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Brews for the Big Rock and Tears from Pele : Tenth Annual Kona Brewers Fest
By Mike Pitsker with Lisa Pitsker

It's been 10 years since the first Kona Brewers Festival and the beginnings of the craft-beer revolution on Hawaii with the opening of the Kona Brewing brewpub. It certainly doesn’t seem like that much time has passed since the inception of the best-run brewfest in the Pacific, but indeed it has, and over those years the fest has only become better.

Even as the event has grown to become a major fund-raising source for several island charities, gathering over $150,000 for its beneficiaries, it has also become the most comprehensive island source for all that is beer: Craft brews from every Hawaiian brewery, the mainland West Coast and around the world mix with the state’s best homebrew competition for a consummate brew experience. And if all that weren’t enough, the event takes place in one of the most wondrous places on Earth: my favorite “Big Rock,” the Big Island of Hawaii.

It all starts with the breweries. Every year, multitudes of brewers jostle for position on the festival’s limited participation list. Every year, several are turned away for lack of space. Most of those rejected try again the following year, so there is always a new brewery or two for each festival. This year, Six Rivers Brewing and Bear Republic Brewing visited from Northern California, and both breweries from Kauai, Waimea Brewing and Keoki Brewing, hopped islands for the event. All told, 34 breweries took part in this year’s festival.

Then there are the restaurants. Since one of the fest’s main beneficiaries is the Chefs de Cuisine, an American Culinary Federation group dedicated to the education of future chefs, the restaurant contingent is the largest of any festival of similar size I have yet experienced. This year, no less then 24 vendors signed up for the event. Food of all flavors and styles was served with a flourish and an eye toward presentation throughout the fest grounds, with booths interspersed with the brewery tables for a delicious mix of appetizers and beer. Combining the flavors of a stout with a chocolate mousse concoction, or an IPA with a crunchy pork taco, is a huge portion of the festival atmosphere; this is not just another beer sampling.

Craft brews from every Hawaiian brewery, the mainland West Coast and around the world created a consummate brew experience.

But when it comes to atmosphere, how can any festival site compare to the raw beauty of the Kona Coast? On an isthmus behind the King Kamehameha Resort, the site juts out into the blue, blue Pacific. Palms sway in the warm breeze to the sounds of local Hawaiian music. Small sailing ships and larger tour boats dot the horizon. How can one possibly visit such a paradise and not be hooked for life?
Usually, that’s how it goes. This time, however, the Ten-Year Jinx took its toll. In years past, the weather for this event has been absolutely beautiful or, at worst, overcast and slightly chilly. Most of the time it falls somewhere in the middle, with slight breezes and few clouds. But this year, as festival announcer Lyman Medeiros said, “Ten years of blessings are all falling in one afternoon.” The traditional Hawaiian blessing performed annually by local Hawaiian legend Pekelo Day and his retinue of dancers didn’t stop the deluge this year. The sky opened and the tears of the Hawaiian Goddess Pele fell on the Kona Brewers Festival.

The weatherman said the day would be “partly cloudy with scattered showers,” but there was nothing “partly” or “scattered” about the downpour that struck that Saturday afternoon. Kailua-Kona’s main drag, Ali'i Drive, became Ali'i Channel, flooding in several areas and flowing along its route until it emptied like a river into the churning Pacific. The "King Kam" fest site became a large mud puddle surrounded by flooded streets and walkways … but still the crowds came.

Even through rains that approached the torrential, people came — 1,500 strong, wrapped in ponchos or raincoats or plastic garbage-can liners, with umbrellas often forming a solid roof overhead. With faces peeking out through makeshift cover, people stood in line outside the sold-out festival and waited their turn to enter. They slogged through puddles. They dripped as they stood in beer lines. Drenched volunteers poured beer and served food to soaking revelers while the fest crew darted about, dodging raindrops and erecting improvised cover.

And through it all, the spirit of the festival remained positive. People offered to share their umbrellas with strangers, and some of the heartiest decided they might as well strip down to swimsuits and sandals; their clothes weren’t going to keep them any drier. And the beer flowed and food was served, and everyone had a grand time.

At one point, during a five-minute lull in the storm, I enjoyed a crab cake with a Maui Brewing Double IPA and watched a young guy juggle an umbrella handle, a mug of beer, a spoon and a dish of braised lamb stew. That’s entertainment! The sky opened up again at that point, but the show went on. Wet recycling stations still helped separate trash from treasure to support Recycle Hawaii’s growing statewide program. Awards were still presented to the homebrew contest winners. The fire dancer still sizzled, and the recycling-oriented Trash Fashion Show pranced along its soggy runway. We all left the fest thoroughly soaked and completely satisfied. (Sunday’s weather was perfect. Go figure.)

Weather malfunction? What weather malfunction? Mark the second Saturday of March 2006. We’ll see you next year!

Mike Pitsker is an associate editor of the Celebrator Beer News and a longtime beer-industry professional.


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