A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Billy Smith, the newish head brewer at the Kona Brewing Pub in Kailua Kona. Billy was on Oahu for the day training the staff at the Koko Marina Pub about a number of new specialty beers the pub was serving.
Billy is no stranger to Kona’s beers. Prior to joining the team in Kona, he was the brewmaster at Redhook’s massive brewery in New Hampshire. There he brewed the flagship beers for Redhook, Widmer, Kona and Omission. The move to Hawaii was a big change, both in lifestyle and also in brewing scale, but the changes were met with excitement.
Since taking over the head brewer position this past Spring, Billy has put into place an innovation team to create more unique specialty releases for the Hawaii market. One of Billy’s goals coming into Kona was to breathe some new life and excitement into the brewery. The new innovation team is made up of Billy, a fellow brewer, a QA tech and one rotating staff member. For each new brew the team selects a member of the staff to join in and help conceptualize and create a new specialty beer. The idea is to get everyone, from marketing to the wait staff, involved and knowledgeable about the brewing process.
The group gets together about every other month to come up with a new beer and then brews it. So far, 2 beers have been created, both exclusively released at Kona’s two Hawaii pubs. The first, Black Lava Lager, was a schwarzbier style dark lager brewed with taro. Next came Magic Sands Saison, which was made with locally grown mango. At the time, Billy wasn’t sure what the next release would be. The team still had to meet and figure out what they wanted to brew. He hopes to eventually release these specialty beers to select bars and restaurants around the state as well.
With a new focus on creative releases, Billy also hinted at a series of specialty releases in 2015, to celebrate Kona Brewing’s 21st anniversary. Although he didn’t tell me exactly what the beers would be, he did say the theme revolves around the 4 elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water.)
From what I could tell, we can all expect to see a lot more from Kona in the local market over the next year. Billy has brought a new focus on going back to Kona’s brewpub routes and brewing beer styles that the market is craving for. For most of us on Oahu, we’ve never really had the chance to experience many of the specialty beers produced in Kona and hopefully that will change.
Seems to me they still don’t get it. They brew world-class beer but they don’t distribute enough. Saying you brew a beer for the “Hawaii market” and then releasing it exclusively at your pubs is not helping anyone or the market. If they want more credibility locally they need to feed the accounts that would love to have it. Then people would try it and the brand would grow organically. This is just a pub exclusive beer program.
I think they recognize that and the plan is to start to get more of their beers out into the actual marketplace. The other issue they’ve had is production limitations. They’re near capacity at the Kona facility brewing Longboard and the other main core beers for the state. I wouldn’t be surprised if they expand production capabilities very soon to brew more beer for Hawaii only.
bottle the specialty beers like New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series
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