Thanks to advantageous flight and Airbnb pricing because of the still-erupting volcano several islands away, we recently made our second trip to Hawaii. While we also went back to Disney Aulani, because the pull of The Mouse (and included babysitting) is strong, we spent some time in (suddenly-affordable) Waikiki, and got to know a bit more about the local beer scene. There’s a lot to like, and, I suspect, an interesting recent history to be unearthed.
Particularly relevant to my interests is the fact that every local brewery seems to have a really good brown ale in their lineup; on our previous trip, we also found a number of solid porters and stouts (both with coconut and without), plus some excellent pale ales, most calibrated at a more ‘British’ than ‘American’ ABV/IBU profile. Additionally, good bottle shops stock a wide variety of excellent ‘normal’ European beers that are harder to find than they should be on the left half of the US mainland (more on that below). And while I haven’t had a chance to delve deep into Hawaiian beer history to know the real reasons why, these all seemed like potentially plausible notions:
- Local coffee culture could mean people want roasty flavors with their beer as well. As a non-coffee person, I have no idea whether this is even vaguely true – nothing tasted much like coffee to me – but locals and visitors do seem very committed to the idea that Kona coffee is superior, and it may bleed over into beer.
- With so many (often excellent) fruity drink options, those seeking out beer want it to taste like, well, beer.
- Supply chain realities may make brewing stranger, higher-ABV beers simply too expensive in many cases.
- Tourists from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China, of whom there are many in Hawaii, may prefer traditional beer varieties.
- Hawaii brewers might hail from the first and second waves of US craft brewers (microbrewers!), and those beers tended to be more British-inspired.
Again, the real driver(s) may be a mixture of those thoughts, or none of the above, but for a fan of a well-brewed beer that seems to have missed the high-ABV arms race on the US mainland, there is a lot to like. Without further ado, here are a few standout breweries:
Waikiki Brewing Company
As mentioned, the English Brown Ale was the standout for me, but I also very much enjoyed the Ala Moana Amber. I didn’t try the Hana Hou Hefe straight up, but did have to go for a beachy beer cocktail with it as the base; it was quite delightful. Although it was a hot evening and the bar is largely outdoors, it was quite temperate; perfect lanai dining. The lineup here is not huge, but everything was worth trying.
Maui Brewing Company
While certain of their beers are ubiquitous in cans around Oahu, we were very glad to visit one of their (air-conditioned, indoor) brewpubs, which had an excellent lineup of local one-offs, seasonals and kid- and adult-friendly dining options that were certainly a step above some of the very touristy Waikiki options. Once more, their brown ale, Lahaina Town Brown, was very good, but their Pueo Pale Ale may have been my favorite; it was very fresh, perfectly balanced and well worth a second. I later enjoyed their Pineapple Mana Wheat poolside back at Aulani – the adults-only pool area is ideal for enjoying a refreshing drink with a book – it would make a fantastic go-to beer on a hot day. But I loved the Pueo Pale Ale so much I bought the (beautifully-designed) t-shirt – it was an all-around excellent beer.
This (pictured) is now our favorite Hawaiian brewery – in fact, we liked it so much we bought several prints of their labels to frame and hang up next to some of our ‘vintage’ Dogfish Head posters. It was still island-casual, but with a large rotating taplist, excellent merchandise options with fits for all genders, ages and sizes, and plenty of games for the kids to enjoy while the grownups had a sampler tray or two. Again, there was a fine brown ale in the Makakilo Brown, and a fantastic gose under the name Meyer Lemon Sour. CoCoWeizen is exactly what you think it is, and it’s very tasty indeed, and really, everything we tried was to a high standard. I wore my tank top with pride as we climbed Diamond Head the next day (which, if you’re keeping score at home, was very easy for our 3-year-old, and asking nearly the impossible for her teenaged brother, because reasons).
Of course, good beer (and tropical drinks) are found in many places beyond breweries, and I can highly recommend these bars:
Village Bottle Shop & Tasting Room
This is a great little bottle shop and taproom inside the Salt complex – a really nicely-planned example of creative re-use of older industrial buildings, full of interesting food and retail. It’s almost like a little bit of Portland dropped into Honolulu, and it’s a welcome break from the largely-uninspired high-rise hotels along the beach, with murals and other street art all around. The well-curated taplist was very much to my liking, even if it’s a little bizarre that I have to fly 2500 miles across the Pacific to find one of my favorite British beers, Ridgeway Bitter, on tap. They also had Timothy Taylor Landlord in bottles, along with a great variety of Aussie and Kiwi beers (all of which are nearly impossible to find in Seattle). It’s a BYO food establishment (with kids welcome during the day), but there’s an outstanding butcher shop upstairs that makes one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. While not within walking distance of the main drag in Waikiki, it is well worth the Lyft or bus ride over.
Moving from Waikiki to Ko Olina, where Aulani is situated, you’ll find Monkeypod Kitchen in a small shopping center across from the resorts. The knowledgeable staff is fantastic at recommending a local beer or two, and their tropical drinks are the real deal – the Mai Tai is beautiful and complex, not a sugary mess. The food is also very well-executed, with options for kid and adult appetites. I had more from Honolulu BeerWorks and a few from Aloha Beer Company – their Hop Lei IPA was vastly better here, where they clearly look after their tap lines, than in the bar in the airport; having the same beer in the airport was like an object lesson in Doing It Wrong, but it was very nicely-kept by the top-notch staff in Ko Olina.
The ‘Ōlelo Room
This is cheating a bit, since it’s on Disney property, but their specialty mixed drinks (right) were once again fantastic. The beer isn’t quite as exciting (some reasonable beers from Kona Brewing, though supplemented by Maui Brewing in cans), but the cocktails and Drinks You Can Get in a Pineapple are lovely – including the non-alcoholic ones. The ‘Ōlelo Room is only open in the evenings, but its exclusive drinks and snacks are worth the wait, and you can learn a little of the Hawaiian language while you relax by the koi pond.
If only I could score more vacation time (and an unlimited vacation budget, and so on), I’d love to explore the other islands…