Approximately 2,513 miles northeast of Kihei, Maui in frigid Albany, Oregon, I excitedly unwrap a hefty-sized gift on Christmas morning. By its shape and weight, I boldly predict that I’m the newest member of some beer of the month club. But as I tear away the festive paper, what greets me exceeds my expectations. My “wahine (Hawaiian for wife)” has transported me back to the sunny shores of Hawaii in the dead cold Northwest winter. At the foot of the tree before me glow 24 golden Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde Lagers.
Five months earlier, we sat on the brewery’s sun-drenched patio on the western slope of 10,023-ft Mount Haleakalā. Up the incline to the left, the cone of the dormant volcano disappeared above low-lying ring of foamy clouds. To the right beyond a few swaying palms, the island dropped away into Pacific waters so dazzlingly blue that only a soft-blonde pint of nice cold beer could distract me from the view.
Bikini Blonde, a well-shaped Munich Helles Lager brewed with floral hops and Pilsner and Munich malts, is a nice, easy-going complement to a hot July afternoon. Checking in at a mellow 21 IBUs, this malty craft beer leaves a slightly sweet biscuity flavor on my taste buds that I’d wager even the mainstream beer crowd would appreciate. I make a mental note to test its flavor again offset with a nice, juicy, lightly seasoned steak complemented by a south pacific sunset.
In the meantime, we’re forced to pause from drinking and daydreaming to head inside for a behind-the-scenes tour with Maui Brewing founder Garrett Marrero.
Back in January 2005, Marrero and his wife, Melanie, opened the brewery on a tight budget and a lot of faith. Looking at their thriving craft beer business today, it’s hard to guess that the Marreros haven’t always led a charmed life. “We slept on the floor of a really shitty apartment for several weeks, because we couldn’t afford a mattress,” confides Marrero. “The first mattress we bought was used. We carried it out of a crack house ‒ I’m not kidding you! Sleeping on that floor helped build character. We ran on a shoestring, and we still do. We looked at pennies, not just dimes, to be competitive here. To brew in Hawaii and to manufacture locally, all those things cost a lot more than they do on the mainland. You’d be shocked at what the cost of production here is compared to the mainland.”
Pinching pennies while avoiding the constant lure of the nearby surf in lieu of backbreaking work, the Marreros persevered. They eventually outgrew the company’s increasingly cramped 13,000-foot Lahaina facility. “From very meager beginnings, this was blood, sweat, tears and a lot of hard work on both my wife’s part and mine… and our entire team,” reflects Garrett. “We grew from 20 employees to about 90 now, and we’re continuing to grow. But I keep pointing back to the fact that we had these visions, these dreams for the company of what we wanted to be. We never deviated from our founding principles, and I think that’s what’s allowed us to become who we are today. We’re very proud that we remain an authentic Hawaiian craft beer.”
Making those uniquely local ales, lagers, and porters isn’t as easy as picking pineapples from a local plantation and tossing them into a kettle with a little malt, hops, and yeast. A lot goes into the process that produces consistently good craft beer. Marrero led us on a tour of the 42,000-square foot production facility that he opened in October 2014. He guesstimated that his company could brew 60,000 barrels of beer in the 50- and 25-barrel brew systems by 2017.
After inspecting the facility’s water filtration system that removes chlorides, fluorides and particulate, including fine pieces of lava (remember, the brewery is built on a volcano), we get a peek at the brewery laboratory. The scientist who helps solve those kinds of problems just walked in the door. Marrero introduces us to “Dr. Dre”, who runs the company’s state-of-the-art laboratory.
There is a shaker table microscope, some water baths, a centrifuge, a laminar hood, an aerobic incubator, autoclave, and other gadgets in the room. “We can measure just about everything,” says the boss, turning to Dre: “Kirk was asking earlier how we have 100-plus IBU on the Double Overhead, but technically you can’t really taste above 100.” We debate humans’ ability to detect exceedingly bitter flavors like Dogfish Head’s hopped up 658 IBU Hoo Lawd IPA. “Does a swig make your face shrivel up and turn to dust?” I ask, half seriously.
Although talking about IBUs, ABVs and other numbers is great fun, we get back to the business at hand. “The beer might start in the brew house, but if this isn’t right here, then you’re not making great beer,” emphasizes Marrero. “At the end of the day, the ROI on the lab is that there is nothing to worry about, and that means the lab is doing a really good job.” In fact, the alchemists on the production floor depend on it. “With Dr. Dre looking at the yeast and doing cell counts and viability, that tells them how much yeast to pitch into the beer that they’re brewing.” It’s time to leave the scientist to her devices, so that the microscopic critters and other ingredients continue to behave as expected.
A short stroll from the laboratory, and we find ourselves in front of a massive stainless steel vessel. “This is our coconut tank,” announces Marrero. “There’s 500 pounds of coconut sitting in there that are re-circulating in beer right now.” If we had X-ray eyes, we could watch the process that infuses the unmistakable flavor of dried white palm seed flesh into one of the most distinctive porters in the world. Marrero reports his brewery’s demand for coconut actually exceeds what the local supply chain can provide. “We go through about 15,000 pounds a quarter,” he reports. “There’s not enough coconut here, so we have to bring it in from Guam and the Philippines.”
I’m not enough of a purest to fuss about such a technicality, and most palates won’t be able to identify the island of the coconuts’ origin. In my mind, discovering Maui’s CoCoNut PorTeR, a World Beer Cup Gold Award Winner, is like being marooned on a desert island, only to learn that it’s actually a tropical paradise where palm fruit is filled with a nutty brown 6% ABV liquid. No ka ‘oi!
“The coconut porter is our top selling beer on the mainland and in most of our markets,” confirms Garrett. “That was the one that first put us on the map. It’s a robust porter, brewed with hand-toasted coconut. We do an imperial version aged in rum barrels, and we do one aged in bourbon barrels. We are the coconut porter guys.”
“Oh yes you are,” I think. “Can we just stop the tour right here and pause for another pint to confirm that?”
(Note to readers: this is an abbreviated version of the full book chapter on Maui Brewing. I just cobbled together some of its highlights and stopped short of sharing one of Garrett’s favorite recipes.)
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This post was written by Kirk Richardson.