Honolulu’s Real a Gastropub is known for having one of the most diverse and unique beer lineups in the state of Hawaii. The man behind all of that beer is Tony Raso, Real’s Beverage Director. Raso helped open Real last March and is responsible for constantly seeking out and pouring great new craft beers from the top brewers around the world. He’s also in charge of maintaining the draft system (now at 29 handles) and you will regularly find him waiting tables, pouring beers and sharing his wealth of beer knowledge with thirsty customers. The San Diego native has been integral in helping bring in many new breweries from his home town as well as from around the world. It’s not easy convincing breweries to send their beers across an ocean, but Raso continues to push for better craft beer in Hawaii and by the looks of the draft list at Real, he’s succeeding.
Where are you originally from and how did you end up in Hawaii?
I was born and raised in South San Diego, in the city of Chula Vista. I moved to Hawaii in 2008, because my wife, Natalia, was given the opportunity to relocate here with her company. We had visited Hawaii many times over the years as tourists, and always loved the community and culture. We talked many times about the possibility of moving to Hawaii someday. When the opportunity arose, we jumped at it.
How did you first get into craft beer? Do you remember the first craft beer that got you hooked?
Growing up in Chula Vista, I was very close to the craft beer mecca of North County San Diego, but I was never fully exposed to it. My first experiences with local craft beers were some pretty tame brews from Karl Strauss. They were all well-made classic German styles. Not that I knew that. Karl Strauss was known for balanced brews, that are very constrained compared to the over the top beers that San Diego is known for these days. I enjoyed drinking these beers then and I still do, but I wouldn’t say that I was hooked. My first real eye opening experience wasn’t until 2005. A full 8-10 years after most of the big guns from San Diego started brewing. I mean of course I had tried Pete’s Wicked Ale, had my fair share of Sam Adams Triple Bocks or Red Hook ESB plus Starbucks pints, but in 2005 I think a switch turned on. I have definitely been hooked ever since.
So the story goes that my brother had moved to Escondido, which is now home to Stone, and took me to a “craft beer tasting” downstairs at Holiday Wine Cellar. I had no idea what to expect, but I was intrigued. The event was put on by Stone, and featured many of their small batch beers, including Stone V, Stone VI, Stone 7, Stone 8, Vertical Epic 02.02.02, 03.03.03, 04.04.04, etc. I was blown away. I never knew what an American Style IPA was before, and I definitely had never tasted anything so bright, green, flavorful and delicious. I just felt like the blinders had been lifted and I haven’t looked back since. A couple of weeks later, I visited the brewery and tried Ruination, and became a bonafide hophead. I have been seeking out great beers ever since.
How do you decide what beers to put on tap at Real?
I talk to various breweries, importers, distributors and find out what’s coming, what is going into the tanks next, what is landing from Europe next, and order from there. I try to keep a nice mix of local kegs, rare releases, larger breweries, and smaller producers, while still representing a varied selection of styles. That being said I won’t just pour any beer because it’s local or it’s fresh. REAL is doing good for beer availability in Hawaii, and I feel that our guests and staff demand more than just average beers or core-line high production brews. Beyond that I am always lobbying additional breweries that are not currently in the market, and trying to get them to reach out and build a relationship with local distributors. As the first craft beer focused bar in Hawaii, I believe it is our duty to try and expand the availability, and awareness of new and exciting beers in the local market.
Are there any beers or styles that you always have to keep on tap?
Sure. I try to keep on a light lager like Aloha, a nitro stout usually Guinness, a Imperial Porter or Stout, a West Coast IPA, a Imperial IPA, a German Hefeweizen, a Belgian Witbier and a Apple Cider, almost always Angry Orchard. Beyond that I just try to keep a great variety of popular and obscure styles. We only have 29 handles, and there are so many great styles of beer, constant rotation is key.
What beer style would you like to see gain more popularity?
Locally, I would say sour beer styles should be more popular. Some of the sour styles of beer are my favorites, and they are so popular on the mainland, that getting more than a few cases of some of these beers to Hawaii is impossible. They can take years to produce and can end up being very complex, with many layers of flavors. Sour beers are very appealing to many different palates. I think that the bright, acidic and refreshing characteristics of some of these beers, goes great with our weather and food here in Hawaii. With the many foodies and wine aficionados here in town, I guess that it is more surprising than anything, sour beers are not the craze they are on the mainland.
What is the most satisfying part about your job?
They are so many aspects of my job that I love. Number one has to be serving guests and seeing their initial reaction to our draft board. They are either in awe, totally confused or cracking a smile from ear to ear. I also really enjoy working with such great friends. Nearly everyone at REAL shares the same passion for craft beer that I do, and it really shows. Every day the draft board is different, so that gives us all an opportunity to talk about what’s new, or what we really enjoy that day. Even more than that, I just work with a bunch of really great people, and every shift is fun to work.
What about local breweries? How are you working with them?
I work with various local breweries in different ways. We may express to them what styles, or flavor profiles we would like to pour, or ask them about what small batch specialty beers are on their brewing calendar. Mostly we just try to support them, and maintain a great relationship with local breweries. I feel pouring local beer gives people the best chance at trying the beer as the brewer intended, while also having the most impact on the local economy. Fresh beer is always better, and to me craft beer is about a sense of place. Supporting fresh local beer is the best way to build and sustain a healthy craft beer culture.
Real is known for bringing in a lot of beers from breweries never seen before in Hawaii. How do you go about working breweries and distributors to get them to send beer here?
We try to get out and build relationships with the people at these breweries and distributors whenever we can, although on the brewery side, those opportunities are limited in Hawaii. We just know what we like to drink, and what we would like to try, and go from there. I think whether you are a brewer or a distributor, you can see the true passion and authenticity of REAL. We are here because we love craft beer and we want to continue to support innovation in the craft beer industry. Why wouldn’t they want to send us beer? They are passionate about what they produce, so I’m fairly certain they want people that are excited about their beer pouring it. We are not a bar looking at what other people are pouring locally, and trying to reproduce their success, we are truly trying to expand the availability of craft beer for everyone in Hawaii. I just think that honestly, many of these breweries had no idea that there are bars in Hawaii that are passionate about craft beer. Maybe no one has reached out to them before, and once they realize that that are places like REAL, P+J, Murphy’s, JJ Dolans, Monkeypod Kitchen, Feral Pig, etc. that would love to drink and pour their beer, they do what they can build a relationship with a local distributor.
What breweries that are not currently distributed in Hawaii would you most like to see get here?
I don’t even know where to start. I’ll give it a try. Alaskan, Alesmith, Alpine, Avery, The Alchemist, Stone, Green Flash, Karl Strauss, Lightning, Lost Abbey/Port, The Bruery, Cascade, Crooked Stave, , Hill Farmstead, Pretty Things, Prairie, Cigar City, Hanger 24, Evil Twin, Stillwater, Cambridge, Capt. Lawrence… this could take all day. There are literally hundreds of beers I would like to see in Hawaii, but as long as the selection of locally available beers continues to rise, people have to be happy. I know I am.
Where do you see the Hawaii craft beer scene in five years? How would you like to see it grow?
I see it matured immensely. It should be totally different, much bigger, with many more beer bars and breweries. You have to understand, I come from a city where craft beer was nothing 15-20 years ago, and now it has completely overwhelmed the local culture and economy. In Chula Vista in 2004, Stone didn’t deliver to a single bar. In San Diego, Stone is one of the largest distributors and delivers many popular brands on their trucks. They just didn’t bring kegs down that far south yet. Everyone in Chula Vista was drinking Dos Equis or Bud Light. By 2008, when I moved to Honolulu, Stone Distributing’s brands were poured many places in South San Diego. I see many similarities here. People are intrigued with craft beer on Oahu. They are ready to discover and try something other than green bottle and Bud Light. I get new guests everyday that come in and want to be recommended craft beers. They ask questions about styles of beers they have never heard of before. And when they try these unknown beers they usually really love them, or ask to try something else. It is the rare occasion when someone cannot find a beer they love at REAL. I think people in Hawaii are realizing that the potential flavors in craft beer are unlimited, and can literally taste like anything. There is no way that in five years this town and craft beer culture hasn’t grown exponentially.
What 2 beers are you going to try first at the Real Beer Festival?
That’s a tough one. I am going to be there setting up the festival, so I will probably try whatever one gets online first, which at this point I have no idea what it will be. And second will probably be the first beer that I come across that I haven’t tried yet. There are so many amazing beers that are going to be at this festival, we are at 68 kegs at last count, I just hope I have time to try more than those first two.
What beer do you like to drink after a long day of work?
Whatever beer is in my fridge, or whatever is new and exciting on the draft system at REAL. I tend to change beers in my fridge constantly and don’t really have a go to. I can reach for a nice light lager, maybe an IPA, a huge stout or a sour. After work everything is game, because that’s when I get to try a full pour of the beer that I am most excited about that day. I think tonight I might have an Aloha Gose or a Fresh Squeezed IPA first, I have been digging those beers. Super easy to drink, very sessionable with tons of character.