Rich toasted coconut and honey in beer? That'll do nicely in Honolulu,
writes Brett Atkinson.
How many Pearl Harbor nuclear engineers does it take to brew some of Hawaii's best beer?
There's no sign of BeerLab's three co-owners when I arrive after a 30-minute sunset stroll past outrigger crews practising on Honolulu's Ala Wai canal, but plenty of other beer fans have made the journey north of Waikiki to the brewery's University Ave location. It's all strip malls and cheap eats up here — BeerLab is in a former Bank of Hawaii building — and flickering neon in nearby windows announces Burmese curries, Korean barbecue, and reputedly the city's best tuna, marlin and mahi mahi.
I'm armed with a bowl of poke (raw fish salad) from Ahi Assassins Fish Co — BeerLab conveniently adopts a BYO policy for local eateries — and I'm soon sipping on surprising brews.
There are micro-breweries and then there's BeerLab. With a super-nano setup crafting less than 900 litres per batch, every week sees new beers added to the bar's eight taps. A few common threads usually feature — local ingredients could include the sweet-sour zing of liliko'i (yellow passionfruit) — and more than a few brews are named with a subtle nod to local slang. In my four-beer tasting rack, Vog Punch is an on-trend hazy IPA named after Hawaii's signature combination of volcanic steam and sea fog, while Slippahs Ah? pays homage to the island state's colloquial nickname for Jandals. Courtesy of the three owners' thoroughly Hawaiian mix of Japanese and Chinese ancestry, there's often the sly addition of Asian fruits like citrusy yuzu to their super-fresh menu of beers, sake and kombucha.
If I were a local I'd be checking out their food truck park-ups most weekends, but tonight it's time to kick on to Honolulu's newest emerging eating and drinking neighbourhood.
When forests of yacht masts and fishing boats named after Looney Tunes cartoon characters give way to colourful street art, you've probably arrived in Kaka'ako. South of raffish Chinatown and business-like Downtown, it's only a 15-minute Uber ride from the pre-mixed mai tais of Waikiki but the scene is very local. The new SALT at Kaka'ako complex features an evening's worth of eating and drinking opportunities — you'll even find New Zealand's Garage Project and Epic Brewing among the 500-plus bottled beers at the Village Tasting Room — but I'm headed a couple of blocks away to Honolulu Beerworks.
Their brews are well-crafted and ideal for an evening session in their laidback warehouse.
Local flavours also shine here — including the addition of rich toasted coconut and honey from Hawaii's Big Island — but it's their big and bold IPAs crammed with West Coast American hops that stand out. The resiny hits of Sheltered Bay IPA and Point Panic Pale Ale — named after a nearby bodysurfing break — are also popular with tonight's rowdy posse of local surfing types. And yes, the use of "dude" in Hawaii would definitely give Kiwi-as "bro" and Aussie "mate" a run for their money when it comes to shooting the breeze over a few cold ones.
More street art highlights the way northeast along Cooke St to Kaka'ako's newest brewery. A cartoon narwhal complete with barbecued sausages skewered on his single tusk competes with an urban cyclist's reworked 21st-century motto of Veni Vici Bici, and down side streets there's evidence of creativity and colour highlighting paint and panel workshops, vegan cafes, and decades-old Filipino diners.
At Aloha Brewing Company on nearby Queen St, the scene is more canine companions than meat-serving marine mammals, and a gaggle of (mostly well-behaved) dogs are sitting outside the brewery with their human buddies. Inside, it's a very different scene from Honolulu Beerworks' vibe and a hip crew of wait-staff are busy taking food and drinks orders on iPads.
Two bucks fifty buys a good-sized tasting glass, so I splash out $5 on Makai Pier Gose, a German-style beer enlivened by seawater from Waimanalo Bay, and Hefeweizen wheat beer emboldened with blue agave syrup.
Huddled beside me, a squat French bulldog is showing a tad too much interest in my kalua pork sandwich, and my own attention is drawn to the songs enlivening the bar. A soundtrack resembling a personal 1980s playlist — The Cure, the Smiths and the Stone Roses — is a brilliant coda to a great night in one of the South Pacific's best beer cities.
And after I surreptitiously drop a slice of pork, the little French dude crouched beside me looks equally happy.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Honolulu, with one-way Seat fares from $567.