Where to Drink in Honolulu, Hawaii

Destinations by | Aug 2018 | Issue #132

At one of the world’s most remote archipelagos, immaculate beaches, enchanting jungles, and crisp waterfalls offer visitors a wealth of adventure. But after a day in the sun, what’s better than raising a glass of cold beer?

Today, Hawaii is experiencing a beer explosion: world-class production breweries, over a dozen microbreweries and brewpubs, and a growing selection of kegs, bottles, and cans imported from around the world. Island hoppers may cruise in for a drink at distinctive breweries on Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island. And Honolulu, the capital on the island of Oahu, is at the forefront of this boom.

Beer was first made in the islands as early as 1812, but no proper brewing company took hold until 1854 when a company in Honolulu advertised an alcohol-free beer in the weekly newspaper. Beer as we know it today started in 1901 with the founding of the Honolulu Brewing & Malting Company on Queen Street. Its Primo Island Lager was brewed in a red brick building that still stands; its elaborate brick architecture is unique for the islands and offers a classic photo opportunity for beer historians.

Prohibition brought an end to brewing in Hawaii until its repeal. World War II also brought thirsty soldiers to Pearl Harbor. Countless breweries came and went throughout the subsequent decades, succumbing to the same effects of consolidation felt across the mainland in the mid 20th century. Even Primo in its original form did not last—after Schlitz acquired it in 1963, production was moved away from Hawaii in 1979. While still widely available, the brand is now produced by Pabst. It was not until the 1980s and ’90s that microbreweries and brewpubs appeared. Modifications of state liquor laws beginning in 2005 allowed brewpubs to distribute beer and made allowances for  growers, bottles, and kegs to be sold, which unleashed a tsunami of local beer.

Illustration by Sam Brewster

Most of the Aloha State’s population is in and around Honolulu, so it is only appropriate that it’s home to the largest concentration of brewpubs and restaurants. Many visitors to the islands stay in Waikiki, the bustling tourist hub. Notably, Maui Brewing’s Waikiki Brewpub features the longest bar in the state and 36 taps, including special releases from Maui Brewing and a selection of guest beers. Founded by Garrett Marrero in 2005, this independent brewery on Maui has been influential in the development of the state’s beer industry. Take a break from the heat with a Pau Hana Pilsner accompanied by ahi poke tacos, or a Pueo Pale Ale with The Farmer, a flatbread topped with locally sourced goat cheese, Kula sweet corn, and Kahumana arugula.

A 15-minute walk up Kalakaua Avenue brings you to Waikiki Brewing Company, the first and only production brewery in the neighborhood. Grab a seat at the bar with a view of the 7-barrel brewhouse and order the chicken wings tossed in a honey sriracha Eee Pah IPA sauce. Wash it down with a Jalapeño Mouth Amber Ale, or start off a vacation with one of the pub’s creative beer cocktails.

The aloha spirit among local breweries emphasizes collaboration over competition, and the hub for beer is undoubtedly Kakaako, located between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. Formerly salt reclamation land, its large, empty warehouses appealed to brewers. Enjoy a self-guided walking tour and take in the vibrant murals along the way.

On Queen Street, Aloha Beer Co. is the latest venture from entrepreneur Steve Sombrero and beer pioneer Dave Campbell. Hawaii born and raised,  Dave’s passion for homebrewing led him to open the first supply store in the islands decades ago. With his interest in history and traditional styles, passion is present in every beer, like the Makai Pier Gose, brewed with ocean water gathered from Waimanalo Bay. Don’t expect to find fads here. Instead, sample from a wide variety, including an Amber Ale, a Bavarian Hefeweizen, and a farmhouse ale. Try the Kakaako Kommon with the smoked butt sandwich—locally raised and honey-brined pono pork served on a baguette with mustard aioli. For something harder, head upstairs to The Hi Brau Room, a speakeasy open Thursday – Sunday evenings. Here, the specialty is fine craft cocktails and beer in a luxurious environment. Order the Barley Squared, Japanese whisky over an IPA ice cube with an orange twist.

A block away is Waikiki Brewing Company’s Kakaako Pub, home to the brewery’s 20-barrel production facility and restaurant, which offers an open-air lanai to kick back and relax or catch the game. This spot feels more like the neighborhood’s deck than a typical bar. Wash down the baby back ribs, slathered in a homemade sweet mango bourbon barbecue sauce, with the West Coast-style Skinny Jeans IPA.

One of the area’s original brewpubs is Honolulu Beerworks, a converted warehouse in the burgeoning arts district. A working production facility, the casual restaurant has picnic tables, a mainland selection of food with a distinctly Hawaiian twist, and showcases local artists. Try the CoCoWeizen, a Hefeweizen with toasted coconut that goes equally well with the savory Italian Hoagie or the Pacific Salmon Salad Sandwich, which combines salmon, soy wasabi aioli, sprouts, and tomato on a bright purple taro bun.

SALT at Kakaako [saltatkakaako.com] was developed as a hub of eating, drinking, and shopping. During its monthly pub crawl catering to beer lovers, themed beer selections hit taps at its food vendors, including Moku Kitchen, which highlights Hawaiian ingredients and cuisine, Bevy, which focuses on farm-to-bar craft cocktails and raw oysters, and Village Bottle Shop & Tasting Room, which has a rotating selection of bottles to-go as well as draft beer and wine. A bright and open concept, Village organizes tap-takeover events and free sipping sessions with local, national, and international brands.

For beer connoisseurs and history buffs alike, The Brewseum [brewseums.com] is a must-stop attraction. Started as a World War II museum and history tour company, it grew to include a microbrewery. Dressed as an airplane hangar, the military-themed bar is covered with photos, memorabilia, and artifacts, including a wartime Jeep. Ask for a punch card; earn gold Ace wings after five visits. The on-site Home of the Brave Brewing Company names its beers after local heroes and historic events: not to be missed are the 442 Go For Broke Ale and the Remember Pearl Harbor Mighty American Ale, brewed for the 75th commemoration of the attack. If a quieter place is desired to imbibe a craft cocktail, ask for the secret password for Wiki Waki Woo, a 1940s Tiki-themed speakeasy above the museum.

Should a bar with a passion for gastronomy whet your palate, stroll into Square Barrels. Located downtown on Bishop Square, it has a mix of modern and vintage decor. The extensive beer list includes Hawaiian breweries like Big Island Brewhaus, Kohola Brewery, and Beer Lab HI alongside its own small-batch house beers. Pair a pint of My Korean Mother-in-Law DIPA with a Venison Bacon Burger (a Maui venison patty topped with bacon, Gorgonzola, lettuce, tomato, and fried caper mayo on a sesame bun) with a side of poutine. Keep an eye out for special events, like multicourse beer- and whiskey-pairing dinners that focus on local chefs, cuisine, and breweries.

Finally, to soak in waterfront views and island music on the harbor at Aloha Tower, stop at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in the evening for German-inspired beers and sunsets over the Pacific. Part of the national chain, it was the first brewpub in Hawaii when it opened in 1994. Start by taking a free tour while listening to live ukulele music. Then, feast on the traditional sausage platter and the popular asiago garlic fries with a Hawaii-only Pele’s Tear, a Belgian-style Blonde with hibiscus flowers added for a local twist.

From there, wherever you sail for your next pint, you’ll find something refreshing, delicious, and perfectly Hawaiian.