Beer Mania: Aloha Beer Co.
Hawaii entrepreneurs seize on craft beer trend with new gastropubs and microbrews
Here in Hawai‘i, we may not typically lead the way in launching trends, but we definitely know a good thing when it comes our way. And right now, we’re crazy for craft beer—specialty brews not made from giant corporations, but rather small, independent breweries that focus on creating unique flavors and personality. Local entrepreneurs are jumping into the game in a big way, with four gastropubs and microbreweries opening in Honolulu in just the past few months. Already, these new hip, fun hangouts are drawing crowds of enthused beer aficionados.
ALOHA BEER COMPANY: CRAFT BEER COMES ALIVE
By Charlotte Woolard
Dave Campbell climbs atop a hulking copper kettle in the slim brewery where since 1997, he had brewed Big Aloha beer at Sam Choy’s Breakfast, Lunch & Crab. The polished sheen of the boiler may be familiar, but the brewmaster is working on something new.
He and his business partners have launched Aloha Beer Company, and in June, opened a beer hall in an adjacent warehouse, where the eight-tap lineup features five Aloha-branded offerings and three rotating specialty selections.
“We’re brewing more styles of beer, and just a lot more of it,” Campbell says. His regular Aloha line features light and refreshing lagers and ales that match a Hawai‘i palate attuned to drinkable green-bottle beers. The specialty brews add dimension—the opportunity to sip a thick Kiawe honey porter, for example, or sample a crisp, spicy roggenbier.
It’s a good time to launch craft beer. The Brewers Association, which tracks small, independent brewers in the United States, saw sales rise 14 percent in the first half of 2012, despite the sluggish performance of the overall beer category during the same period.
The number of small breweries nationwide also continues to climb, with recent Hawai‘i launches including Aloha Beer, Kaua‘i Island Brewery & Grill, Big Island Brewhaus and Hawaiian Islands Brewing Co.
“Recently there has been a surge of new breweries,” says Thom Cornog, business development manager at Hawai‘i distributor Paradise Beverages. “People have been more willing to experiment and taste new beers. I’m definitely seeing craft beer sales go up.”
Steve Sombrero is celebrating his well-timed launch. The commercial real estate executive has been sitting on an Aloha Beer business plan he drafted in 1992, while attending the University of Hawai‘i.
“It was my executive MBA paper,” he says. “We were asked to write plans for an imaginary company.”
His vision earned him an “A,” but without capital to launch the venture, all he could do was register the Aloha Beer trademark and wait.
Two years ago, he partnered with Campbell and James H. Q. Lee, cofounder of Sam Choy’s, to fund the brand’s launch.
Aloha Beer Co. now owns the restaurant, brewery and brewpub, a symbiotic relationship in which Sam Choy’s serves Aloha Beer and also shares its kitchen with the bar.
The brewpub’s menu is eclectic, including such dishes as smoked pork, ceviche and kalbi short rib sliders—simple food meant to complement the main ingredient.
“Our primary business is beer,” Sombrero says. “We opened the beer hall to promote the beer and give customers a chance to talk to the brewmaster.”
Aloha Beer Company’s beer hall is a well-lit, airy establishment equipped with a stage and large-screen televisions. It’s a gathering place for everyone from families and young couples to pau hana crowds. Customers can sit at the bar or a table, or lounge on cushioned furniture.
“Our plan is to be Hawai‘i’s beer,” Sombrero says. “Then we want to be a beer that is sold throughout the world. We need to step up our production and bottle and can beers. We need to be the beer company that is [working] with all of the Hawai‘i companies that are reaching out to global markets.”
It’s an ambitious plan. In addition to scouting for an on-island bottling and canning facility, Sombrero says Aloha Beer plans to launch a Waikiki beer café with a menu that transitions from morning coffee and malasadas to evening brews and pub food. He’s working with tour companies to bring international tourists to the brewpub and push the Aloha Beer name into the global lexicon. He’s also looking to take Aloha Lager to the West Coast, Canada and Japan next year.
“We’re taking a huge risk, but we’re confident,” Sombrero says. “The most successful beer brands were launched in a poor economy.”
The Hawai‘i market has responded well to the new brand, the partners say. Production doubled within the first few months, and the onsite brewery eventually will need to be expanded.
The company also has entered the wholesale market, earning spots on the taps at area bars and also placing glass growlers that contain about a six-pack of its Aloha Lager on the shelves at Whole Foods Kailua. The growlers and kegs can be cleaned and refilled at the brewery.
All this growth amplifies the reach of Campbell’s long-term aesthetic.
“I brew beer for Hawai‘i,” says the Honolulu native, who has earned a reputation as a leader in the state’s homebrew and craft brewery circles. “It’s a real artisanal relationship. You pour a lot of your ideas into what a beer should taste like. When you see people enjoying it, it’s amazing.”
Aloha Beer Company
580 N. Nimitz Highway
Photos courtesy Dave Miyamoto
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