Billy Smith recently took over as the brewmaster at Kona Brewing Company and I thought I’d catch up with him to see what his plans were for the Big Island brewery.
1. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Indiana, and then I moved to Colorado where I started my professional brewing carrier with Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company. I’ve enjoyed that craft brewing has taken me to several states across the country (CO, IN, WA, CA, NH, and HI). It has been exciting to learn the tastes of each region and design beers to fit consumers’ pallets. Hawaii is of course very different from Indiana, but both states have a friendly, laidback nature that I really like.
2. How did you get started home brewing? What was the first beer you brewed and how did it come out?
My Dad was an advanced home brewer in the 80’s (partial all grain mashes) and at the age of 13 he had me help him with his hobby. He lived in St. Louis, about four blocks from a well-known big brewery. So, between the home brewing and tours of the brewery I had a bit more knowledge of brewing than a kid my age should have. Little did we know, at the time, that this special father and son time would turn into a lifelong passion and career for me.
The first beer my father let me help him with was a Doppelbock. It actually won first place in the annual American Home Brewers Association competition. I remember Dad being very proud of this achievement, until he found out that next year’s winners get to go to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Ironically it was this beer that sparked a discussion with Bill Carver, of Carver’s Bakery and Brewery, which landed me my first brewing gig.
3. What was your first job in the craft beer industry?
I trained at Carver’s Bakery and Brewery in Durango, Co in order to be an assistant brewer at Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company in Glenwood Springs. I was at G.C.B.C. from 1994 to 1997, trying my hand at as many different things as possible to absorb more about the art of brewing. As assistant brewer, I helped the owners turn their restaurant into a brew pub, which included everything from literally building the brewery, installing tanks, and running cooling and beer lines. Being my first brewing job I was tasked with the very important job of washing and filling kegs and growlers……..a lot of kegs and growlers…….about a year’s worth of kegs and growlers. Finally I earned the trust of the Head Brewer, Ken Jones, and he then allowed me to clean tanks too! It was from Ken that I learned the foundation of what it takes to be a brewer.
I also brewed for Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, Boulder Creek Brewery, RAM Restaurant and Brewery and Redhook Brewery.
4. You’ve been with CBA for over 6 years and have brewed at their larger breweries in Washington and most recently in New Hampshire. Are you looking forward to working on a much smaller brewing system and brewing more of a variety of beers?
I am very excited! Brewing in a brewery this size is a challenge but comforting. I feel like I have gone full circle and have come home. The innovation capabilities of this brewery and team are what really allow it to stand out.
5. What are your goals as the new Brewmaster at KBC?
In a word: innovation. The team and I have big plans to build on the Kona story, streamline our brewing process, and introduce new and unique beer to the world.
6. Can we expect to see any new beers or changes to KBC beers?
We already have a couple ideas in the works. We may roll out another IPA, and we’re now able to launch a small batch program for select accounts on the Islands. Keep on the lookout for enhanced local brews.
7. What is your favorite existing KBC beer to brew and why?
Castaway IPA is my current favorite. It really stands for what we’re all about here in Kona. It’s not just another hopped up IPA; I have heard from so many craft beer lovers that Castaway takes you straight back to the islands and is different from any other IPA out there. Now that I live in Kona, I have to agree! The citrus, tropical and mango flavors are in the forefront but end up balanced at the end, and being 6% ABV makes this an approachable IPA on a hot beach day.
8. Is there any difference between brewing Kona Brewing Company beers in Kona versus in New Hampshire?
The recipes are exactly the same, it is the brewing systems that are different and that can lend to different profiles. This is where the art of brewing comes into play to ensure that we have flavor matching of beers from different breweries that are located 5000+ miles away. We have spent a lot of time and focus in our company on this to ensure the consumer experience is the same no matter if they are enjoying Kona beer on a beach in Florida or Hawaii.
9. Any local ingredients you are looking forward to working with?
I can’t believe we have access to freshly grown lemongrass right outside the brewery doors so we’ve already been working with that. Lilikoi is always fun, and with the Big island Chocolate Festival around the corner in early May, we’ve brewed up a batch of Black Sand Porter with cacao nibs from the slopes of Hualalai Mountain. Most recently we are playing with the idea of using taro root in a beer, so be on the lookout for that.
10. Favorite hop?
Tie between East Kent Goldings (a favorite hop from the beginning of my career) and Galaxy (the signature hop in a lot of our brews). A little old with the new!
11. Are there any breweries or other brewers that inspire you and influence you?
The craft brew industry is about people, so it has been brewers that have inspired and influenced me. Besides my Dad, Ken Jones (the first brewer I worked under) gave me the foundation I needed to be a professional brewer and then there is Kim Brusco (the Brewing Manager at Redhook Brewery when I started) who saw that I had more to offer the brewery than just being a brewer.
12. When you’re not brewing, what is your favorite thing to do in Hawaii?
Right now I am exploring as much as I can, trying to learn all about the Big Island and seeing what’s out there. I really look forward to trying my hand at body boarding, surfing, paddle boarding, and diving to see which one best suits me. Being a brewer it will be more than likely the one that will allow me to have a beer while I’m doing it!