The Kona Brewing Company in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island is one of the more famous brew pubs in the U.S. It was at the top of my list to try when we got to the Hawaiian Islands. On our first full day on the Big Island, we went there for lunch and a few beers.
The Kona Brewing Company has been around since the mid-90's when the father and son team of Cameron Healy and Spoon Khalsa moved back to the Big Island from Oregon to start a brewery which featured beers that were to be made with "spirit, passion and quality". Their first beer, Pacific Golden Ale, was released on February 14, 1995. It became a hit and within three years they introduced their second beer, their famous Longboard Island Lager. More beers came along the way and today the original brewery in Kailua-Kona brews 10 beers and puts out over 10,000 barrels annually.
Five of their beers are bottled and made available all over Hawaii. However, Kona Brewing Company has a brewing agreement with Widmer Brothers Brewery in Portland, OR and with Redhook Ale Brewery in Portsmouth, NH to brew and bottle their Longboard Lager and Fire Rock Pale Ale, as well as their seasonal Pipeline Porter and Wailua Wheat Ale. Although Kona Brewing Company says they maintain strict brewing control over their mainland brewed beers - even down to the mineral content of the water that goes into making their beers, locals told us they're not the same. Anheuser-Busch has an agreement with Kona Brewing to distribute the beer in select markets in the U.S. mainland. I've never seen any around the Midwest. The closest distributor is in Colorado.
Today, in conjunction with their west coast and east coast brewers, Kona Brewing Company is the 14th largest craft brewer in the nation quickly approaching 100,000 barrels of beer sold annually. But, quite unfortunately, neither of the two mainland breweries brew and bottle what turned out to be my favorite Kona beer - Big Wave Golden Ale (the original Pacific Golden Ale became Big Wave Golden Ale a few years ago). More about that beer later on.
We slept in on our first morning on Hawaii and had a late breakfast at the hotel. We took off in our rental convertible with the top down and the sun shining down on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. It was a beautiful day with the temps in the low 80's. We had driven around the downtown are of Kailua-Kona earlier that was teeming with tourists from a cruise ship moored out in the bay. A lot of the restaurants and shops were tourist trap joints, beckoning people to come in and spend their money. It was really too much for us.
As we tried to drive away from the touristy area, I got the idea. "Hey, I want to find that Kona Brewing Company!" Cindy asked if they had food and I said, "Oh, yeah. And I guess it's pretty good." I put the name of the place into my GPS and it came right up. Turned out we weren't very far away.
The Brewpub at Kona Brewing Company is right next to the original brewery just north of the intersection of Kuakini Highway and Palani Road (see map). The brew pub opened in part of the brewery in 1998. At the time, Cameron Healy brought in Mattson Davis from Oregon to oversee the restaurant's operation. Today, Mattson Davis is the President and CEO of Kona Brewing Company.
The menu consists of a number of varieties of fresh seafood and homegrown produce from the Hawaiian Islands. The brew pub is also famous for their varieties of gourmet pizzas in which they use a garlic-infused olive oil base in their dough. Davis had worked for a Portland, OR-based small chain of gourmet pizza restaurants - Pizzicato. He kept the gourmet pizza concept with Kona Brewing Company's brew pub menu, but also added a number of appetizers, sandwiches and entrees that highlighted the Hawaiian grown concept behind the menu.
It was around 2:30 when we got to the front hostess stand just outside the outdoor seating area of the brew pub. True enough, there was a working brewery right next door, right down to fork lifts maneuvering pallets of keg beer around an outside, fenced-in holding area. It had kind of a weird industrial, yet tropical feel to the place. It turned out that a lot of people were having a late lunch that afternoon and our wait was going to be about 20 minutes. There were a handful of people sitting on benches near the hostess stand. I asked the hostess if we could go in and get a beer from the bar. She said, "Sure, but the 'beepers' here don't work in the bar for some reason, so you need to be outside to get 'buzzed'."
We went into the bar and the smell of their pizza hit us like a brick oven. Oh, my God, it smelled wonderful! We sort of looked at one another and Cindy said, "Oh, God, Will! Smell that! I don't know if I want a pizza, but that smell is so tempting!" We picked up a menu while we were standing at the packed bar waiting to order a beer. We took a look at the prices of their pizzas and that was probably the first time we realized restaurants in Hawaii weren't going to be cheap. Just a basic 10" pepperoni pizza was $12 bucks. OK, well, we're on vacation in Hawaii.
It took us a little while for the bartender to get over to get our beer order. She was really working her tail off. In addition to five bottled beers, Kona Brewing also has five beers on tap. We both ordered up their Castaway India Pale Ale. Actually, it's more of a mild American Pale Ale that does have some subtle hoppiness, but isn't as forward as most India Pale Ales. We grabbed our glasses and went back outside to enjoy the day.
While we were waiting at the bar, I noticed a number of posters on the wall of the inside of the brew pub touting shows that Kona Brewing Company had put on in the past. They had shows that featured the likes of John Mayall, Robert Cray, Eric Johnson, Jonny Lang, Walter Trout, and Everclear. It appeared that many of the shows were part of some blues festival that Kona Brewing Company evidently sponsored. When we went back outside, we ended up at the counter of the Kona Brewing gift shop, just near the hostess stand. We got to talking with the young guy working behind the counter.
I asked him about all the shows on the posters in the main restaurant and asked where they had them. He said, "Oh, we'd have 'em right here at the brewery. That fenced in area was the backstage area, we put a stage in front of that and then people stood or brought lawn chairs in the parking lot."
I asked when the last show was and he said, "Oh, geez, I don't know. 2004 or so. It's been awhile." He explained that they would have to shut down both the brewery and brew pub for two or three days to pull it off. He said, "We can't afford to do that any longer." He did say that they still sponsor much smaller shows that feature lesser known or local artists, but the days of the bigger shows are pretty much over.
He explained that even before the economic downturn, business has been down at both the brewery and the brew pub due to a tourism slump in Kailua-Kona. He said, "See that big cruise ship out in the harbor? We used to have three of them come a couple times a week. Now we only get one a couple times a week." He said the place used to be packed with tourists - some days, the wait for a table would be 90 minutes. "These days, we're just holding on with what we get."
It wasn't much longer when our pager buzzed and we were taken to a table deep in the outdoor seating area. We were seated at a table right next to a sea turtle sculpture that was pretty neat. The late lunch crowd had begun to sort of filter out and our waitress came right away to check our drink orders and to drop off a couple menus. I was almost done with my pale ale and I asked if I could get a Big Wave Golden Ale. She said, "Oh, I'm sorry. We're out of that today."
I said, "We're at the brewery and it's one of your most popular beers and you're out of it today?"
She gave me a pained look and said, "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." I decided to try one of the Longboard Lagers. She said, "I know we have that today." The Longboard Lagers are a little more full-bodied than most American Lagers. It had sort of a Germanic lager taste to it. But it was very good.
Cindy and I had ruled out getting a pizza. She was on a mission to have some fish and since most of Kona Brewing Company's seafood is freshly caught, she decided on getting the Lawai'a Special - a sandwich that featured the fish of the day, grilled and put onto a homemade bun and topped with lettuce, tomato and a special sauce. Ahi tuna was the catch of the day and she asked to have hers cooked medium rare.
I was still thinking of getting at the very least a calzone, but I saw something on the menu that sounded great - Uncle's Fish Tacos. I'm a sucker for fish tacos, especially if they're grilled and not breaded and deep-fried. (That's like eating fish sticks on taco shells.) I asked our waitress how the fish in the fish tacos was prepared and she said, "We season the fish with cajun spices, then we bake the filets in the oven. Then we pull the filets apart when we serve them on the taco shells." I happily signed up for that.
The outdoor seating area was very casual and very laid-back. Each table had a huge umbrella that kept the hot sun off the tables and it was nice and cool. There was sort of a garden area off to the side and Cindy pointed out this one plant to me. She said, "What is that?" I took a look and immediately recognized little flower clusters of fresh hops growing in a planter near the building. Only I'd never seen hops that color before. They were kind of the normal green at the bottom, but were sort of a deep red at the top. I figured it must have been some sort of a tropical hop plant. I guess I should have asked.
When she brought the fish tacos out, I was overly surprised at the presentation. They were topped with fresh island-grown cabbage and a salsa that included black beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, green onions and cilantro. And the fish was topped with a chipotle yogurt sauce with avacado aioli - a avacado/sour cream sauce that also has lemon and lime juices, with minced garlic, fresh basil and jalapenos. It was outstanding. I've got to make that for my fish tacos at home.
Cindy also declared her Ahi tuna fish sandwich as being outstanding. The chunk of tuna was the perfect size for a sandwich and it was cooked perfectly to her liking. She ended up taking the ahi tuna off the bun about half-way through the meal to savor the taste of the fish. She gave me a little bite of the tuna and it was excellent. And I let her have a bite of my fish tacos and she got this look on her face of "Oh my God!" She said with a mouthful of food, "That's great!" And it was great.
Lunch wasn't overly cheap - with our food and four beers (I went back to the Castaway Pale Ale for my last beer and Cindy had the same) the bill came to just over $50 bucks before tip. And our waitress was very good so she got a 20% tip on top of the bill.
Before we left we stopped at the gift shop and Cindy got a Kona Brewing Company visor that she could wear in the car when we had the top down. And I picked up a Big Wave Golden Ale t-shirt. It wasn't until later in the day when I was able to try a Big Wave Golden Ale back at the hotel. I'm not big on fruit beers, but the fruit taste in the Big Wave Golden Ale was so subtle that it wasn't really noticeable. The combination of the flavors in the beer made it a very refreshing taste sensation, especially on those warm Hawaiian days. It immediately became my beer of choice when we'd go out for dinner or when we'd stop off at the bar at the hotel.
Of all the things that I probably miss most about Hawaii is the Kona Big Wave Golden Ale. I was hoping that it would be available on the mainland, but it isn't. I actually looked up on line to see if I could get Big Wave Golden Ale shipped to me in Iowa. I found a wine store in Kailua-Kona that would sell me a case of Big Wave Golden Ale for $47.96. Getting it to Iowa from Hawaii (as we found when we shipped a couple boxes back home) ain't cheap. It would cost $95 bucks to have it shipped regular FedEx Ground. But I'm not kidding you - I'm still thinking about it.
The food at the Kona Brewing Company was excellent. We loved the outdoor seating area and the coziness of the indoor bar area. The beer was equally excellent. We had entertained going back to the place to get a pizza at some point, but just like many other places we really liked on our visit to Hawaii, we never made it back - mainly because of all the options available to us. But even if we don't ever make it back to the Big Island, I'll always have great memories of the beer and the great fish tacos at Kona Brewing Company.