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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kona Brewing: Pioneering Local Beer

As we all know, brewing goes back a long, long ways--perhaps to the dawn of civilization. It goes at least back at least to the Sumerians, over six thousand years ago. In all that time, up until about the mid-19th century, beer was a purely local product. Industrialization, railroads, and refrigeration made it possible for beer to travel. To the people before then, there was no style, only beer--the stuff you could make yourself. Of course, this is how styles evolved--in a small, regional context where the climate, laws, local tastes, and external factors like war dictated what was possible.

Modern American brewing is slightly odd in that we reproduce styles that emerged in other places. Had brewing started here organically, we wouldn't have had to reproduce what our ancestors brewed in Europe. I've been fascinated by the idea of indigenous American beers, wondering what they might look like and how they would differ from European lineages. Perhaps the best clues are offered by Kona Brewing, which has done more to incorporate local ingredients in their regular beers than any brewery in America. Their three seasonals include locally-grown coconut, Kona coffee, and passion fruit (lilikoi).*

Koko Brown
The newest release is Koko Brown, which has finally made it onto store shelves. It's a fairly standard brown ale--5.5%, 28 IBUs, made with six malts and four hop varieties. The base beer would be an excellent brown, but it has been enhanced by the inclusion of coconut. Kona adds coconut flesh to the mash (which may actually provide fermentables) and coconut essence during conditioning. The result is a beer that is strongly aromatic, almost perfumy, but only mildly coconutty on the palate. The nutty malt flavors blend perfectly with the soft, mildly sweet coconut to produce an amazingly drinkable beer. If it seems conceptually gimmicky, a pint dispels all fears; like Pipeline Porter, Koko is a perfect session ale, and when I've polled people, they have to a person given it very high marks. (It's also one of those beers that appeals almost equally to beer geeks and beer novices, which makes it a great sixer to take to a party.)

Wailua Wheat and Pipeline Porter
Koko Brown is just the latest incarnation of the model Kona beer. The brewery has a great knack for matching flavors that exist in beer with local ingredients. The city of Kona is located on the western side of the Big Island, very close to the famous coffee plantations that borrow the town's name. Kona is a distinctive bean, produced by the unique circumstances of that small growing region (the combination of volcanic soil, sun, and temperature make it impossible to replicate with trees grown elsewhere). Its character is different from the kind you find in most espresso shops in the US. Best at a medium blend, it has a mellow, rounded flavor--not sharp, bitter, or intense like French and Italian roasts. When the brewery made a recipe for porter to go with the Kona beans, they chose a light, mellow recipe like Black Butte Porter. The result is a bright, sunny porter that, like the Koko Brown, makes a perfect session ale.

Perhaps the most interesting is Wailua Wheat, a very simple beer that uses lilikoi (passion fruit) not as a sweetener, but a spice, like hops. Lilikoi are amazing fruits. They look like a yellow egg and have a seedy custard filling that is as intense to eat as a lime. It's so intense that lilikoi is almost always used as a flavoring in other beverages or dishes. What's fascinating is that the flavors are similar to the citrus of hops. I'm still trying to catch up on my understanding of the chemistry of hops, but I know enough to recognize one compound found in lilikoi--linalool, which researchers say gives a hop a "harmonious" citrusy aroma and flavor. (Interestingly, in the Wailua Wheat I had in Hawaii, the citrus character seemed more vivid. I don't know if this is due to the effects of climate--where mild tastes pop more--or the different systems used to brew there and on the mainland, but it's worth noting.)

The three beers are a great example of how local ingredients can--and in my view, should--be included in recipes. The industrial age is an anomaly; beer is local. Recipes should reflect local ingredients. Kudos to Kona for leading the way.

*These ingredients are not native to Hawaii, which had almost no native edible plants. They have been grown there for over a hundred years, though, and can certainly be considered "local." Coconuts, in fact, were probably brought by the first humans who visited from "nearby" islands. (They weren't that close--just closer than anything else.)


  1. Interesting post.

    I will ask the beer czar at my local to consider these beers. You make these beers seem inviting.

    I noticed other CBA beers in SWFla., including Kona, were brewed in Portsmouth, N.H. I assume this applies to these Kona beers as well.

  2. I haven't yet seen Koko Brown at the stores I shop at yet, but I'm greatly looking forward to it. Pipeline Porter is one of my all-time favorites, which, as you noted above, makes perfect sense because Black Butte Porter is another favorite. Plus, Kona coffee is another favorite, so there you go. I grabbed PP at the store on a whim five-six years ago and have been going back every since.

  3. Aloha Jack. I apologize for only now getting to your post; my name is Sally and I help Kona Brewing with PR on the mainland. Kona beers are brewed closest to the market they serve for a number of reasons, but the two biggest are freshness and reducing environmental impact. I am not sure where you're commenting from but if you saw Kona beers in SW Florida, they were brewed on the East Coast in Portsmouth. However the Koko Brown, which is only available on the West Coast and Hawaii this year until May 2011, is brewed in the Pacific NW, again closest to the market it serves. Mahalo!

  4. Aloha Jason, I notice you are in Oregon and I am too. What city are you in and I can hep you track down some Koko Brown Ale? It may be at a store where you have purchased Pipeline Porter in the past. Mahalo, Sally for Kona Brewing