Peerless pier-side beers
EVER SINCE the Kona Brewing Co.'s new pub opened on Oahu two months ago, I've gotten the same response almost every time I asked someone about their experience there -- the beer's great, but the menu isn't anything to write home about.
Chalk it up to expectations, I guess. Food critics aren't beer drinkers, for the most part, and East Honolulu residents aren't really the type to gather up their friends and head to a bar for pitchers and a few games of darts or pool. They're looking for a nice place to sit with a cocktail and enjoy their surroundings while enjoying a diverse selection of pupus and entrees served up in a creative fashion.
Kona Brewing Co.
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 4 to 11 p.m. Sundays
Location: Koko Marina Shopping Center
Unfortunately, that place isn't the Kona Brewing Co. Sure, there's approximately 7,000 square feet of outdoor and indoor dining space overlooking the docks at Koko Marina that provides a fantastic atmosphere for customers to enjoy. But you can't order a mixed drink here, and you're simply out of luck if the pizzas and sandwiches on the menu don't float your culinary boat. Keep in mind that the pub, much like this column, is all about the beer.
AND IT'S when the discussion turns to beer that KBC starts to come into its own. Two dozen taps provide a state-of-the-art transportation system from the restaurant's keg storage area to the bar where customers are served, and also help to keep the beer as cold as possible.
Nine different brews are currently on tap here, with two other seasonal offerings that rotate every few months. Before the pub opened on Oahu, all we could get our hands on were the bottled versions of KBC's Big Wave Golden Ale, Longboard Lager and Fire Rock Pale Ale. Since those beers are brewed and bottled on the mainland for shipment to Hawaii, however, the taste is definitely different from what flows out of the taps these days at Koko Marina. While still not brewed on the premises, the kegs that are brought into the restaurant are shipped by boat from Kona Brewing Co.'s Big Island location every few days.
Other beers regularly on tap include the Lilikoi Wheat Ale, Duke's Blond Ale, Lavaman Red Ale, Castaway IPA, Black Sand Porter and Hula Hefeweizen. If you're looking for a beer that's smooth and crisp, try the Big Wave Golden Ale or Duke's Blond Ale. Both are good choices for Hawaii's Bud Light and Coors Light drinkers.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STAR-BULLETIN.COM
Danny “Uncle” Sam, right, and bartender Jake Greenslitt serve with a smile at the Kona Brewing Company at Koko Marina Shopping Center.
Being a fan of darker beers, I was drawn towards the Black Sand Porter. This stuff has a strong malted flavor that goes down extraordinarily smoothly for a brew that looks more like a Coca-Cola when poured into a glass. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Lavaman Red Ale, with its mix of Pacific Northwest and European hops giving it a slightly sweet taste while retaining a bite to remind you that you're drinking a quality-made beer.
The two seasonal beers currently available at the Kona Brewing Co. are the Koko Loco Coconut Stout and Da Grind Buzz Kona Coffee Stout. They're both dark beers, but the coconut milk added to the Koko Loco cuts the bitter taste in half, compared to the Da Grind Buzz, and gives it a creamy feel in your mouth as it goes down. If you're not sure which one to try, be sure to ask your server for a taste of each one before you order. Another option is to get the four-beer sampler ($6.50), which gives you a choice of four KBC beers served in six-ounce glasses. It might not be the best idea to mix large quantities of different beers when you're out for a few, but give the sampler a try if you're undecided and need some help making up your mind.
IF YOU decide to visit, my advice is to skip the dining experience at the Kona Brewing Co. and head straight for the bar. A quasi-lounge is located around the corner to the right of the front entrance, with five tables and another four seats near an open window complementing the 20 seats or so that surround the bar. Grab a seat there facing the waterfront and you'll get an awesome view of Koko Marina while being able to people-watch and talk story with the bartenders on duty. Plus, you can still order off the menu if you end up getting hungry!
Live entertainment is also featured on Sunday nights here from 5 to 8 p.m. While others have complained that the added noise ruins the dinner experience, I think it's a nice touch and helps to liven up the room. Sure, you might not be able to carry on a conversation at a table right next to where the band is performing, but my drinking partner had no problem chatting up two ladies sitting next to us at the bar while Round and Round did their thing last weekend.
Get things to do?
Other than eat, drink and be merry, there isn't much to do here. A couple of pool tables could easily fit in the area just mauka of the bar, but that would mean taking out some of the tables used to seat customers. As long as KBC is maintaining its focus as a restaurant first and pub second, it doesn't look like there will be changes made anytime soon, but it definitely wouldn't hurt to add a television or two in the bar/lounge area.
What about the grinds?
Okay, I'll admit that there isn't anything very special about the menu at the Kona Brewing Co. Pizzas range in price from $8.99 for a 10-inch small cheese pie, to $22.99 for a 14-inch large "Pele's Own" pizza with smoked mozzarella cheese, andouille sausage, rock shrimp, roasted red peppers and roasted onions. If you like California Pizza Kitchen-style pizzas, you'll enjoy what KBC has to offer. I also had no complaints about the porterhouse dip sandwich ($9.99) that I ordered, and my drinking partner couldn't stop raving about his kalua pork sandwich ($8.99). Make sure to save room for dessert, too -- the Big Island ice cream they serve is heavenly, and even makes for a pretty interesting ice cream float when mixed with some of the Lilikoi Wheat Ale ($5.25). The only miss was the ahi poke ($10.99), which lacked taste and couldn't be salvaged with an extra dousing of shoyu.
And the help?
For someone who visits a different bar each week, it says a lot when I describe the service I got at KBC as one of the best experiences in the time I've been doing these reviews. The bartenders on duty last Sunday, Jake and Cheree, had their hands full with other customers at the bar and servers calling out drink orders, but were still more than happy to stop and tell us about the beers on tap and the different pupus on the menu. Jake even took the time to introduce himself and shake our hands, something I haven't had happen to me in a very long time. The lengths these two went to in order to make me feel like a regular easily canceled out whatever negative reaction I had to waiting for my beer to get poured or my food to arrive.
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Barfly appears every Friday in Star-Bulletin Weekend.
E-mail Jason Genegabus at firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions of neighborhood bars to visit.