OC Brew Ha(ppy) Ha(ppy) Happy

 photo Amy Bentley Smith

photo Amy Bentley Smith

The day broke hot, over 90 degrees, but my anticipation was still high. The Orange County Brew Ha Ha is, after all, one of my favorite events of the year. Arriving at the gates at the appointed VIP time, I was pleasantly surprised to find a well-organized, highly efficient volunteer staff processing tickets, wristbands, and handing out tasting glasses.  We were through the line, long as it was, within minutes. The volunteers were even nice enough to allow one of my drinking partners to use an unused ticket we couldn’t find a taker for, loading his wrist up with thirty tasting tickets. Those tickets, along with mine, and those of one other, meant we were in for a long, hot enjoyable day of beer tasting.

The organizers seemed to have learned a few valuable lessons from the last three years. The first positive change and one that probably pissed off more than a few attendees, was the switch from full pint glasses to four ounce tasting glasses. The pint glasses of the past could be awesome especially if one found a favorite beer and a generous volunteer pouring near full pints. But that same generosity left many attendees piss drunk, near passing out and obnoxious. This year’s event featured a lot fewer walking dead (admittedly taking away from some of the fun of people watching) and a much more convivial atmosphere. The event was also much more spread out this year, using more of the park around Lake Irvine and offering guest more shade trees and space to relax. As result, lines seemed shorter and the festival felt a lot less crowded.

There also seemed to be more and tastier food options this year than last, ranging from awesome tacos and pork belly crostinis to sausages, mac and cheese, BBQ, burgers, pizza and cupcakes. My favorite of the day was Taco Asylum's Ghost Chili pulled pork taco's with house made cayenne and red savina hot sauces. I'm still feeling a bit of the burn from those delicious bites. The tacos were a welcome break from the beer, cleansing the palate, and giving us the strength to forge on. 

There were however a few drawbacks. The first and it’s a complaint I’ve had since the inaugural event, is the lack of informed volunteers pouring beer. Don’t get me wrong, the hardworking volunteers (mostly firefighters and those in the first responder community) pouring beer were some of the friendliest people I’ve met at beer festivals, but many knew nothing about the beer they were pouring. This is problematic for several reasons. For me, beer festivals should be about discovery, an opportunity for breweries to introduce the uninitiated to the pleasures of craft beer or offer craft beer enthusiasts something new, interesting or hard to find. In other words, an event that shows off the creativity and imagination of the craft beer industry. Those pouring the beer should at the very least be able to talk about the beer in an informed way (unlike the volunteer whose straight-faced response to my ‘What are you pouring?’ question was ‘beer’ and then offered nothing more).

 Stone's Greg Koch plays guitar with Reel Big Fish

Stone's Greg Koch plays guitar with Reel Big Fish

In fact, the breweries on the top of my list at this year’s festival, Monkish, Refuge, Golden Road, and Valiant  all had representatives from the company there to explain their beers, making the experience all the more enjoyable. The breweries who had representatives (and to be fair there were others not mentioned in the list above) were also the ones pouring some of the most interesting beers at the festivals, one’s that benefited from explanation. Booths without a marketing rep, brewer/owner, or someone who could talk about the beer ran the risk of creating the wrong kind of environment, one where the beer doesn’t seem to matter and simply becomes a vehicle to drunkenness. Perhaps, this is a beer geek’s lament, but treating beer this way further inflames the neo-prohibitionist arguments that consistently threaten the industry and will make it all the more difficult for the craft beer industry to break down stereotypes and prejudices that put up barriers to expansion or lead to stupid laws and red tape in many municipalities that prevent neighborhood breweries from opening (see recent article in the Daily News “Craft Brewers Find it Best to do Business Outside of LA”).

In many ways I think that not having an informed representative at each of the booths is also responsible for the boring, or maybe I should say, uncreative choices of beers at this year’s festival. Nearly every breweries’ booth we visited offered only straightforward beer lineups ambers, pale ales, IPAs and stouts dominated. I’m a fan of these beers, but like I said earlier, I attend festivals to discover new and creative beer. Most of the beer on tap this year I can find in any well-stocked bottle shop or pub in Southern California. I understand why breweries chose the beers they did; these beers are easy to explain to volunteers and most drinkers are familiar with them so they don’t need a whole lot of explanation if a volunteer doesn’t quite get it, but that lack of creative choices marred what was overall a fantastic festival experience.

 photo: Amy Bentley-Smith

photo: Amy Bentley-Smith

Despite these complaints my companions and I tasted a lot of really good beer, ate some very good food, talked to a lot of wonderful people, and laughed at one or two slightly confused drunks.  Looking at my notes from the event we tasted through about 50 beers, responsibly sipping and dumping (sacrilege, I know) some and drinking a bit too much of others.  While IPA dominated the offerings there were quite of few hidden gems in that sea of hoppy beer.  My absolute favorites came from my favorite brewery of the moment Monkish Brewing Co. Henry and his wife Adriana the brewer/owners were manning their booth offering up their Floraison, a dry, spicy, floral saison with hibiscus and chamomile flower. This beer was perfect for an overly hot summer day. A close second to Foraison was Henry’s Seme Della Vita, a Belgian triple with vanilla bean and pistachios. This beer is a well-balanced triple with a vanilla/nut aroma and a subtle nutty, vanilla flavor on the palate. While both beers seem strange, I’m not alone in my praise the crowd around Monkish’s booth and the positive comments I overheard are testament to the creativity and deliciousness of these two beers.

Notes.jpg

Other surprises include:

Refuge Brewing Company’s Blood Orange Wit, a wonderfully tart and dry wit with a subtle orange flavor balanced by a nice hop bitterness. Diane, the brewery’s events director, was happy to explain their beers and even offered us seconds without taking one of our drink tickets.

Golden Road’s Cabrillo Kolsch, a clean and smooth beer (almost lager like)  with just a touch of noble hop bitterness that makes this a perfectly refreshing summer beer. Laurel, the brewery’s pub manager, was on hand talking about the beers, their cans, artwork and the future plans of the brewery, making the visit to their booth the highlight of the festival.

The Brewery at Abigaile’s Sir Charles Mild. A nice traditional English mild that isn’t short on flavor. English specialty malts dominate this lightly hopped deliciously light (3% abv) beer.

Belching Beaver’s (one of San Diego’s newer breweries) Beaver’s Milk Stout. Despite their comical name, this newer brewery is producing some super clean beer. Beaver’s Milk is a great example of what they are doing. A true-to-style milk stout, with coffee and roasted malt on the front end, diminishing to malty sweetness at the back. Smooth.

And before you hop heads call for mine, we did taste some fantastically good IPAs and DIPAs. My favorites were:

Valiant Brewing Company’s Jericho a full-bodied Imperial IPA that weighs in at nearly 11% abv. This is a well-balanced big beer with both a wonderful hoppy aroma and bitter finish. It’s a dangerously strong beer, so well-balanced you don’t notice the high abv. I also really enjoyed their Octave and Criterion.

Black Market Brewing’s Rye IPA. This has been one of my favorite beers at the OC Brew Ha Ha for the last couple years running. Another well-balanced hoppy, malty IPA with a distinctly spicy rye flavor. Rye makes up 20% of the grain bill and as Aaron told me once it’s “a pain in the ass to brew, but worth it.”

Ninkasi’s Total Domination IPA really fantastic full-flavored Pacific Northwest style IPA. Rich and malty balanced with 65 IBUs coming from Summit, Amarillo, and Crystal hops. Delicious and bit more subtle than most IPAs.

Finally, Pizza Port’s Early Rhizer, a fresh-hopped American Pale Ale. There is something about fresh-hopped beer that I really like. Being fresh, the sharpness of the hops is mellowed allowing a bit more of the malt to shine through, but retaining the hoppy characteristics pale ale lovers enjoy.

All in all it was a wonderful day, and everyone involved should be commended for their hard work and dedication to craft beer. 

 

 A crowd formed at Bootlegger's booth when the tapped a keg of Knuckle Sandwich a Triple IPA

A crowd formed at Bootlegger's booth when the tapped a keg of Knuckle Sandwich a Triple IPA

Something is Brewing in Paradise: A History of Beer in Hawai'i

Traveling is about exploring, stepping out of one's comfort zone, and jumping feet first into local customs and traditions. And like many travelers I find that engaging with a community's food and drink culture provides an important means of better understanding that place and provides a convivial atmosphere for engaging with locals. For me that often means exploring the beer and wine culture of my traveling destination, even in areas not known for the production of either.

Most people don't equate Hawai'i with craft beer, instead most think beaches, coconut palms, and fruity drinks with umbrellas. But the state has a long history of brewing, and craft beer has been in recent years, despite the expense of sourcing ingredients, making inroads into the local bar and resort scene.

Hawai'i's first commercial brewery, The Honolulu Brewery, was established in 1854 by Bischoff and Company, who maintained the brewery until 1857. After the closure of the Honolulu Brewery, beer in the islands was difficult to come by and provide largely through importation.

In 1865,  Thomas Warren and Willard Francis partnered and opened Hawaiian Beer, offering residents of the the big island "lager beer in casks, kegs and bottles." (1) The partnership eroded 4 months later and the two became competitors; Thomas Warren opened Oahu Brewing, and Willard Francis remained at the helm of Hawaiian Beer. Both brewing companies failed. Francis, a few months after Warren established his brewery, placed his brewery for sale and left Hawai'i. Warren, because of the difficulty in finding a skilled brewer, converted his operation into a distillery.  

Others attempted to make and sell beer in the islands but couldn't capture a market or public attention. The most successful of these failed enterprises was National Brewery, opened in 1888, selling "Steam Beer," (like the vaunted Anchor Steam in San Francisco, whose operations date back to the 1850s) in kegs and bottles to saloons and local consumers. National's Steam Beer remained popular with island dwellers and sold fairly well for several years, eventually closing in the 1890s.  

 Political Cartoon, Hawaiian Gazette, 1902. (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025121/1902-05-23/ed-1/seq-1/)

Political Cartoon, Hawaiian Gazette, 1902. (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025121/1902-05-23/ed-1/seq-1/)

The failure of  Hawai'i's upstart brewing industry came, most likely, at the hands of its missionary population. Missionaries for the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, and the Mormon churches all found their way to the islands, attempting to convert the local population and, in the process, forbade their charges from drinking. As missionary work gave way to plantations, the religious in Hawai'i and the plantation owners who understood their profits would fall if their converted workers were drunk or hungover continued their fight against alcohol through anti-saloon leagues, and  pro-prohibition organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union. These groups led an all out war against alcohol on the island, attacking anyone or any company that attempted the production and/or sale of alcohol. 

 Primo Beer Ad 1904

Primo Beer Ad 1904

Despite the pressure from religious zealots, anti-saloon leagues and prohibitionists, brewers struggled on. In 1901, Hawai'i's longest lasting brand, Primo, came to market for the first time. Produced by the Honolulu Brewing and Malting Co. Primo found a market both with plantation workers and with a growing tourist market. Primo remained a popular and iconic beer until Hawai'i's legislature gave in to prohibitionist pressure and outlawed alcohol on the islands in 1918. 

In 1933 with the national repeal of prohibition, thirsty Hawai'ians jumped headlong into brewing once again. Primo resurfaced, this time produced by the Hawaii Brewing Corporation, which would maintain control over the brand until 1963 when like many regional brewers it would fall victim to consolidation by big beer (Schiltz maintained control of Primo until it was bought out by Strohs in the 1980s). Competing with Primo were American Brewing Company's Pale Ambrew (first produced in 1934), and Royal Beer (1937), these three beers would define Hawaiian beer, becoming the favorite brands of American GIs stationed in Hawai'i , as well as tourists and locals.

By the 1960s and 70s consolidation in the brewing industry would see the destruction of locally brewed beer in Hawai'i. Shlitz would move Primo's production to its brewery in Los Angeles, putting an end to Hawai'i's longest locally produced label. Royal would be forced out of business by economic pressure put on it by the importation lower costing  brands like Budweiser, Miller and the other big industrial brewers. By the end of the 70s beer making in Hawaii had ceased.  

In the first wave of the craft beer movement several microbreweries and brew pubs tried to cash in on the nascent artisanal movement and tourist dollars available on the islands, but most failed to gain market share against the big three. The first to try was Pacific Brewing Company, who brewed Maui Lager from 1986 until they closed in 1990. Others came and went in the same period, but the more mainstream popularity of craft beer in the 2000s has seen a resurgence of craft brewing on the island.

Today, there are about 10 breweries and brewpubs on the islands and during my last visit I tried to taste from as many as I could, which turned out to be four.

 Fire Rock Paie Ale bottle

Fire Rock Paie Ale bottle

1. Kona Brewing, because of its association with the Craft Brew Alliance (joined in 2010) has the widest distribution and is the easiest of Hawai'i's craft beers to find on the islands. Kona started in 1994 on the big island of Hawai'i and has grown tremendously, producing more than 220,000 barrels a year. While I didn't get a chance to visit one of their pubs or the tasting room, I did sample several bottles and draft beers from their lineup. Remember context is everything and most of these beers were consumed either on a beach looking at a gorgeous view after hiking through tropical forests, or while enjoying the sunset on our lanai or at a beach-front bar making them all pretty damn delicious.  

Long Board Lager (bottle and draft): a beer perfect for the beach. Light refreshing and smooth with a nice malty backbone and light, spicy hop finish. Not your father's Budweiser, this is a lager with a bit of backbone. 

 Big Wave Golden Ale on Poipu Beach

Big Wave Golden Ale on Poipu Beach

Big Wave Golden Ale (bottle): 2013 Gold  Medal, Session Ale, U.S. Open Beer Championships, and I have to agree. This is a very drinkable but interesting low alcohol beer. Perfect for long days on the beach or as a post activity refresher. Light bodied, but malty enough to be interesting, with a unique hop characteristic (Galaxy and Citra) that comes off slightly tropical on the finish. 

Fire Rock Pale Ale (bottle) : Well-balanced pale ale that would be comfortable in any Pacific Northwest pub (though their marketing material call it a Hawaiian Pale Ale). Light copper color, medium bodied, with a pleasant citrus hop finish (Millennium and Cascades). Worked really well with food.

Wialua Ale (draft): Kona's summer seasonal. Another light-bodied golden ale like their Big Wave, only this one is brewed with passion fruit and bit of malted wheat giving the beer a tropical punch flavor up front with a nice spicy bitter hop (Millennium) finish. I'm not a huge fan of fruit/wheat beers but this one was good in the context in which it was drank. 

2. Kauai Island Brewing Company is a small brewpub and brewery in the town of Port Allen (western most brew pub in the U.S.). Started in July 2012, the brewery and pub offers food (which was pretty fair pub grub) and at least 10 taps pouring both their beers and guest microbrews (Ballast Point was on tap last week). The owners are from the now defunct Waimea Brewing Company, but they brought their most popular beers from Waimea and are still brewing them along with several new beers. I tasted through the bulk of their lineup, and for an upstart brewery with limited resources and difficulties sourcing grain and hops the beers were surprisingly good. 
 

 Kauai Island Brewing

Kauai Island Brewing

Leilani Light: a very light golden ale, with just enough hops and malt to keep a craft beer fan happy. This beer was brewed to please a lager-loving public. Lagers, especially the big beer types, are very popular on the island. I saw more locals drinking Budwieser than any other beer. Tourist seemed the only one's interested in the local brewed beer. (4.3% 22 IBU)

 Wai'ale'ale Ale:  This was their most refreshing and drinkable light offering. Another golden ale, light bodied and dry with a nice bit of citrusy hops to brighten the front end and the finish. One of my favorite locally brewed beer. (4.9% 26 IBU)

NaPali Pale Ale: A medium-bodied pale ale with just a bit of malty sweetness and decent dose of citrusy West Coast hops. Brewed in the style of a classic California style pale ale, this beer would be at home anywhere on the West Coast of the mainland. (5.4% 48 IBU)

 Kauai Island Brewing Sampler

Kauai Island Brewing Sampler

Captain Cook's IPA: Really tasty IPA, malty and hoppy, well balanced and clean. Well-made beer. This one would bring me back. (5.8% 67 IBU)

South Pacific Brown: This was one of my least favorites from their lineup. This is an extremely light, brown English mild, with a hint of smoke that was a touch unpleasant to my palate. A friend drinking with me likened it to bong water (but he continued to drink and enjoy the beer). Light bodied, no hops to speak of, really not my cup of tea. (3.8% 18 IBU)

Cane Fire Red: To be honest I've never had a red I like. There is just something about this style that turns me off. I find them all too sweet and often flabby and boring. This one was no different. If you like reds though, you probably would like this one. Apparently it's their most popular beer and they have a difficult time keeping it on tap. I must be wrong. 

 Kauai Island Brewing Sample Glass

Kauai Island Brewing Sample Glass

Kalo Brew:  Their most interesting and locally unique beer. Kalo is brewed with 60 lbs. of taro root in the mash, giving the beer a unique sweetness and medium body that I found quite pleasant. 

Westside Wheat: 50/50 (50% malted barley, 50% wheat) American style wheat ale. Good to style and quite refreshing, light bodied and clean, low to no hop bitterness, this one would be good on a hot day in the shade with the trade winds blowing. (4.7% 16 IBU)

3. Most grocery stores also stocked a pretty decent supply of other Hawaiian made beers. Hawai'i Nui Brewing Company (who also own Mehana Brewing and Kieko Brewing current producers of Primo under license from Pabst), have fairly wide distribution and are easily found throughout the island. This brewing company founded in 2007 seems to be suffering from growing pains, expanding too fast, and acquiring too many labels, and has recently filed Chapter 11 reorganization papers. Perhaps that is what's also responsible for the lackluster quality of their beer. Hawai'i Nui's beers were my least favorite of the trip and rank particularly low on my overall scale of craft brewers. I know this is like kicking a dog when it's down, but I do hope they can come back from the bankruptcy, consolidate their labels (their now brewing more than 10 beers under two labels) and get their flavors back on track. 

To be fair I didn't taste any of their Mehana label only the flagship Hawai'i Nui beers (and only 3 of them), so my assessment of the overall quality of their beer is skewed.  

Kaua'i Golden Ale (draft): This is another of those light golden ales that are popular among Hawaiian breweries. It's a light, low-hopped beer with just nothing that interesting to recommend it. It might be a good gateway beer for the Bud, Miller, Coors crowd, but I found it bland and ultimately boring and forgettable.  

 Sunset Amber on the beach

Sunset Amber on the beach

 Sunset Amber (bottle): My least favorite beer of the trip, an overly sweet, medium-bodied beer that had a strange off flavor that I couldn't quite put my finger on. No hops, which might have saved this beer. Again boring. 

Hapa Brown Ale (draft): The best of the worst. Faint praise I know, but this beer wasn't all that bad and represents what they can do. A medium to full bodied brown, malty but well balanced with a good amount of hop bitterness to cut the sweetness. I can recommend this beer if you run into it.   

4. Finally, Maui Brewing Company. I can find this regularly on the mainland (in California), but it was difficult to find on Kauai where I was staying. I was hoping to find their limited release Lemon Grass Saison, but had to console myself with the following selections:

 Maui Brewing CoCoNut PorTeR

Maui Brewing CoCoNut PorTeR

CoCoNut PorTeR (draft):  a sweet medium-bodied porter with quite a bit of coconut on the front of the palate, that to me comes of cloyingly sweet, but that many people including those I was drinking with found quite pleasant. It finishes with a bitterness from the black malts that is redolent of chocolate and coffee. The hops providing just a hint of bitterness.

Big Swell IPA (draft): a smooth malty well-balanced IPA that starts off with an impressive aroma of Northwest hops and a malty sweetness that gives way to a great hoppy bitterness. Delicious and one of my favorite beers of the trip. 

Drinking my way across Kauai might not have brought me closer to any of the locals, but I do feel much closer to the brewing history on the Islands.  

------------------------------------------ 

1) For more on the history of brewing in Hawai'i see Robert Schmidt, "Hawai'i's Beers and Brewers," The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 31 (1997) 143 - 150.