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Kauai Beer Company
When Jim Guerber started Kauai Beer Company last September, he chose a rooster as the logo. What he didn’t know was how soon he’d have something to crow about. Less than a year after opening, KBC is shattering its own expectations and proving the demand for craft beer is alive and well on Kauai.
Guerber, the owner and brewmaster, has more than 30 years of experience, most of it as an avid homebrewer. Jim started making beer on the mainland in the late 1970s and later relocated to Kauai because he liked the climate. “I started brewing beer for myself and my friends,” Guerber says. “Later, I found myself providing beer for benefits and private parties. I suppose making beer people liked, often outside strict style guidelines, eventually prompted me to start this business.”
Like a lot of early brewers, Guerber learned his craft by reading about it in books. Over the years, he recorded every recipe and tasted each ingredient, including the wort, at various stages of the brewing process. That has informed and educated his preferences and approach to brewing.
“I’m sure I miss some details by not having a formal brewing education,” he says. “Perhaps I make up for that with my hands-on experience of having produced several hundred brews.”
If You Build It, They Will Come
KBC’s flagship beers are Lihue Lager, a flavorful and refreshing interpretation of the style, and Black Limousine, a smooth-as-glass Schwarzbier that has managed to attract quite a following despite its dark color. Both beers are routinely available at the pub and in select bars and restaurants on Kauai. Guerber is assisted by his son and head brewer, Justin, and Eric Burda, Justin’s college friend. The beer they produce quickly attracted crowds, despite an out-of-the-way location, an unfinished pub and limited business hours.
For many small companies, KBC’s location in central Lihue might pose a problem. The area once bustled with activity as the hub of Kauai’s sugarcane industry. That industry fell into decline during the late twentieth century, leaving behind a mix of used car lots alongside insurance, legal and government offices. In this landscape, KBC is a bright spot, helping revive downtown Lihue.
“We have done exactly what you’re not supposed to do,” says Larry Feinstein, director of marketing. “The space wasn’t physically ready when we opened. It still isn’t. We were initially open Wednesdays and Saturdays back in September. And we did almost nothing to get the word out. We couldn’t have made it more difficult! Yet people came.”
Feinstein, a renaissance man who forged a career in broadcast advertising on Madison Avenue and then Santa Fe, N.M., before landing on Kauai, attributes KBC’s success to a couple of factors. “First, I think we have a great product: our beer. Second, the same care and attention that goes into making the beers also goes into how we treat customers. It’s unbelievable how much that comes back in a positive way.”
Island Oasis, Beer Desert
A larger challenge is the beer culture on Kauai. Guerber describes it in terms of what it lacks. He has a point. Once you get past beers by Kona and Maui Brewing, there’s a lot of fizzy yellow liquid on Hawaii’s oldest island.
“Until recently, Kauai was a beer desert,” says Tim Golden, beer writer for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and founder of the blog Beer in Hawaii. “Kauai is the fourth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands by population. Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, with much larger populations, have traditionally gotten most of the good beer. But that’s changing.”
For years, tourists largely drove the demand for better beer. Kauai, with a resident population of only 67,000, hosts more than a million visitors a year, mostly from the US mainland. Today, locals have joined visitors in searching for something other than pale lager. “The number of visitors and locals who want good beer is so large that businesses are working to serve that demand,” says Golden. “Kauai still gets less craft beer than we do on Oahu, but the selection and availability is a lot better than it used to be.”
Historically, Kauai has been the last island to receive beer shipped from the mainland. This lack of availability may help explain why Kauai has two craft breweries (the second is Kauai Island Brewing Company, which opened in Port Allen in 2012 and previously operated for years as the Waimea Brewing Company). By comparison, Oahu and Maui each have one. Meanwhile, the Big Island, with a much larger population, matches Kauai with two breweries.
Hawaii would probably have more breweries if the costs of starting and operating one weren’t so high. It’s expensive to open a brewery anywhere, but Hawaii is a special case. “Starting any business here requires an enormous amount of capital,” says Golden. “A brewery means special permits and licenses, plus brewing hardware. Then you have to figure in the exorbitant cost of energy and the fact that your ingredients have to be shipped in.”
Guerber is fortunate. The longtime owner of a software company he still runs with his son, he was able to secure loans to buy equipment and the building where the brewery is located. To save what he can on shipping and energy expenses, Guerber gets creative. “Transportation accounts for nearly 25 percent of the cost of our beer,” he says. “We work hard to minimize those costs, especially for malt. Hops and yeast are shipped in by next-day air because freshness directly translates to the beer. As for energy, I hope to someday install solar panels to reduce our electricity costs.”
Other factors that make Hawaii difficult for breweries are a high barrel tax (93 cents per gallon, fifth highest in the US) and a tariff on empty bottles and cans shipped in from the mainland. If and when KBC initiates retail distribution, Guerber will likely use cans produced on Oahu, avoiding the tariff and shipping costs.
Despite the extra challenges that come with an island brewery, Guerber is happy with KBC’s progress. In December they launched Truck Stop Thursday, which featured rotating food trucks each week. They added regular Thursday and Friday hours in March. And in late May, they debuted Finally Friday with a menu of low-cost island-influenced items from their own kitchen.
In the end though, it all comes back to one thing. “We’ve done well, better than we imagined at the start,” he says. “I have a good handle on the processes that make a business successful. But I also know nothing can replace a good team of people working toward a common goal. That’s what we have—and good beer.”
– 3 20-bbl fermenters
– 4 10-bbl bright tanks
Black Limousine: A surprisingly refreshing Schwarzbier, with caramel, toffee and coffee notes. 3.8% ABV
Lihue Lager: German-style Pale Lager with a blend of hops that provide a mildly tropical profile. 4.8% ABV
Tropical Armadillo: The hop aroma and flavor of an IPA, with the body and gravity of a light Pale Ale. 5.0% ABV
IPA 2-Ways: Kauai’s Honey IPA, dry hopped two ways: one with Citra and Amarillo hops, another with Zythos and Falconers Flight. 5.1% ABV
Summer Saison: A sturdy Farmhouse Ale, with fruity and spicy notes. 5.6% ABV
Austrian Chicken: A light-bodied, yet malty take on Vienna Lager, finished with German Noble hops. 4.0% ABV ■