Hawai‘i’s Boutique Booze Business

Jan 29, 2016

Credit Brian Lauer / Flickr

When it comes to business in Hawai‘i, the focus is often on the hospitality industry. And while that still remains a pillar of the local economy, there has been some quiet but steady growth in the production of wine, liquor and beer.  Here’s Pacific Business News editor in chief A. Kam Napier with an inside look at the industry.

Our local alcohol industry has been growing steadily at nearly 3% per year.  Across the state, you’ll find vintners like MauiWine making wine, or brewers like Kona Brewing Co. making their own suds.  There are distilleries, such as Ocean Vodka and Kōloa rum.  There’s even a Kaua‘i business that makes and sells its own mead.

The scale of the industry may surprise you.  Hawai‘i’s 7 breweries, collectively employ more than 5,000 people and generate an economic output of $61 million.  Together, they produce nearly 28,000 barrels of beer a year.

The State’s nine distillers produce nearly a million cases of liquor each year.

Wine making is the toughest of these, with just two vintners in operation.  While you can grow just about anything in Hawai‘i, wine grapes require a cold snap to mature properly, and those conditions are hard to find.  Still, Volcano Winery alone is able to produce 45,000 bottles of wine each year.

The industry is growing up hand-in-hand with the farm-to-table movement and store, bars, and restaurants love the locally made angle.  So do tourists, eager to find something they can’t get at home. According to the bartenders we spoke with – there can be challenges to keep the production local.  For example Kōloa Rum Co. had been getting its sugar cane from HC&S on Maui.  But rum makers knew that sugar’s days were numbered so they began planting their own sugar cane on about eight acres 2 years ago.  Now that HC&S, the last commercial sugar operation, is shutting down this year, Kōloa rum is preparing to switch to its own supply.