Hawaiian Beer Manufacturers Say Aloha to Sustainability

Elisabeth Sherman

Generally speaking, brewing beer isn’t an environmentally friendly practice: it wastes tons of water and in North America the carbon footprint for a single 355 milliliter can is about 320 grams of CO2, according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable. But while most people aren’t thinking about pollution when they’re having a pint, some breweries are looking out for their local communities and the environment. This is certainly true in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s beer brewing scene is relatively small—there are 18 craft breweries in the state—but that number has grown quickly: in 2011, there were only seven, marking a 157 percent increase over eight years. But brewing beer in Hawaii isn’t cheap, and the fragile environment needs special care.

Hawaiian brewers face a special set of challenges, particularly when it comes to water and energy. A typical craft brewery produces (at best) around three gallons of wastewater for every gallon of beer, while electricity costs in Hawaii are more than twice the price in mainland USA. With limited resources in the remote location, some breweries have found inventive solutions to combat these issues, while also boosting the local economy. 

Going off the grid

In 2019, Maui Brewing Company will become the only grid-independent brewery in Hawaii, with solar panels covering around 50 percent of the brewery’s roof, biodiesel generators powering production, and a battery-powered backup system. That makes a huge difference in a place where most energy comes from fossil fuels imported from mainland USA.

Grid independence means the brewery isn’t stressing the local power grid, and in case of a power outage emergency like a major hurricane, the brewery’s grid can be turned on to keep the locals hydrated—only not with beer.

“We can fire up our canning line and put canned water out to the community. That’s something that no [other brewery] can do,” says Garrett Marrero, founder of Maui Brewing Company.

In the future, Marrero hopes to build a wastewater treatment plant to recycle wastewater back into brewing production and also generate another form of clean electricity. Marrero’s goal is to reuse half of all the water that comes through the brewery.

Catching carbon dioxide

CO2—both in emissions and harnessing the gas itself—poses another unique challenge for breweries in Hawaii. To keep costs down and prevent harmful gases from pouring into the atmosphere, Maui Brewing Company has set up its own CO2 capture system. Instead of purchasing extra CO2 (which carbonates the beer) from a petroleum plant, the brewery uses tanks to collect gas expelled during the fermentation process. With this system, gas is captured, scrubbed with water, and stored. Marrero estimates the brewery will save 600,000 pounds of CO2 within the first year of the system’s operation.

On the Big Island, Kona Brewing Company is hoping to implement a similar system at a new brewery, set to open later this year. Right now, Kona imports CO2 from the mainland, but senior director of operations Billy Smith hopes that will change once the brewery has the space to set up its own CO2 reclamation tanks. This technology saves money, too: CO2 costs Hawaiian businesses about six times what it does on the mainland.

However, Smith’s ultimate goal is for Kona Brewing Company to be energy positive: the new brewery will use a 335-kilowatt solar power grid system that he says “will take a big bite” out of the brewery’s energy use: one hour of sunshine will power the brewery long enough to produce nearly 7,000 cans of beer. Just like at Maui Brewing Company, that solar power will be stored in batteries when the brewery isn’t in operation.

Image via facebook.com/KonaBrewingCo

Having a cheers with the locals

Sustainability works best when the whole community benefits, so a central focus for many of local craft brewers is partnering with local farmers. Most breweries give away their spent grain to nearby farmers to feed livestock, reducing landfill waste. In turn, the farmers grow produce the brewers use in special infusions.

At Honolulu Beerworks, for instance, founder Geoff Siedeman’s Pia Mahi’ai Honey Citrus Saison is a tribute to Oahu’s farmers. This riff on a typical Belgian-style ale gets its flavor from all local fruit, including tangerines, lemons, limes, lemongrass, and honey from the Big Island. Kona Brewing Company worked with nearby Ahualoa Farms on its Chocolate Macadamia Nut Stout, while the coffee for its Pipeline Porter comes from Cornwell Estates.

“Wherever we can, we buy local. Passionfruit, oranges, guava, lilikoi, and pineapple,” adds Marrero. “It doesn’t really make sense not to. We pride ourselves on using natural fruit as opposed to using extracts to add flavor.”

For Siedeman, sustainable business practices go beyond just the actual beer production process.  He uses his resources to support local artists and causes with both exposure and money. For instance, after coming across an octopus painting by Hawaiian artist Kai’ili Kaulukukui, he hired him to create labels for four of the brewery’s main beers. Siedeman also partnered with several tattoo artists to design labels for the Liquid Art Tap pale ale, which helps fund the Pu’uhonua Society and Aupuni Space, two organizations providing creative opportunities for Hawaiian artists.

Image via Honolulu Beerworks

Siedeman also uses his cannery to produce limited release beers which benefit causes with an intimate connection to Honolulu Beerworks. For example, one of his assistant brewers is originally from Chico, California. She came to him hoping to find a way to support families who lost their homes in the recent California wildfires, and they ended up creating the Resilience IPA which benefits Sierra Nevada’s Camp Fire Relief Fund. Meanwhile, partial proceeds from the Pussy Grabs Back Extra Pale Ale go to the Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit supporting gender equality in the beer industry.

Sustainability can sometimes seem like a far-off concept, but when you talk to folks who live and work in Hawaii, the mission just feels more personal. Brewers on the islands must remain committed to making sure the beer business is tenable in the long run by necessity. As Smith puts it, what makes Hawaiian beer so special is that it represents “a sense of place.” It’s important to keep Hawaii’s sense of place preserved—and the good news is, the Hawaiian government knows it. In 2015, Governor David Ige signed a bill directing utility companies to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Couple that with sustainable local businesses like these brewers, and Hawaii is a bright spot in a gloomy future threatened by climate change. Hawaiian beer reflects that.

People really identify with Hawaiian craft beers. They come out here and they have an amazing experience,” Smith explains. “And for people who haven’t been here, [our beer] represents the dream. You take a sip and think about Hawaii.”