2005 | REGIONAL | WEST COAST
Keoki Brewing Company : Change Can Do You Good
By Mike Pitsker w/Lisa Pitsker
In the last issue of the Celebrator, I raved on
about Kauai’s winter rain and shades of green and changes,
those necessary and sometimes sweet harbingers of freshness,
and if you missed it, shame on you! We were enjoying a quiet
vacation on the Garden Island, listening to the rain beat
a tune on the roof, watching rainbows apologize for the inconvenience,
and enjoying some great island hospitality.
We’d already run across several locations where Keoki
Brewing Company brands were available, both on draft and
bottled. We had a few such beers during happy hour and bought
a six-pack for the condo’s fridge. When I finally spoke
on the phone with the brewery’s very busy owner, George
Wells, he was delighted to have us visit.
“We’ve been getting the beer exactly where we
want it,” George beamed as he poured a fresh pint of
the brew for us. “It’s been a long, slow process,
but changes can’t be forced. The Kauai Sunset [amber]
is fine, the best I can make it, but the Kauai Gold was a
little heavier than I wanted it, and I was looking for more
hop presence, so I changed the recipe until it was right.”
While George was talking, his assistant brewer flitted around
the brewhouse, checking levels as he filtered a batch of Gold.
“Keola has been the best assistant I’ve had,”
said George. Keola Taniguchi simultaneously filtered the batch
and cleaned the boiler, scurrying between the raised boiler
platform and the concrete slab bearing the weight of the conditioning
and bright tanks.
George grinned and returned to his story. “My wife,
Jan, and I moved here about six and a half years ago,”
he said. “We’d been retired for 18 years, traveling
a lot, visiting Kauai three or four times a year, before we
decided we wanted to move here. I started looking for something
to keep me busy — to get involved with something. I
thought I’d work at brewing maybe a couple of days a
week.” He chuckled. “I’ve never worked so
hard in all my life.”
We watched Keola adjust the flow through the filter. “I
had trouble with several brewers I hired at first. Some were
well schooled but just didn’t get the job done. Some
just didn’t want to work. None of them understood what
I wanted to accomplish. After several brewer changes, I eventually
decided I had to do the brewing myself or the beer wouldn’t
be what I wanted.” George has no formal brewing training;
he never went to school or apprenticed with another brewer.
“I don’t know anything about brewing,” he
admitted, “except what I’ve read. But I believe
brewing is intuitive, like cooking.”
George self-distributes his brands on Kauai. “I had
some trouble with the major distributors. They were unable
to devote the necessary effort to my brands, and I didn’t
see any increase in market share. They really wanted me to
give the beer away. So I decided to self-distribute. I scaled
back to just Kauai, distributing draft and bottles.”
His production is still small; he uses a hand-bottling system
that limits his output to about 700 cases per month, and he
kegs about 5,000 gallons a month, or about 160 barrels, but
his profits grew through self-distribution. “Actually,”
George said, “my losses shrank.”
Then the big change occurred. Kona Brewing Company teamed
up with the Redhook/Widmer Brothers sales crew and went nationwide.
“The Miller/Coors distribution house here in the islands
lost the [Kona] brands to the Budweiser house, and they were
not happy at all. The Paradise Beverages [Miller/Coors] general
manager came to visit me and said, ‘I’ll leave
you the Kauai market and distribute your draft beer on all
the other islands.’ They are really motivated to go
after Kona draft handles now.” The big surge has not
yet happened, but these things take time. “Kona is a
good brand, and the customer is not going to drop them just
because the distributor asks them to. But I’m patient.
And it doesn’t really matter to Kona, in the long run.
Los Angeles alone has twice the population of the entire state
of Hawaii,” said George, “Kona has bigger fish
George’s retail sales growth is his second priority.
“My wife, Jan, has been working hard on the Web site,”
he said. “She has it looking sharp, and we have some
good merchandise.” Visit keokibrewing.com. George and
Jan have also been working on changing the label design, and
the new labels look great.
Keoki brands recently became available in Japan; the bottled
product is contract-brewed by Abita Brewing in Louisiana,
where it can be pasteurized for transport. But George is busy
with his small tropical island, keeping up with demand and
rolling with the changes. And sometimes, change can do you
Keoki Brewing Co.
Mike Pitsker is an associate editor of the
Celebrator Beer News and a longtime beer industry professional.