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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Beer on Kauai: 40 Years Later

My first trip to Kauai was 40 years ago. It's shocking to realize that. I was about to start my senior year of college and my mom talked me into joining her. She had been here several times prior to that 1978 trip and knew the lay of the land. The place had an unfinished look in those days; it's a little different today.

I wasn't particularly interested in the beer scene in 1978. Tennis was my addiction. For beer, about all you could find was standard issue macro brew. Kauai and the rest of the Hawaiian Islands did have Primo, a novelty we coveted at home mostly because we couldn't get it there.

If you're wondering, Primo is still around. Production on Oahu ended shortly after my first trip and the brand hopped from Schlitz to Stroh to Pabst, which currently owns it, in the intervening years. But it's still out there somewhere. It isn't worth the trouble, if you're thinking of looking for it. No.

My second trip to Kauai came in 1996. This was just four years after Hurricane Iniki turned the island upside down, and things were still a little sketchy. I had started homebrewing around that time, so I was more interested in the beer scene. We drank a lot of Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale on that trip. There were some imports, as well. The scene was mostly unchanged when I returned in 2001.

There have been a string of Kauai trips since. I've lost track of how many. At some point, I discovered decent beer at Waimea Brewing. That place, located next to the Plantation Cottages in Waimea and billed as the Westernmost Brewpub in the World, moved to Port Allen and became Kauai Island Brewing in 2012. It continues to attract locals and tourists.

Kauai Beer Company opened in 2013 in Lihue. I visited the brewery not long after it opened. The place was a shell, basically a tasting room. Owner and co-founder Jim Guerber, an avid homebrewer, got mixed up in craft beer when friends kept telling him his beer was too good to stay a secret. Owner of a software company, he didn't need the money or the headache. But he liked good beer. He took the plunge.

The transformation of KBC since 2013 is amazing. From basically nothing, they now have a variety of beers on tap and a full kitchen. They are open for lunch and dinner and they continue to do a Thursday evening promotion with local food trucks. The place was buzzing when I stopped in at lunchtime the other day.

I wrote about KBC for BeerAdvocate in 2014. They have a copy of the article framed and mounted in the pub. I've seen Guerber at beer events here and there. He was mingling with patrons when I visited the other day and I didn't speak to him. But I tapped him on the shoulder as I was leaving. He opened his arms wide and spun around like Vanna White, as if to say, "Look what we've built!"

It's true. KBC has gone from nothing to something. They've done it in what remains a craft beer desert. Most bars and restaurants in the resort areas are dominated by Kona and macro. The beer selection in grocery stores is shameful, dominated by AB swill. My beer of choice here is Maui Brewing's Bikini Blonde. It fits nicely with the tropical weather and Maui is independent.

I don't know how many small breweries Kauai could support. The emerging strong preference for local beer on the mainland may not translate here. Some (heavy) styles don't really jive with the climate and the full-time population (around 72,000) may not have caught the craft beer bug like people have at home. Maybe two craft breweries is enough here.

Regardless, it's great to see independent breweries doing well. I'm especially impressed with what they've done at Kauai Beer Company because they started with not much more than a plan and built it out from there. Plus, I watched the transformation, intermittently.

After 40 years, Kaua's beer scene is evolving in a positive way. Keep it up, folks.

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