisdom says that brewing shouldn’t work here—shipping for ingredients and equipment is too costly, real estate is scarce and residents, the thought process went, were loyal to “green-bottle” lagers (read: mass-produced imports).

 

But, buoyed by the success of Neighbor Island breweries—notably Maui Brewing Co., Kona Brewing Co. and Big Island Brewhaus—as well as a growing list of beer-focused restaurants, the tide seems to have finally turned. New breweries are opening at a fast clip, retailers have converted significant shelf space to craft beers and nearly every good restaurant offers some type of locally made beer. Whether Hawai‘i is finally a real beer destination or if this is just a passing fad remains to be seen. But, for now, there’s never been a better time to drink beer—and drink local—on O‘ahu. 

 

1945 Kalākaua Ave., 946-6590, waikikibrewing.com

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