New craft beer bars open in Honolulu: Aloha Beer, Real a Gastropub, Pint and Jigger
Ale-loha!: We welcome two new gastropubs and a brew pub to Honolulu.
Craft beer is hot right now. In just one month, three places featuring craft brews opened—one brewpub and two gastropubs. What gives? People crowd outside Real a Gastropub, angling to get in and drink beers they’ve never heard of. One night, at Pint and Jigger, they were literally paying a man to stand outside and discourage people from entering: “It’s standing room only.” He is happy to be outside and seems not to understand why you would want to go inside, in the crush of people eating eggs wrapped in pork. These two gastropubs are popular, even beyond the usual Honolulu rush. They are unlike any bars we’ve seen in Honolulu, and they have a common, niche interest in beer. Getting to the bottom of this phenomenon (and perhaps several pints along the way) seemed like the right thing to do.
580 N. Nimitz Highway, 545-5959, alohabeer.com.
Aloha Beer thinks it can build an empire on beer.
“[Craft beer] is no longer the niche that it was,” says Dave Campbell, the brewmaster of Aloha Beer. “It is the growth category. Domestic beer sales are flat, whereas craft beer is consistently double-digit growth year in and year out. It still accounts for a small percentage of all the beer, but it’s a growing segment.”
Not that that’s why Campbell first started brewing. He got his first homebrew kit when he was 18, seven years after homebrewing was legalized in 1978. As often happens when underage boys discover beer, the results were intoxicating. After graduating from Punahou, he attended college in Oregon, where a generation of homebrewers was starting microbreweries. Campbell drank it all in, and when he returned to Hawaii, he ditched a law school track to start a homebrew shop, Oahu Homebrew Supply. He ran a small, attached brewery, churning out 15 gallons at a time, while consulting for Kona Brewing and now-closed Alii Brewing.
Campbell calls himself the old guy in the brewing scene: He’s seen breweries come and go (mostly going in the ’90s and returning now). When Sam Choy opened Breakfast, Lunch and Crab, Choy knew he wanted a brewery in it and asked Campbell to run it. In ’97, Big Aloha Brewery was born.
The same year Campbell started his homebrew shop, Aloha Beer partner Steve Sombrero was writing a paper for his MBA. He had recently moved to Hawaii and didn’t know much about the Islands. He scoped out Waikiki and watched tourists order beer; they were handed Budweisers. “I know from my travels, if you go to any country, there’s a distinct beer that represents that country,” Sombrero says. “In the Phillipines, you get San Miguel. Thailand, Singha. Korea, OB. Taiwan, Taiwan Beer. Hawaii should have a beer that’s representative.” Hence, Aloha Beer. He registered the name, though he knew nothing about brewing.
Five years later, he’s executing that grad school business plan. “I believe that Hawaii is a brand in itself,” he says. He plans to leverage that brand to get Aloha Beer into global markets. To do so, Aloha Beer will license other breweries to brew its beer, the way Kirin in the United States is made by Budweiser and Budweiser in Japan is made by Kirin. “It’s all about licensing,” Sombrero says. “That’s how we’ll grow our markets all over the world.”
And yet, for all its world-domination plans, Aloha Beer prides itself on having a Hawaii born and raised brewmaster who “gets” Hawaii and its love of the green bottle: Heineken. One of Campbell’s beers, the Aloha Lager, mimics a Continental pilsner, the style in which Heinekens are made.
At the Aloha Beer brewpub, there are eight taps: five standards, including Aloha Blonde, Lager, Red, Dark and IPA, and three rotating handles “to get our creative freakness out,” says Campbell. Recent ones have included kiawe-honey porter and a steamship lager, similar to San Francisco’s Anchor Steam.
At 6,500 square feet, Aloha Beer’s newly built brewpub feels cavernous and as cozy as a warehouse. It’s half full, despite it being Friday pau hana hour. There are surfers coming in after a session, a smattering of Japanese tourists (who exit through the gift shop of Aloha Beer merchandise) and groups crowded around the “Aloha Tower,” 100 ounces of beer in what looks like a very tall bong. The food is forgettable: turkey leg, beef nachos, a small heap of kalbi for $15 that tastes like it comes from a May’s box. The owners of Aloha Beer have made clear that while it shares a kitchen with Breakfast, Lunch and Crab’s, the menu is completely separate. That much is certain; Sam Choy would not allow such small portions on his menu.
The best way to enjoy Aloha Beer? The Aloha Tower with some friends just to see the spectacle, or a growler to take home.
Real a Gastropub
1020 Auahi St., 596-2526.
“I’m not a beer entrepreneur,” says a guy at the bar. I think he means “connoisseur.” But he’s had a few.
His friend, clearly more a beer enthusiast, is egging him on to try some new beers.
“Do you like IPAs?” his friend asks.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t want it.”
“What’s the best IPA to ease into?” his friend thinks aloud.
“I don’t want to ease into it.”
Too bad. His friend orders him a sampler of 4.5 ounce pours and picks a Deschutes Chainbrewer White IPA, Maui Blonde Bikini Lager, Maui’s Sobrehumano and Rogue Shakespeare Stout.
This is Real: half the people in here are beer geeks, who could probably tell you about all the breweries represented on Real’s 24 taps. For the other half, Real wants to show you what you’ve been missing.
About the name: it’s a bit reactionary. Troy Terorotua, Real’s owner, says it’s a “real” gastropub as opposed to the “fake” ones around town. Except now he admits, “I may have misused ‘gastropub.’” He thinks maybe he should have named Real a “craft beer bar with kick-ass food” instead.
Gastropubs came about in England in the ’90s when a new generation wanted better food in its pubs. They jumped the pond in the aughts; New York’s first, The Spotted Pig, is like a British import, quirky animal name and all, while in Los Angeles, Father’s Office is a craft-beer bar that ushered in an era of upscale food in casual settings. In Britain, gastropubs gourmet-ified the low end, whereas in Los Angeles, they represented the casualization of fine dining. Both cases were reactions to the status quo.
The pairing of gastropubs and craft beer makes sense, then: craft beer itself was a response to the same old, same old—Bud, Miller and Coors.
On yet another level, Real is Terorotua’s reaction to all his previous work experience. He was Sam Choy’s corporate chef for seven years, the beer specialist at Whole Foods for three. Through Whole Foods, he brought in beers Hawaii had not previously seen, devoting 70 percent of the beer display to small-batch beers that accounted for only 20 percent of sales. During his time, he cultivated relationships with breweries such as Rogue: His face is on its No Ka Oi beer.
With Real, Terorotua wanted to break free of the corporate structure. “We’re a couple of crazy guys who opened up a beer bar … trying not to take ourselves too seriously,” he says.
Real is small, like a dive bar, fitting 75 or so. It’s nicer than a dive, but it certainly isn’t Side Street Inn on Da Strip. Suds are painted where the wall meets the ceiling; looking up, especially after you’ve been drinking a few, visually approximates what it would be like to fall into a glass of beer.
The menu provides twists on comfort food, served in small portions: mac and cheese with Chex mix crumbled on top, chicken and waffles, duck confit corndogs, duck confit poutine, like an upgraded loco moco with fries instead of rice and duck replacing the hamburger patty. Candied garlic bacon could serve as dessert, but don’t overlook the “Irish car bomb,” a slightly boozy sundae with crunchy chocolate bits, Guinness gelato and Jameson’s caramel. Every week, Real reduces two gallons of Guinness down to a quart and hands it over to Il Gelato to churn into gelato for the Irish car bomb and the Guinness float (Guinness gelato in Guinness). The men I’ve brought on this visit grumble about ruining beer this way, but, in the end, I have to fight them just to get my spoon in.
The 24 beers on tap are written on a chalkboard hooked up to a pulley system, so the bartenders can pull it down and write new beers, which they do, frequently. When one keg is finished, Real taps a new keg of a different beer. What you have on Monday may not be there on Thursday. It’s partly to keep Real new and exciting, partly to keep Terorotua himself interested. Real also carries 200 bottles of beer. Budweiser and Heineken are not among them.
On one visit, I’m with Doug Lamerson, a beer superfan, a one-man clearinghouse for all things beer-related in Hawaii. His daily Beer Aggregator email is received by other enthusiasts, as well as those in the industry, but he is not actually in the beer business. He comes to Real at least once a week to stay in the know. He is leaving the next morning for the Oregon’s Brewers Festival, one of the oldest and biggest craft-brew festivals, drawing 80,000 people.
“I should do the loyal thing and order something from my friend,” he says, as we approach the beer chalkboard. He gets Hawaii Nui’s Kauai Golden Ale. I am less decisive, and go through a few tastes before settling. Among the samples: a Coronado Islander IPA. Lamerson likens its resin-y quality to marijuana, which he tells me is in the same family as hops. No wonder beer is so popular.
Terorotua greets Lamerson like an old friend and they immediately start geeking out over a Belgian-style ale brewed with papaya and mango and aged in cognac barrels; a beer called Tactical Nuclear Penguin, with 32 percent alcohol; Liquid Breadfruit, a collaboration between Maui Brewing and Dogfish Head; and the world’s most coveted and highly rated beer, Westvleteren XII from Belgium, available for the first time in the United States this year. (Obama supporters, throwing a Hawaii fundraiser for Obama in September, have already asked a local beer distributor to put aside 500 bottles, an impossible request, according to Terorotua.)
Not that Terorotua can get his hands on all these beers. “Hawaii is not abundant with beer yet,” he says. “It’s a constant struggle to get what we’re looking for.”
Terorotua says one of his beer importers told him, “I don’t know if Honolulu’s ready for a craft-beer bar.”
To which Terorotua replied, “Just keep the beer coming.”
Pint and Jigger
1936 S. King St., Suite 101, 744-9593.
Pint and Jigger inhabits Kochi’s old space in Moiliili, but all traces of that restaurant have been removed. “We wanted you to come into Pint and Jigger and feel like maybe you left Oahu for a couple of hours, to get away from what everyone’s really used to,” says Dave Newman, one of the partners in the new gastropub.
Newman was previously Nobu’s bar manager, which means on any given night, there will be some sort of theatrics behind the bar—him swirling a carafe filled with smoke or pounding ice wrapped in cloth to crush it. Most people coming to Pint and Jigger are lured by the cocktails and the food. A gastropub is not complete without a burger—Pint and Jigger satisfies with a hefty, char-grilled beef patty topped with beer cheese. It’s my go-to here—that and the addictive paprika dusted potato chips—though other more novel-sounding items may beckon: beer-braised bratwurst, bacon-wrapped strawberries, double-cut bacon, and Scotch egg, an egg encased in pork and deep-fried. The kitchen’s motto seems to be: Everything’s better with pork. Even the chocolate stout cake, more like a dense bread pudding, comes with bits of bacon.
Unlike Real, you will find Bud and Heineken here, under the menu headline “Beers???” after the sections “Ridiculously Good Beers” and “Beers That Don’t Suck.” Yes, the menu is judging you. But Newman finds the crowd growing more receptive to craft beers, interested in trying one of 21 on tap. “Out here, it’s been the same stuff for so long … we get people that want to try something new, who are willing to experiment,” he says. “Hawaii is ready for it.”
It’s part of the reason he thinks two gastropubs opened within a month of each other, and why they’re both packed every night. “But it’s a collaboration instead of competition,” he says. When kegs come in, they split them among the establishments instead of one taking all.
But the bars want to get beyond taking what they’re given.
Beer and liquor distribution is different from food. Brewery to bar? Doesn’t happen like farm to table. You can’t go straight to the source; you have to go through a distributor. When a bar carries Aloha Beer, it doesn’t pick up a keg at the brewery, it goes through Paradise Beverages.
Paradise Beverages is the largest craft-beer distributor in Hawaii. Some heralded craft brews from the Mainland, such as Stone and Fat Tire, we have yet to see here because either the distributor or the brewers can’t or won’t enter into a contract. Yard House helped changed the game: its presence as a large, national chain meant it could demand certain beers previously untapped in Hawaii bars. Leftover kegs made their way down to smaller establishments like Murphy’s Bar and Grill, Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse in Kona, The Feral Pig on Kauai, and now Real and Pint and Jigger.
They don’t want leftovers anymore, especially now that their purchasing power has increased with the two new gastropubs. “We, as an informal hui, try to apply a little pressure to the distributors,” says Jonathan Schwalbenitz, bartender of 21 years at Murphy’s. (He originally planned on joining the Pint and Jigger team, but decided to stay at Murphy’s.) “Before, the distributors had all the say. Now, we can ask for more and expect it to be delivered.”
The hope: more beer, more variety.
Right now, though, at Pint and Jigger, it doesn’t look like anyone’s missing anything. The communal picnic tables in the front and the high tops in the back are constantly occupied. There are many industry people here—Alan Wong’s staff after its shift, Manifest’s crew throwing a party—that it feels like Side Street Inn for a new generation. Daniel Dae Kim was here one night, but a bigger spectacle happens a few weeks later, when a bride sweeps in, her dress as frothy as beer head. The whole wedding party is in tow. This, apparently, is the after party.
Lamerson, whom I have dragged here on my beer crawl, despite his early morning flight, notes he is the oldest patron in Pint and Jigger. He is 64. We are just down the street from Alan Wong’s and Chef Mavro. The patrons of those places age with the restaurant, he says. Whereas here, “you could do a time-lapse movie and the faces will always be 30, but it wouldn’t be the same people. Except I didn’t go away, like I was supposed to.”
He is cautiously optimistic about the longevity of these newfangled gastropubs. I, however, see them enduring and multiplying. Since my palate came of age in the era of casual dining, I think of casual as the natural state of things. People flood these gastropubs because they make sense; accessibility is not a fad, I say.
He replies, “I remember thinking, in the ’60s, that the way we were changing society made perfect sense, and therefore, it would endure. But now, what I realize is, if we had wanted that to happen, then my generation should not have had any kids. Should have pulled up the ladder behind us. Then we could have kept it the way we wanted it. Because whatever they do, the people who come behind you, are going to react to what they’ve inherited, what they see, what you created.”
There’s some concern that we’re in the midst of a craft beer bubble, as wine and spirits eat into beer sales. But I have no doubt beer will endure. We’ve had a history of drinking our wages ever since pyramid builders were paid in beer.