Sometimes the stars align and everything goes your way. Other times a cold front and a low pressure zone converge, dump 5 inches of rain in 30 hours and someone hits your rental car in a parking lot. My trip to Maui started out as the latter. Fortunately, things got better.
During my week-long escapades around the island I spotted attractive aluminum cans of something called “Island Root Beer” made by the Maui Brewing Company. I had never seen this root beer before. There’s a good reason for that; Maui Brewing currently only sells it in Hawaii. It’s produced on Maui and made from (mostly) Hawaiian ingredients. It’s the most Hawaiian root beer I’ve had.
Most soda connoisseurs oppose aluminum cans. I’ll agree that they’re not sexy, but in the context of a brewing company in the middle of the Pacific ocean it makes a lot of sense. There’s a Ball Can factory on Oahu which not only keeps the supplier close, it keeps the weight of the product down. Have you ever seen a couple pallets of empty aluminum cans? Look below.
I took that picture while touring their brewery in Kihei. That was super interesting, but I shouldn’t go any further before describing the root beer. There are three distinct layers of flavor that Maui Brewing has developed. The first thing I could taste was a pronounced and floral honey. It wasn’t generically sweet, it had some character. The honey melted into a medium-bodied sassafras foundation. This is the one component not attributed to Hawai’i. It’s purchased as an extract from a mainland producer. This “root beer” bodied is finished with a wave of strong vanilla and cane sugar. The whole beverage together is kind of floral with a mid-level bite of roots and herbs. While the vanilla and cane sugar stay with you for a bit, I found the Island Root Beer to be fairly light on the palate and refreshing.
Remember that whole bit about having bad luck at the beginning of my trip? I had the opposite experience at the end. Maui Brewing’s production facility was about 3 miles from my condo so I sent an email to the company to see if I could stop by. Not only did they invite me over, it turned out that the one day I was able to visit happened to be the day they were making root beer. This currently only happens once every three months.
I won’t go into too much detail about the brewing/cooking process, but I will say that it was the most sophisticated brewery that I’ve toured. It’s a gleaming warehouse of networked machinery moving raw ingredients via computer controls between massive kettles, cooling tanks, and ultimately to a canning station. It’s incredible. I saw the buckets of root beer extract, the car-sized sacks of Hawaiian sugar, skyscrapers of empty cans, and flashing sensor readings of sugar content and other analytics. Take a look:
I recommend visiting the brewery if you’re on the island and have an interest. Their tour is focused on beer, but the root beer shares some of the process. You can also sample the root beer as close to the source as possible. It’ll cost you $3.50 for a glass, or $7 if you want it without ice. I’m not kidding. Their root beer isn’t cheap to produce, so I’m not shocked by the price.
I have some concerns about the product. Number one, the last commercial Hawaiian sugar plantation shut down a couple months ago. Maui Brewing wasn’t ready to disclose what their solution to this supply problem, but if they can’t find a local source will they be able to retain the character? It’s not only part of their branding, it’s part of their flavor profile. Number two is similar. The bee population in Hawaii faces the same crisis as elsewhere in the world. How will effect their honey source? Number three, will this ever be available off island? I’ve heard rumors of a possible line of sodas in the future… I’ll keep you posted.
I loved Island Root Beer, and I loved Maui Brewing Co. They’ve been tremendously successful (number one small business in the US) and now they can add a 9 out of 10 from my rating scale to their list of accomplishments.
Check out their brewery in Kihei, visit their brewpub in Lahaina (or Waikiki on Oahu), or grab a can of Island Root Beer from a local restaurant or grocery store. I found it at the Tin Roof restaurant, Nalu’s, and an ABC Store in Kihei. If you look hard enough, you’ll find one too. Aloha!
Visited in May 2017
To read other reviews of Maui stuff, click here.