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Friday, June 14, 2013

Is Kona Hawaiian; Is Guinness Irish?

The brewery as I found it in
2008, with my phone cam.
Over at the (one, true, original) Beer Nut, I'm having a spat with the host.  He got his hands on some Kona beer and described it as the "pseudo-Hawaiian Kona range" from Craft Brewers Alliance.  This is factually incorrect.  It's not a line, it's a brewery.  Kona has been making beer on the Big Island for nearly twenty years and, rather than have a company ship a load of bottles deep into the Pacific Ocean, fill them with beer, and ship them back to the mainland, Kona decided to have Widmer contract brew their brands in Portland.  Now: you may despise contract brewing and you may consider this an abomination from the ninth circle of hell.  Fair enough.  But it is not within your authority, even as a well known Irish beer geek, to divest Kona of the land underneath its feet.

He raises a more interesting, existential point in comments, however:
That there is a Kona brewery in Hawaii that produces beer sold in Hawaii does not change the non-Hawaiian origin of the beers I drank. The Budweiser produced in Dublin is also produced in St Louis, but that doesn't make one's pint of it American beer; it makes it pseudo-American beer.
Really?  I wonder how the average beer drinker feels about this.  If you're tippling a Guinness on Saint Patrick's, would you feel cheated and deceived to learn that your pint was brewed on North American soil?  Would you consider it "pseudo-Irish?"  (This would be a big problem for Guinness, though they don't think you'll think it's not real Irish; the brewery proudly proclaims to make it in fifty countries worldwide.)  In many cases, companies make different products for different countries (Mexican sugar Coke versus American corn-syrup Coke), so one might well toss out a "pseudo" if she's feeling saucy.  But if the product is made the same?  AB InBev works very hard to make sure the Budweiser in Ireland tastes identical to the Bud in St. Louis.  Should the customer have to do a background check to determine provenance? It seems like everyone involved would be appalled to think of Dublin-brewed Bud as Irish.

I guess my view on this is clear enough.  What's yours?


  1. Here in São Paulo I eat Japanese food made by Japanese descendants, 'Arab' food, 'Mexican', 'Italian', etc. All of it, if it is produced according to an authentic recipe/method, I feel no reason to qualify with 'pseudo.' Tex-Mex we can say is pseudo Mex (or authentic Tex-Mex) because we have altered the recipes.

    So I agree, as long as the Guiness you drink is made by the same recipe, I say call it Irish.

    The gray area comes when ABInBev greates a global recipe after testing it out all over - now we are into the nebulous world of 'stateless beer.'

    I guess the point is that beer is ingredients and a recipe just like a meal. These are not attached to the local territory.

  2. Guinness is an interesting parallel. By my reading of your rationale, Guinness isn't Irish beer. It has always been a British company, and moved its headquarters to England as soon as being based in Ireland meant not being British any more. And it's still headquartered over there. A pint of Guinness brewed at St James's Gate is Irish, as are the pints of Budweiser and Carlsberg in the adjoining FVs in the same brewhouse. It would be silly to think of any them as non-Irish, even though neither their producing company nor their brand is Irish.

    The European Beer Consumers' Union, to which I have been a delegate, talks a lot about the complex issue of provenance. The consensus is that the location of the "warm kettles" determines the origin of a beer. I would prefer to go by the location of the fermenters myself, but the principle is the same: the origin of the actual physical liquid, not the text on the label, is what matters.

    It is factually correct that Kona is a Hawaiian brewery. It is also factually correct that the range of beers I reviewed did not come from that brewery, nor from Hawaii.

  3. As we discuss this further, BN, I am beginning to see that we have culturally-specific senses of provenance. Americans are very quick to appropriate from other countries, but we consider those things intact expressions of culture from afar, not matter where they're made (see Patrick's point above). In the EU, protecting cultural heritage is a big deal, and location of manufacture is a way to protect that.

    There's another dimension, which is where my orientation mainly comes from. To say a beer is "Irish" or "American" is to talk about the style, not where it was manufactured or nationality of the owners. Irish Budweiser is not Irish because it's made in the American way--thinned with rice, left a bit sweet and estery. American Guinness is Irish because it is brewed with certain ingredients according to certain processes--the Irish way.

    We come to this: when you say "pseudo," you're making a judgment about where the beer was brewed. When I hear that, I think you're making a judgment about the beer--that it is somehow a poor facsimile of the real thing. When I look at American Guinness, Portland Kona, or Irish Budweiser, I see the exact thing, not a facsimile, and so "pseudo" seems misleading. It depends on what we're talking about, I guess.

  4. It's useful in a case like this to distinguish between the liquid and the brand. The brand of Kona is Hawaiian, Guinness is Irish, and Bud and Coke are American. For most consumers, that's probably as far as it goes. For anyone who wants to dig deeper, where the actual liquid comes from becomes relevant, and the concepts of Irish Bud, African Guinness, Mexican Coke, and Portlandian Kona are the most accurate way to think about such things.

  5. The only version of Kona that's truly from Hawaii is what you drink on draft when you're in Hawaii. If it's in a bottle, it comes from the mainland regardless of where you're drinking it. This is a tax issue. As you know, Hawaii has one of the highest beer taxes in the country. They also have a tax on empties shipped to Hawaii. By having the beer brewed and bottled on the mainland, Kona avoids the empty bottle tax completely. I'm not sure how the excise tax works for contract-brewed beer. Does where it's produced matter? I don't give a hoot about that. These Kona beers are no longer interesting to me.

  6. Guinness isn't British really either. My first experience of Guinness was a Toronto made beer brewed under license in a manner that bore no resemblance to any beer made under that name anywhere else in the world. Rumour was it was Labatt 50 with a syrup added. There are yoinks of other Guinnesses in other countries. Guinness may be a British corporation but it is a corporation that owns many breweries and controls the brewing of its beer by other corporations. The beer and the brewery is from where it is brewed regardless of where the corporate headquarters are located. Otherwise, you might find 50% of US craft beer is from Delaware, home of the best corporate laws in America.

  7. All over so soon, Jeff? :( Yes, that's exactly it.

    There is not a person in Ireland whose sphincter doesn't tighten on hearing "I'M IRISH" in a loud American accent. To us you can't be Irish unless you're from Ireland; you can't be Kenyan unless you're from Kenya. We are very aware that North Americans -- uniquely, as far as I can tell -- don't see things the same way.

    As an aside, the "intact expressions of culture" thing is problematic because very very often, what passes in the US as an expression of a particular culture is actually unrelated to that culture: Cinco de Mayo and the like.

  8. Yes, we came too soon to resolution--agreement is a terrible thing on the internet. Let's stir the pot!

    I'll stand in defense of team USA. One thing I've encountered among Europeans is a belief that Americans are ignorant of foreign cultures, and vectors of debasement. There's definitely truth to that, and the Irish and Italians in particular have a lot to gripe about. But it is also partly backward.

    The US is an immigrant nation, and the positive side to that is that we're receptive to foreign cultures. If someone touts an Indian restaurant, say, there's inevitably a debate about how authentic it is. I've spent two years in India so I know that both these things are true: 1) Indian cuisine has many markers that confuse Americans (start with turmeric and cardamom), and 2) Indian cuisine is highly variable and BY FAR the worst Indian food I ever ate was prepared by all the restaurants of Varanasi. Arguing authenticity is always a bit of a mook's game, but it says something about American culture that we're obsessed by it.

    The result is that in the major cities of the US, you will find cuisine from around the world that are as close to "intact expressions of culture" as they can be. Immigrants become, perversely, protectors of foreign cultures. You see this in beer, too. While Americans now tend to bend many styles to their preferences, it is nevertheless true that I can find excellent examples of the world's styles brewed precisely to spec here in the US--even when often in the country of origin those styles are dying out or becoming debased.

    This is partly because there are brewers like Jurgen Knoller (Bayern, from Bavaria) and Steven Pauwels (Boulevard, Belgium) who bring their styles intact to America. And this just doesn't happen often in Europe. I was amused to read Stan Hieronymus's description of Schönramer in Brewing With Wheat. In Bavaria, an American is expected to brew proper Bavarian beer, not bring his crazy hoppy ales from Wyoming. That's the difference in one cheap analogy.

  9. We are a nation of mongrels and so we quickly cling to whatever breeding we can claim (i.e. my great-great grandmother on my mothers side was Swedish, so I am Swedish!)

    But you should be kind to those American Irish identifiers a lot of what they are saying is how much they love and identify with Irish culture: Guiness, The Pogues, Notre Dame Football!!

    You see, we are pretty Irish over here (well, there, I am in Brazil at the moment - another nation of mongrels). ;-)

  10. Steve,

    I think you have hit it on the head. If one wants to qualify with a 'made in' - by all means do so. So Kona beer is a brand and a recipe from Kona Hawaii but brewed in Portland, Oregon. Done.

    This is not limited to beer and food, but just about everything in our globalized world. Is my iPhone American? Is my Arsenal shirt British? Who knows? Such definitions are becoming meaningless.

  11. Once we've dispensed with the cultural baggage let me know when we're ready to fuss about whether Odell Five Barrel Pale is actually brewered in the original Five Barrel Pilot system or whether Tank 7 is, in fact, fermented in Tank #7.

    I have no information on either, but I find that discussion to have less potential for acrimony.

  12. Is a hot dog or hamburger American? Is Boston Beer made in Boston? Guinness sold in the USA is made in Dublin. Nuff said.

  13. Did you hear the one about the Chilean beer brewed in Los Angeles and then shipped back down to Chile? True story brought to us by ABInbev

  14. In the U.S. market, "Guinness Draft" is brewed in Ireland and "Guinness Stout" is brewed in Canada.

    The real question is, why would you drink a megacorporation's stout when you can buy wonderful, locally produced stout from people you care about?

  15. Not much to disagree with in your comment, Jeff, except this: "Immigrants become, perversely, protectors of foreign cultures." They become protectors of a version of foreign cultures. You get stagnation: ideas and values which died out in The Old Country generations previously still survive in the diaspora, and they are by definition inauthentic. I've certainly observed this in Irish America, and New Zealand sometimes feels like being in England in the 1950s.

  16. Interesting discussion. My view is the beer in question is American. The quality issue is completely different: it may be as good or better than what it brewed in Hawaii (just the draft it appears). The cultural differences Jeff noted are certainly relevant though to his point of view, and real enough IMO. It's this characteristic of American life that permitted American beer culture to have the richness it currently enjoys, in that people feel and with good justice they can brew anything well. In the process, they end up creating something new occasionally (e.g. APA), but when motivated to make something in a foreign style they rarely fail IMO.


  17. Having grown up in Hawaii, I feel like I should put my grain of sand into the bucket, from a local stand point.

    Kona was one of the first "craft" beers I was introduced to, Longboard lager was my go-to beach brew for a long stretch of younger years. When I found things like Brew Moon (a now closed brew pub), Rogue (when visiting the mainland) and later Maui Brewing Co., my eyes were opened to the entirety of beer culture. Since then my lips have been Kona free.

    Seeing as how Kona was started in Hawaii you can call it Hawaiian if you want, but I don't know any Hawaiians who would defend it as their own. It is a commercial beer, running alongside Corona and Coors.

    Irish people love Guinness but they won't hesitate to explain that Guinness in Ireland is a different sauce entirely from Guinness served anywhere else in the world. Same goes for Hawaiian beer- we claim the good stuff (rather fair, rational, proper or not) and leave the rest to the "global mass".

    Kona beer is Hawaiian, like Corona is Mexican. Eck, I'll have another Coconut Porter please!


  18. Not Irish beer geeks, Nitch. We don't hesitate to explain that Diageo spends millions ensuring that pints of Guinness are exactly the same from Buenos Aires to Ballyhaunis to Bangkok, and they pretty much are.

  19. Garrett Oliver, of Brooklyn Brewery, has discussed this sense of place as well. Brooklyn's flagships are brewed in Utica, upstate, whereas some of the more experimental and large-bottle format beers are made in Brooklyn.

  20. "Anonymous said...
    Is a hot dog or hamburger American?"

    Surely hamburger is from Germany, you know, the country where HAMBURG is?

  21. And if a Frenchman from champagne brought his grapes and craft to California to make bubbly, would it be French champagne? Or California sparkling wine?

    A family from Kentucky produces a beverage made from at least 51% and no more than 79% Indian corn, and aged for at least two years, and the barrels for aging are made of new oak, charred on the inside. The beverage is distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume), with nothing added at bottling to enhance flavor or sweetness or alter color. This family has moved to Ireland, which is where they follow the same recipe as before. Would you say they are still making Bourbon? Or are they now making Irish whiskey?

  22. California sparkling wine in the first instance, and neither option in the second. Hi Anonymous! Do you have a name and/or a point?