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.

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

 

Honolulu Beerworks

(Left)Honolulu Beerworks founder Geoff Seideman used reclaimed wood to build the centerpiece bar at the brewery’s Kaka‘ako warehouse. (Right) Honolulu Beerworks’ selection ranges from light cream ales to dark, malty stouts.
PHOTOS: Odeelo Dayondon

 

Honolulu Beerworks, a brewpub located in an airy Kaka‘ako warehouse, could be considered the trailblazer for this new wave of craft breweries. Founded by husband-and-wife duo Geoff and Charmayne Seideman, both Philadelphia transplants, the brewery recently celebrated its one-year anniversary—a milestone for any type of small business, but an especially important one for a new entry in a fledgling industry.

 

Seideman, 40, a graduate of Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary arts program, had worked in high-end Island kitchens, including La Mer at the Halekūlani. But after his wife, a buyer for Town & Country, gave him a home-brewing kit, he refocused his ambitions. An apprenticeship at Aloha Beer (the brewery that opened briefly in the old Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch & Crab location) helped teach him how to brew on a large scale and afforded him time to scout for a location for a brewery of his own. 

 

With the industrial-chic aesthetic adopted by many Mainland breweries in mind, Seideman, an experienced carpenter, took over the lease for the utilitarian warehouse and built out the space himself using as much recycled and reclaimed material as possible. The front of the bar is deliberately spare, with communal picnic table seating on the floor and stools that wrap around the centerpiece bar. Seideman says the clean lines, made from mostly wood and steel, allow patrons to project what they want on the space. When it opened, he wondered if he was just going to attract the beer-obsessed crowd, but he says that, on a typical night, “You have the hipsters, the beer geeks, the blue-collar guys … normally you wouldn’t see all these different people together, but it works.”

 

Today, Seideman offers a rotating cast of more than nine beers on tap, ranging from entry level (Kewalo Cream Ale, Point Panic Pale Ale) to bold (American Barley Wine, Maunalua Bay Double IPA). The small batches he brews are a boon, allowing him, along with head brewer Dave Campbell, to swap things up, trying out new hops or local ingredients. A saison-style beer he created for his landlord, Kamehameha Schools—one of those experiments—made with local citrus and Big Island honey, has become a top seller. 

 

One year in and Seideman is looking to expand. The current brewing equipment can barely make enough to supply the bar, much less sell extra amounts to other restaurants and bars, a line of expansion that he would like to pursue. His success so far challenges the idea that breweries couldn’t be financially solvent in the Islands and still splurge on top-quality ingredients. For his annual fresh hop IPA (made with newly harvested, rather than dried, hops), the hops and shipping cost between $1,200 and $1,500. “That’s ridiculously expensive, but it’s something that not a lot people do here. I want to let other people experience that. And, as long as we’re comfortable and we can keep the doors open and pay our employees, I’m happy.”

 

328 Cooke St., 589-BEER, honolulubeerworks.com

 

Lanikai Brewing Co.

Lanikai Brewing Co.’s warehouse borders Hāmākua Marsh in Kailua.
PHOTOS: STEVE CZERNIAK

Steve Haumschild, co-owner of Lanikai Brewing Co., which opened in March of this year, studied the business climate for local beer carefully before committing to his own brewery. A self-described serial entrepreneur with experience in real estate and adventure tourism, Haumschild had been brewing beer at home since 2004 (two of his three business partners are former brewing partners). “If you’re a home brewer, it’s always a dream to start a brewery, but it’s hard to turn that into a reality,” he says.

 

While attending the executive program at the Shidler College of Business in 2009, he and a classmate drew up the business plan for what would eventually become Lanikai Brewing. Instead of building a brewpub as many on O‘ahu have done before, Haumschild wanted to focus on bottling beer in oversize, 22-ounce bottles, like the craft beers from Mainland breweries he enjoyed at home with friends.

 

Lanikai began producing beer from a small warehouse in Kailua, making two styles: the 808 Imperial IPA, accented with local pīkake, and Pillbox Porter, which uses Hawaiian vanilla. A small tasting room is open to the public, but all the inventory is sold either through restaurants or retailers. Haumschild, 39, plans to add more styles in the future (“We have all the recipes ready to go,” he says), but wants to grow slowly to make sure he honors his commitment to his sales accounts while keeping the quality consistently high. 

 

175-C Hāmākua Drive, Kailua, lanikaibrewing.com

 

Craft Beer Economics

Head brewer Chris Cook behind the scenes at Lanikai Brewing Co. Get a peek at the setup in the tasting room, which is open on weekends.
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

Bottling beer is a significant undertaking in Hawai‘i: Bottles and caps must be shipped in from the Mainland at almost the same cost as shipping full bottles out, which can quickly eat up profit margins. Kona Brewing Co. and Aloha Beer both allegedly outsourced production to Mainland facilities in part for that reason. But Haumschild says he feels the climate is finally right on O‘ahu for such an enterprise. The growth of the local food movement means that savvy residents and visitors alike are looking to drink something that is made on island. And all the new breweries popping up (Hoku’s, in the old Sam Choy’s space, is already open, as is Taps and Apps. Stewbum and Stonewall, Kailua Brewing Co. and others are in various stages of production) have forged a strong support network for both advice and sharing costs of containers to bring shipping expenses down. “I’m on the phone with other brewers almost every day,” says Haumschild about the camaraderie in the market.

 

Many of the local brewers credit a trio of beer-focused restaurants—Pint and Jigger, Real a Gastropub and Brew’d—with helping to raise awareness of craft beer and convert local drinkers to edgier styles. Pint and Jigger co-owner Dave Newman says when he and his business partners were looking to open a bar, they honed in on the craft beer angle because there was room in the market in Hawai‘i. “There was Yard House and Murphy’s—that was basically it,” he says of the local bar options for craft beer. Newman has a background in spirits and cocktails, but he quickly found much to like in craft beer. “You can pay $5 for a Heineken, but for $2 more you can have the best beer in the world,” he says about the modest price points. “There aren’t a lot of things like that.” 

 

So what took craft beer so long to gather steam in Hawai‘i? Newman points to demand for the limited inventory of craft beer on the Mainland: There wasn’t enough to go around until recently, so distributors focused on key Mainland markets first before attempting to get beer to Hawai‘i, a more pricey proposition with shipping. Now, with a critical mass of beer being made on the Mainland and a growing market in Hawai‘i, more adventurous selections, like sours and beers made with wild yeast, are being routed to the Islands. 

 

Pālolo Valley Brewing Co.

Pālolo Valley Brewing Co. founder Jeremyah Wubben cultures his own yeast from wild samples he harvests around the island.
PHOTOS: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

How much further can craft beer reasonably grow? Sam Caligione, owner and brewer of Delaware’s Dogfish Head, famously told Bon Appétit a “bloodbath” is coming for small craft brewers as competition gets increasingly fierce. That’s something Jeremyah Wubben, head brewer and owner of Pālolo Valley Brewing Co., is keeping in mind as he formulates recipes for the official launch of his brewery. “There’re only so many people who can make a Double IPA because there’s only so much shelf space,” he says. 

 

Wubben’s approach is unorthodox, eschewing traditional styles for quirkier creations that involve locally harvested yeast and Island-grown materials including taro and sugar cane. Traditional beer styles, he says, originated from using site-specific local materials. Pilsner, for example, was brewed in Pilsen, Czech Republic, because the chemical makeup of the water allowed for light, crisp beers, while other beer-brewing regions became famous for dark beers that masked off-flavors. 

 

Wubben says using wild yeast cultures will help him make a beer that’s unique to Hawai‘i.

“You can make any style of beer anywhere now,” the 30-year-old Colorado native says about improved brewing know-how and globally shipped ingredients. And, since it’s hard to compete with established craft beer heavyweights Stone, Dogfish Head, Rogue and Lagunitas, differentiating oneself, especially in the saturated Mainland market, has become essential. That’s where his original creations come in—Wubben, a former master’s candidate in physics at the University of Hawai‘i, wants to create beer styles unique to Hawai‘i that not only sell well here, but can compete on the Mainland.

 

Wubben will open his first commercial brewing facility in Waikīkī’s Lotus Hotel as part of Chalkboard, a new local-ingredient-focused restaurant opening this summer. The brewing equipment, which will replace the private dining room of the previous restaurant, will operate as a showcase taproom for small one-off batches. When he finds suitable warehouse space elsewhere, he will open a production facility to make bottled or canned beer.

 

Echoing the sentiments of many others in the beer community, Wubben says the market in Hawai‘i still has room to grow, and that growth benefits everyone. “I hear Kona Brewing Co. is opening a new production facility,” he says of the recently announced $15 million expansion slated to open in 2017. “That’s good. It will bring shipping costs down.”

 

We can drink to that!

 

Cans vs Bottles: Which is Better

Start-up brewers have more decisions to make than just the beer recipes—packaging is important too. But there’s more to choosing cans or bottles than just aesthetics. 

 

Maui Brewing Co. was among the first breweries in the U.S. to package beer in cans. Founder Garrett Marrero said that he chose cans over bottles primarily because “of the quality of the product above all else.” Cans do a better job of protecting beer from oxygen and light, which can degrade the beer. Additionally, says Marrero, cans are also the better environmental choice, as they are manufactured in the Islands, reducing the carbon footprint of shipping from the Mainland, and are more easily recyclable. And, when it comes to shipping out inventory, cans are more space efficient, so Maui Brewing Co. can fit almost 40 percent more beer in a container.

 

But the choice between bottles and cans isn’t so clear-cut for a start-up brewer. Steve Haumschild of Lanikai Brewing says that he chose to start off by packaging his beer in oversize 22-ounce glass bottles because they offer greater flexibility. “You have to buy a ridiculous amount,” says Haumschild, of the initial order for cans. “Where am I going to put three semi containers of cans?” In addition, if he wants to bottle different styles of beer, with bottles, he can swap out the label rather than make a new order for printed cans. “[The choice] is a lot more complex than it appears,” he says.

 

Cheer to these beers

Pia Mahi‘ai HONEY CITRUS Saison from Honolulu Beerworks

Owner Geoff Seideman and head brewer Dave Campbell created this beer as a special one-off for Kamehameha Schools, the brewery’s landlord, and now it’s a top seller.  Made with local citrus and Big Island honey, this saison-style ale is hazy with a fluffy head, refreshing but still complex, with a yeasty, fruity profile.

Other beers to try: Surf Session Single Hop IPA, Animal Farmhouse Ale.

 

808 Double IPA from Lanikai Brewing Co.

“We wanted to create bolder flavors,” says Lanikai Brewing partner Steve Haumschild about the recipes he developed. Fans of the brash IPA style made popular by the craft brewing movement will find much to like here: This Double IPA dials up the flavor meter on all fronts, with big, bitter hop flavor supported by a strong, malty backbone. The aroma carries a faint floral note thanks to the inclusion of local pīkake.

Other beer to try: Pillbox Porter.

 

Jalapeño Mouth from Waikīkī Brewing Co.

Owner and brewer Joe Lorenzen initially made this ale as a part of his plan to have rotating specialty beers on tap, but patrons liked it so much it’s now on the regular menu. Chili beers can be a tricky proposition—too much heat can overwhelm the other flavors. Waikīkī strikes a nice balance with this entry—green, grassy pepper notes float on the aroma, and the amber ale base has just a hint of spiciness.

Other beer to try: English Brown Ale.

 

Imperial Taro Ale from Pālolo Valley Brewing Co.

If you didn’t know this beer was made with taro root, you probably wouldn’t guess. Owner and head brewer Jeremyah Wubben displays technical wizardry with this beer made with local taro and a yeast strain he developed from cultures he collected in Nu‘uanu. It’s rich, complex and earthy tasting with an appealing bitterness.

Other beer to try: Taro Ale.