Three Native Hawaiian Craft Beer Brewers Establish their Brands in a Growing Market
Beer is big business in Hawaiʻi. According to the 2021 Beer Serves America report, in 2020 it generated $1.3 billion in revenue, paid $428.1 million in wages and benefits, contributed $252.4 million in taxes and employed 8,340 people – 398 of those specifically in brewing. The Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association commission this comprehensive economic impact study every other year, noting that the beer industry is a cornerstone of America’s economy.
Within the larger beer industry is a growing and increasingly popular niche market for what is known as “craft beers” – essentially beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by smaller breweries in smaller quantities.
But what sets craft beer apart – and what has made it especially popular with younger Gen X and Millennial consumers – is the sheer diversity of beer styles and taste profiles. Many craft brewers use local ingredients and flavors in fresh ways and this creativity, as well as the brewers’ commitment to sustainability, matters to younger consumers
Founded in 2012, the Hawaiian Craft Brewers Guild is “dedicated to craft beer brewed 100% in Hawaiʻi.” In the past decade, its membership has grown to 16 breweries on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island. Three of those companies are owned and operated by Native Hawaiians. Here are their stories.
Ola Brew evolved from Hawaiian Ola, which Brett Jacobson launched in 2012 to produce nutrition-boosting drinks made with vitamins, fruit juices and locally grown noni.
“Brett’s goal was to increase the demand for Hawaiʻi-grown crops,” said Naehalani Breeland, who joined Hawaiian Ola’s executive team in 2014 as marketing manager. “Since prime agricultural land is limited in Hawaiʻi, he chose to focus on crops cultivated on subpar agricultural land that required little inputs, so the hurdles to enter farming would be lowered.
“In 2016, we started looking at the potential economic impact if we not only used B-grade fruits for beverage production but also diversified the crops we could buy from our agricultural community.”
Breeland and Jacobson began building the brand and facilities for a new company, Ola Brew, which opened a taproom and 14,000-square-foot brewery in Kailua-Kona in December 2017. Breeland, who holds the title of co-founder and president, has helped lead its phenomenal growth since then.
Ola Brew offers more than 60 kinds of beers, ciders, hard seltzers and hard teas. The latter is brewed with Kona coffee leaves, previously considered a waste product but now a revenue stream for farmers. Forty-plus farms statewide provide fruits and botanicals for flavorings, including kiawe, cacao, lychee, ginger, orange, lemongrass, grapefruit and dragonfruit.
“By using fresh, local ingredients, we’re contributing to the growth and strength of Hawaiʻi’s economy; money we’re paying for goods and services stays here instead of going out of state,” Breeland said. “To date, we have sourced over $1.4 million in produce from local farmers. We’re proud of the quality and variety of the specialty brews we’re producing. They’re intense and assertive; they hold their own in pairings.”
The company’s second taproom opened in Hilo in July 2021, and 40 acres in Paukaʻa, 1.5 miles north of Hilo, are being planted in ti for ʻōkolehao, which will be produced at a new distillery currently under construction on 10 acres bordering Hilo Bay. It’s set to open in mid-2024, along with a fine dining restaurant on site whose ingredients will all be sourced locally, right down to the salt and pepper.
A key aspect of Ola Brew’s mission is perpetuating cultural values and creating space to practice them. “We’ve held ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi classes in our taprooms; partnered with like-minded organizations such as Kamehameha Schools, Liliʻuokalani Trust and Hui Aloha ʻĀina Momona to spearhead plant drives to encourage our lāhui to grow their own food; and sponsored other events and initiatives that align with our mission of aloha ʻāina,” Breeland said. “We’re passionate about supporting local farmers and keeping Hawaiian perspectives alive because we genuinely care about the wellbeing of our culture and its relation to ʻāina.”
- Kona taproom: 74-5598 Luhia Street, Kailua-Kona, Hawaiʻi island; (808) 339-3599
- Hilo taproom: 1177 Kīlauea Avenue, Hilo, Hawaiʻi island; (808) 731-0917
- Website: www.olabrewco.com
- Number of employees: 70
- Number of barrels produced in 2021: 14,780
- Number of beers: More than 40 (a new limited-edition beer, cider or hard seltzer that’s only available in the Hilo and Kona taprooms is released every Thursday)
- Other places you’ll find them: 600 stores and 250 bars and restaurants statewide
- Also of note: Ola Brew is community- and employee-owned with 2,800-plus shareholders who support its vision for a more sustainable and abundant Hawaiʻi.
Inu Island Ales
Back in 2016, Keaka Eckart realized all of his vacations for the previous three years had been to cities with breweries that he wanted to visit, including Portland, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Alexandria, San Diego, Santa Cruz and San Antonio. “I’m an avid craft beer consumer, so I wanted to check out the trends in the mainland’s beer scene in person,” he said. “Beer is like fashion; people have their longtime favorite styles, but new things are always coming out.”
So when Eckart learned in 2017 that (the now-defunct) Stewbum & Stonewall Brewing Co. was moving from Kāneʻohe to a bigger location in Chinatown he jumped at the chance to purchase its fully operational 1,200-square-foot facility and launch his own brand. The opening of Inu Island Ales that year added another full-time job to his plate (he still does sales for a pest control company), but it’s a labor of love.
Eckart wants to introduce more modern beer styles to Hawaiʻi including Pastry Stouts, which mimic the sweet flavors of candy, cookies and desserts; Hazy IPAs, described as juice-like because of its cloudy appearance due to less filtering and a fruity hop taste – although it’s not brewed with real fruit; and Fruited Sour Beers, so named because of the fruit added during the fermentation process.
“Our goal is to use as many local ingredients as possible,” Eckart said. “Besides the obvious fruits such as mango, guava and pineapple, we have brewed beers with Hawaiian honey, coffee and vanilla beans. We’re best known for our stouts and sour ales. Flavors change every week; there’s always something new to try!”
Those who prefer dark beer were recently able to enjoy Ube Bay, a limited-release made of ube, vanilla and white chocolate stout. Fans of fruited sours will be happy to know the popular Sandbar Essentials, made with strawberry and lilikoʻi, will be re-released in early 2023.
Eckart and head brewer Jeremy Brooks create the flavors, and they are all ears when customers have suggestions. “A lot of regulars bring in beer from their travels for us to taste, and if we like something, we try to come up with our version of it,” Eckart said. “Visitors often bring beer samples from where they’re from, too. We’ve tried beers from all over the world and especially like those from Belgium. I do the same thing whenever I travel. My favorite thing about craft beer is the sharing.”
Inu Island Ales sells only Chex Mix and Kanak Crack Snacks, but patrons are welcome to bring in their own food. “Beer goes with everything,” Eckart said. “We always have seven on tap, and there will be a style that will be great with whatever you bring to eat.”
- Address: 46-174 Kahuhipa Street, Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu
- Phone: (808) 202-3684
- Website: inuislandales.com
- Number of employees: 7
- Number of barrels produced in 2021: 225
- Number of beers: Flavors of the seven beers on tap constantly change. They usually include one stout, two IPAs, three fruited sours and one lighter beer such as a Pilsner or lager.
- Other places to find them: Inu Island Ales beers are primarily sold at its taproom.
- Also of note: Inu Island Ales donates all of its spent grain to local farmers to use for feed and compost.
Hana Koa Brewing Co.
Josh Kopp landed his first brewing job in 2014 as a packaging technician for E.J. Phair Brewing Company in Pittsburg, California, 60 miles north of San Jose where he was living at the time. For three months, he drove that 120-mile round trip five days a week to work full shifts before he finally found an apartment that was closer.
“Basically, I was a grunt, but the long drive was worth it,” said Kopp, who was born and raised in East Oʻahu. “It was an amazing, rewarding experience; I never would have learned what I did in a classroom. I woke up every workday hungry for knowledge. It was exhilarating!”
Prior to moving to California in 2009 to attend the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Kopp had volunteered at Aloha Beer when it was located on Nimitz Highway next to what is now Liliha Bakery (it’s now in Kakaʻako, Waikīkī and downtown Honolulu). He credits brewmeister Dave Campbell with igniting his interest in brewing.
“I started homebrewing in college when I found out you didn’t have to be 21 to buy the ingredients, which, in addition to water, are malt, hops and yeast,” Kopp said. “Before I got the E.J. Phair job, I moved in with a friend in San Jose and worked at a Starbucks downtown. I networked as much as I could to get into the beer industry and even passed out business cards that said, ʻAspiring Craft Brewer.’”
Through it all, Kopp yearned to return to Hawaiʻi and start his own business. In the summer of 2016, an ideal 10,000-square-foot space became available in Kakaʻako, and he; his father; his wife, Chrissie Pinney; and his brother-in-law decided to launch Hana Koa Brewing Co. there. Construction on a brewery and taproom began in December 2018, about a year after Kopp and Pinney relocated to Oʻahu. Hana Koa opened its doors in November 2019.
Unusual ingredients included in Kopp’s creations include Fruity Pebbles, Teddy Grahams and Purvé doughnuts. Kopp’s current favorite is Party Boy Pils made with Pilsner malt from Germany, hops from Germany and New Zealand, and rice from The Rice Factory across the street. He’s looking forward to experimenting with kalo, breadfruit and banana.
“I love learning through beer,” Kopp said. “There’s a lot of history behind brewing techniques, reasons why certain beers came to exist and what they’re like now. There are things only other brewers will understand. Brewing is a blend of art and science; often it’s knowing what to do, when to do it and what will taste good based on instinct instead of quantifiable data. And, frankly, it’s also being able to juggle a hundred things at once without burning down the building.”
- Address: 962 Kawaiahaʻo Street, Kakaʻako, Oʻahu
- Phone: (808) 591-2337
- Website: www.hanakoabrewing.com
- Number of employees: 52
- Number of barrels produced in 2021: 1,200
- Number of beers: 3 flagship beers (Unbreakable Blonde, Party Boy Pils, Rooftop Pale Ale) and 12 to 16 rotating beers
- Other places to find them: Cans at bottle shops and draft beer at bars and restaurants throughout Oʻahu
- Also of note: The company collaborates with businesses and nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations to create new “community-driven” beers once a month. Businesses appreciate the publicity that’s generated. Nonprofits receive a percentage of the profits from sales of “their” beer.