So having only been to Maui and the big island I can't speak to craft beer across the entire state but from my experience on both islands I would hardly expect much difference on the other islands. It wasn't hard to find craft beer on either island, on draft or in bottles/cans. It's definitely out there but the surge of local breweries has not yet happened. Part of this, as I said, is undoubtedly the melting pot of Hawaii's culture. One cannot overlook the presence of wine and spirits as well. There is a fair amount of wine imported (and very little produced within the state) for tourists, especially at nicer restaurants and resorts. Beer is still treated in many of those locations as they are in any other state, as an obligatory offering because some people don't like wine. The far larger market is spirits and cocktails. This should be unsurprising. With a history of growing sugarcane there was easy access to production of rum and vodka and the large number of fresh fruits makes cocktails alluring. I had some great cocktails with fresh fruit and no matter how much you love beer you would do yourself a disservice to go to Hawaii and not enjoy the availability of fantastic fresh fruit.
Craft beer isn't new to the state but the boom of more local breweries certainly is. As I said it wasn't hard to find local beers and that was true even in small grocery stores. I believe Kona Brewing is the oldest active craft brewery in the state, opening in 1994. They brew lots of easy drinking beers, including some that include local ingredients like coffee and passion fruit. I believe Maui Brewing is the second oldest (but I may be wrong) having opened their first location in Lahaina in 2005 and now continue to operate that location as a brewpub with the main brewery in Kihei (both in Maui). Maui Brewing similarly produces easy drinking beers often with local ingredients. Kona was actually easier to find on Maui, even within a mile or two of Kihei, which I assume is due to Kona's longer presence across the state. Both of these brewers distribute into many other states. There were some other Hawaii breweries we found and tried out. For the most part the beers were average to good with plenty of old school brewpub-type beers or similar beers with local ingredients. Lots of beers with tropical fruits, coffee and honey, but not quite as many as I expected to find. I think this reflects non-tourist drinking trends that favor more approachable beers rather than the current craft beer wave that demands weird ingredients at every turn (not that it is a bad thing). Competitors into the market were unsurprisingly larger west coast breweries (primarily California and Oregon).
Maui Brewing Co.
Our best craft beer experiences in Hawaii were at the two Maui Brewing locations so let's talk about those. We stumbled into going to Maui because it was close to where we stayed initially in Maui and we wanted some beer so it just made sense to check it out. We get their canned beer in Texas with sporadic availability. I like some of the beers in can but between homebrewing and not seeing their beers on tap I don't drink their beers at home as often as I could.
The production brewery is the newer location in Kihei on the southwest side of the island. It's a semi-touristy area that's more touristy the closer to the ocean you get (unsurprisingly). The production brewery is tucked away in the back of a business park. It looks like many newer breweries in other states. Big building built for large production on a nicely landscaped location in a business park with a good sized taproom and food trucks parked outside. The taproom offers a large number of beers (over thirty) mostly unavailable beyond the two breweries. More local ingredients and a wide range of styles. This could very easily be a major craft brewery anywhere in the country.
The brewpub in Lahaina, the original location, is a smaller location in a strip mall that easily looks like many other mid-2000s brewpub. Small brew system (I swear I took a picture but it's not on my phone) plus a large restaurant space. The beers on tap are mostly the same as the production facility. The food was outstanding. Plenty of local ingredients and delicious. THey served sauteed ferns. That was both cool and delicious.
What I liked about both taplists was both the diversity of beer styles brewed very well and the greater commitment to brew within a local identity. Sure, there were big dark beers and IPAs but they didn't just knock off imperial stouts and west coast IPAs like many other breweries or use local ingredients like gimmicks. I really felt, especially with the taproom-only beers, like they were really embracing those ingredients as serious ingredients and putting their own takes on styles. I'm pretty sad I can't find several of those beers at home. (We took home what we could.) So here were the standouts for my wife and I:
Imperial Coconut Porter: Maui Brewing is pretty well known for their coconut porter but they brew a very nice taproom-only imperial version that was fantastic. I'm badly allergic to coconut so I can't consume it but I took the risk and gave it a little taste. Excellent chocolate and coconut flavors. Dangerously smooth at 9%.
Pau Hana Pilsner: Yeah, a really tasty bopils. I drank the hell out of this. I was a little concerned I would get some kind of Budweiser knock off but it was everything a bopils should be. Crystal clear with articulate malt flavors balanced by sufficient bitterness and spicy hops. I drank this beer the most but it was second favorite by very little.
Hop Kine IPL: This is the spring seasonal and sees limited can releases although I'm not sure the cans leave Hawaii, let alone Maui. (I saw it beyond the brewery on Maui.) It's pretty much what you expect from an IPL with a good mix of PNW hops. It was like an old school PNW hop-loaded IPA remixed as an IPL. I really like that kind of beer. I'm still down for some cascade and chinook.
Doubleshot Doppelbock: This is a truly interesting beer. It's the winter seasonal although Maui doesn't get much winter beyond the tops of the volcanoes. This beer is truly unique. First, it's not your usual darker doppelbock. It's a pale doppelbock so it's missing the heavier caramel flavors which helps out a beer that is a winter seasonal in name only. Doppelbocks aren't natural destinations for coffee beers--but there are some others--but I really enjoy the pale beer/coffee combination. This particular coffee beer is made with locally grown yellow caturra coffee. Yellow caturra is a rarely grown coffee with yellow, rather than red, coffee cherries. It's distinct from the usual Arabica beans with a strong honey and spice flavor. So the sum total of this beer is a smooth, strong pale lager with coffee and honey flavors. It feels like as close as you can get to a winter-flavored beer in Hawaii.
POG IPA: This beer haunts my dreams it's so damn good--and I'm not even a big IPA fan. Depending upon your age you might remember playing a game called pogs with circular cardboard discs. Those discs, modeled on old milkcaps, were promotional materials for POG juice, which is a blend of juices from passion fruit, orange and guava cut with water sweetened with sugarcane. It's served as the in-flight treat on Hawaiian Airlines between the islands. It's only barely more interesting than any other sweetened and diluted fruit juice.
So Maui Brewing thought it would be fun to brew a beer replicating this now-famous juice. It's a seemingly typical IPA hit with late El Dorado and Enigma hops so it's already fruited up. Then they add a mixture of local passion fruit, orange and guava.
The depth of fruit flavor is amazing. It's complex and deep with so much to offer but not bowling you over the way so many DIPAs do. The acidic fruits temper the bitterness and mellow the hops. The fruit is present, articulate and integrated without overwhelming the beer or getting lost in the beer. It is perfectly balanced. It gets right what so many fruited beers get wrong. It's definitely beer but definitely fruity. It might be the only time I think juicy is an appropriate descriptor for a beer. It's the standard that all fruited clean beers should be judged. I'm serious. I don't use memes lightly. We only found this at the brewpub towards the end of the trip, otherwise I would have consumed a lot more of this. So much more.
Both taprooms offered a pretty good hefeweizen. It wouldn't go on the shortlist of the best hefeweizens I've ever had but it wasn't that far off the list, either. I drank a fair amount of this as well. Nice balance between banana and clove. I like a little more banana personally but I think I'm in the minority on that. It was a touch thin as well but Hawaii is not the place for heavy beers. It is brewed exactly right for its location.
I also have to give mention to Mana Wheat, the American wheat with local pineapple. This beer is canned but I don't think we see much of it in Texas, if any. It's exactly what it says it is. The pineapple is well placed and light. It's probably the best pineapple beer out in the market. I'm a sucker for wheat beers (minus that hellspew white IPA bullshit) and obviously not afraid of a fruit beer so this beer hits on all levels. It's hard to put it on the same list as that POG IPA and one of the things I like most about pineapple is the firm bite of the pineapple fruit so having it juiced into this beer makes me miss just a little about the fruit.
Those were my fairly brief beer experiences in Hawaii. I am interested to see how craft beer develops in Hawaii. The opportunity to use locally grown ingredients is still wide open (Hawaii produces a lot that we don't normally think about--like a Macadamia honey mead which I regret not trying out) and they have a serious opportunity to set off a wave of craft brewing among the Pacific Islands that can wash back lots of other delicious beers with interesting ingredients to us. Since Hawaii seems to be the only place I can snap a decent picture I'll leave you this last picture of sunset at a restaurant overlooking the ocean in Lahaina.