Traveling is all about getting a taste of things: local culture, local history and customs, local food ... and local beer. It's the universal beverage, brewed from Siberia to South America, in every form from the workingman's can to the finest craft brews. Cruising is the ideal way to take a beer tour, since nearly every port has at least a few good cantinas, if not a brewpub, brewery, or other specialized pilgrimage site. And, of course, the ship also includes a designated driver to get you from port to port.
So let's sail. Port of call today? Hawaii.
Did You Say Hawaii?
Yeah, Hawaii. That's the first place that comes to mind when you think about fine craft brews, right?
Wrong. You think of the Pacific Northwest -- which is OK because that still fits with the story, which goes like this:
Once upon a time, circa 1994, father-and-son entrepreneurs Cameron Healy (aka Nirbhao Singh Khalsa) and Spoon Khalsa came to Hawaii's Big Island with the idea of opening a small brewery. Call it their "I need something to wash this down with" moment, since Healy had spent the previous sixteen years making salty snacks at a little Oregon company he called Kettle Foods, home of the famous Kettle Chips natural potato chips. They packed their first batch of beer in 1995 and a year later recruited Portland restaurant manager Mattson Davis to help run things. In 1999 they hired brewmaster Rich Tucciarone, formerly of Colorado's Breckenridge Brewery, and began creating a line of beers infused with the aloha spirit.
And that's how the Kona Brewing Company (www.konabrewingco.com) was born.
Today, you never have to go far in Hawaii to find their beer. In fact, you can often find it aboard cruise ships sailing the islands too. In thirteen short years, they've leveraged some savvy marketing and a few growlers of good karma to become the number-one brewer in Hawaii and the 32nd largest in the United States, with distribution in most of the western states plus New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Missouri, Japan, and China. All told, the company brewed up 1,165,000 gallons in 2007, with the bottled stuff created in the Healys' hometown of Portland (a financial must for stateside distribution) and the draught brewed at the company's original digs in Kailua Kona.
Visiting the Brewpub
To follow the stream to its source, take a tender into port when you get to Kona, walk up Ali'i Drive, and follow the signs to the Kona Brewery & Pub, hidden along Kuakini Highway in a former newspaper pressroom. Its industrial location belies its homey ambiance, with seating both indoors and at a 175-seat outdoor patio lit by tiki torches, surrounded by lush tropical plants, and prowled by Hawaii's ubiquitous little green geckos. Local and visiting musicians perform here every Sunday evening. Inside, under a corrugated tin roof salvaged from an old distillery, you can sit at a bar fashioned from a mahogany log that washed ashore in Kailua Bay in 1998, or at tables made from old cable spools.
The highlight of the menu is eighteen specialty hand-tossed pizzas, all made from grain left over from the brewing process, plus a variety of ingredients purchased from local farmers. Most of the pizzas stick to recipes that would be at home at a traditional New York pizzeria, but a few throw in Hawaii-centric ingredients like macadamia nut pesto, pineapple, and pork roasted in a traditional imu pit. There are also barbecue sandwiches, meaty entrees, and various pupu starters and sides, such as Naahehu nachos (made with yellow-corn Kettle Chips, of course), Kona crab cakes, a puna pie made with goat milk from the Big Island's Puna district, and spicy chicken wings marinated in the brewery's own Fire Rock Pale Ale.
And that brings us to the point of all this: the beer. At the brewpub, visitors have access to the whole range of Kona's award-winning brews, including some available nowhere else. At the next-door brewery, you can also take a tour of the works, learning how they convert Hawaiian water, barley, hops, and yeast into enough beer to keep some 4,000 kegs full and circulating around the state's bars and restaurants.The brews are designed to satisfy every taste, from manly porters and stouts to an exceptionally girly, passion fruit-flavored wheat ale.
At the light, "refreshing on a warm Hawaiian day" end of the scale, are five brews: Duke's Blonde Ale, a light, bubbly brew with a pale straw color; Big Wave Golden Ale, a pale, light- to medium-bodied ale with a subtle fruit flavor; Longboard Island Lager, a crisp, smooth pale lager; Wailua Wheat, the girly beer brewed with passionfruit for a slightly perfumy citrus effect; and Hula Hefewiezen, a darker but still fruity beer with hints of banana.
Fire Rock Pale Ale steps thing up to the medium- to full-bodied level, with a dark copper color and distinctly hoppy flavor. Lavaman Red Ale mixes Pacific Northwest and European hops with a hint of chocolate malt, and presents with a rich, coppery red color and white head. Castaway IPA is a bronze ale that's dry-hopped (aged with whole hop flowers after fermentation) for a strong, hoppy flavor, balanced with a nice maltiness.
Now let's go over to the dark side. Kona's Black Sand Porter is a smooth, dark drink with strong roasted and chocolate malt flavors. It's also one of their strongest, at 6.8% alcohol. Pipeline Porter is a dark, roasty porter brewed with Kona coffee grown at the family-owned Cornwell Estate, 15 minutes from the brewery. It's named for the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu, where big-wave surfing began.
For an even more powerful coffee punch, try Da Grind Buzz Kona Coffee Imperial Stout, a deep, black, aromatic brew with a taste of roasted malts, chocolate, and Kona coffee. It's got an 8.7% alcohol content, but even that pales next to the brewery's heavyweight champ, Old Blowhole Barley Wine, a powerful amber brew with a fruity aroma and malty overtones. They serve it in small doses in a brandy snifter, owing to its 13% alcohol content.
Da Grind and Old Blowhole are among the several seasonal specialty brews Kona whips up throughout the year. Another, Kona's Big Island Ginger Beer, is the second-run "small beer" made from the grain husks left over from Old Blowhole's mashing process. The brewery adds fresh ginger root grown on the Big Island during the brewing and conditioning stages to produce a light-brown brew with a big ginger bouquet and a 5.7% alcohol content.
Nine to twelve brews are typically on tap at the brewpub, usually including seasonals. If you take the tour (held at 10:30am and 3pm, Monday through Friday), you can try them all afterward. Alternatively, you can order a sampler of four 6-ounce glasses for $8, or just splurge and start hitting the pints. What the hell? It's not like you have to drive back to the ship. Mahalo!
Kona has a second brewpub, located in Honolulu at 7192 Kalanianaole Hwy., about twelve miles from the cruise pier at the Aloha Tower complex. Both the Kona and Honolulu pubs are open daily from 11am to 10 or 11pm.
Brewery Tours in Other Cruise Ports
Some people enjoy going to wineries for a polite, civilized tasting, but give me a nice brewery tour any day, with an on-site bar for free samples after. Many cruise lines offer tours of the following breweries, often in conjunction with other local attractions or active options such as bicycle tours. Most of the breweries also offer regular tours for visitors dropping by on their own, but check before you go.
In Juneau, Alaska, the Alaska Brewing Company (www.alaskanbeer.com) offers low-key tours, and the logo-wear at their shop is even pretty hip. The brewery started small in 1986 when Geoff and Marcy Larson had the idea of bringing a local gold-rush-era brew back to life. It worked, and now Alaskan Amber, Pale Ale, Stout, ESB, IPA, Winter Ale, Summer Ale, and Smoked Porter are found everywhere in Alaska, and are mighty tasty too. At the brewery, try a "vertical tasting" of several years' batches of the Smoked Porter. The combination of the smoked alder-wood flavor and the yeast added to the mix results in a beer that ages over time, like wine, becoming distinctly mellower with the years. As the brewery notes, "As it ages, the smoke becomes more of a subtle background note. Around the third and fourth years the beer's other flavors such as sherry, currant, raisin, and toffee-like nuances come forward. The fifth year sees the reemergence of the smoky character to the forefront." In a word: Yum.
In the small town of Haines, Alaska, the tiny Haines Brewing Company (tel. 907/766-3823) is a stop on the Taste of Haines shore excursion, which also visits a smoked-salmon shop to sample and learn how the stuff is prepared. Brews produced include Dalton Trail Pale Ale, Eldred Rock Amber, IPA, Lookout Stout, Scotch Ale, Holiday Spice Ale, and Birch Boy Summer Ale, the latter made with newly picked spruce tips from the Chilkat River Valley.
Small-ship cruises in the Pacific Northwest allow beer-lovers to visit the Full Sail Brewing Company in Hood River, Oregon (www.fullsailbrewing.com). Located right on the Columbia River, with an outdoor deck where you can grab lunch of dinner in summer, the brewery produces the award-winning Full Sail Amber, Pale Ale, and Rip Curl copper ale, as well as seasonal brews like Halfpipe Porter (winter), Switchback Ale (spring/summer), Wassail Ale (don't open till Christmas), and Old Boardhead Barleywine Ale. A number of different beers are on tap for visitors. They offer free tours daily at 1, 2, 3, and 4pm.
On the other side of the continent, Alexander Keith's Nova Scotia Brewery in Halifax (www.keiths.ca) is a marvel. When I was there a few years back, I followed a simple sign that said "Brewery Tour" and instead of the typical walk-through of a modern plant with a few historical exhibits, found myself in a full-blown theatrical production. Keith's has restored significant portions of its plant to the way they looked when Mr. Keith established his business in 1820, and costumed actors are on hand to take you through grain storehouses, historic brewing displays, and residential rooms en route to the 19th-century barroom for a sip (or two, or three) of Keith's brew. They even perform period music while you sip. The tour is offered daily throughout the afternoon in spring and summer, weekends only in winter, and costs $15.95.
Across the water, beer lovers won't know where to start in Dublin, Ireland, but the Guinness Brewery's Guinness Storehouse (www.guinness-storehouse.com) is as good a place as any. Guinness has been headquartered at its famous St. James's Gate Brewery since 1759, but today tours of the brewery itself are no longer offered. Instead, visitors can explore a nearby 19th-century building that houses an audiovisual presentation showing how the famous stout is made, plus bar where visitors can sample a glass. Two related galleries and a restaurant are also on site. It's open daily year-round, and tickets are €15.
In Amsterdam, the Heineken Experience (www.heinekenexperience.com) is currently closed for renovation, but is scheduled to reopen soon. When it does, you can get a high-energy self-guided multimedia tour of the former Heineken brewing facilities (which date from 1867 and once produced more than 26 million gallons annually) and take in new attractions like a mini-brewery, a tasting bar, and a "stable walk" where visitors will be able to view Heineken's iconic Shire horses. Heineken's brewing operation moved to other facilities in 1988, but the original brewery's million-glass fermentation tanks are still here, along with the multistory malt silos and all manner of vintage brewing equipment and implements.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, the Carlberg Brewery Visitors Center & Jacobsen Brewhouse (www.visitcarlsberg.dk) offers tours of Gamle Carlsberg, the old part of the Carlsberg brewery, established in 1847, with an introduction to Carlsberg's history, the history of the plant's architecture, employee history, and research by the Carlsberg Laboratory. The Jacobsen Brewhouse offers a live exhibition on beer culture and classic brewing skills, while the bar gives you the opportunity to sample while viewing the giant copper kettles that brew up specialty batches. The center is open Tues-Sun 10am-4pm, and tickets cost $10.50.
In Prague, the Pilsner Urquell's Plzen Brewery (www.pilsner-urquell.com) offers a one-hour tour of the refurbished brewhouse that includes a 15-minute film and visits to the fermentation cellars and brewing rooms. Tours are offered daily. One block away, the Pivovarskmuzeum U Fleku (U Fleku Beer Museum, www.ufleku.cz) is a former 15th-century malthouse with displays of brewery machinery, tools, tanks, and other historical mementos of beer production in Prague. Tours are offers Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm. Tickets cost $3.
Other brewery tours offered in Europe include visits to the Rostock Brewery (www.rostocker.de) in Warnemunde, Germany, and the Mack Brewery (www.mack.no) in Tromso, Norway -- the northernmost brewery in the world.
In the Caribbean, several regional brewers offer tours, often as part of shore excursions, including the Banks Brewery in Barbados (www.banksbeer.com) and the Carib Brewery in Trinidad (www.caribbeer.com).
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