Interview: Hawai’i Nui Brewing Company co-owner Keith Kinsey

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Craft Beer Hawaii

Hawai’i Nui Brewing Company has been on a craft beer tear. In 2007, Keith Kinsey and business partner Andy Baker bought Keoki Brewing in Kauai and merged with Big Island-based Mehana Brewing Company the following year. Hawai’i Nui, which distributes to Japan and throughout Hawaii, assumed full control of the brewery, located in an industrial area near the Hilo Airport, earlier this year.

Kinsey grew up in Orange, California, and majored in Economics and Politics at UC Santa Cruz, before working as a commercial banker. A move to Portland first exposed him to the craft brewing sector, and after he moved to Hawaii to work for Bank of Hawaii, he became CFO for Mattson Davis at Kona Brewing Co. That’s before he teamed with Baker on their own beer venture. On September 27, we spoke to Kinsey in the Hawai’i Nui Brewing Company tasting room, which is open every day but Sunday.

What’s your first beer memory?

My first beer memory was at my uncle’s house, who was actually my great uncle, who was a police officer. All the men were around a table drinking beer, and I remember I was asking to have some. They wouldn’t let me have any. Then at the very end of the day, one of my uncles said, “Come here, come here,” and he gave me a taste of this beer and I just remember it tasted like bum. It was the worst stuff in the world. My first memory of beer was one of great anticipation and a very flat ending.

What was the turning point when you figured out you might enjoy drinking beer on a regular basis?

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area to go to school, and after I graduated, I started getting into craft beer. I started tasting them, and they were so much more flavorful. I’d tried international beers, Boon and things like that. The beers were phenomenal. I was converted at actually a very young age, 28 or 9, so 25 years ago. I was converted over. Those are my memories of craft, all the different craft beers I’ve tried over the years, some of which don’t exist any longer. It’s been fun.

What’s the first year that you ever brewed?

I’m not a brewer, but the first beers I ever brewed with my brewers was Primo, when we brought it back to the States, back to Hawaii from the mainland, and brewed Primo in Hawaii. That was my first memory of brewing a new beer, something different. We no longer brew Primo. We stopped doing that last year, but it was a very good relationship.

Would you say that you have any beer mentors?

Many. I have many friends in the industry, and there are beer people out there. Alan Kornhauser, phenomenal. There are so many people I look up to. Ron Jeffries from Jolly Pumpkin. I could go on and on with all the people and I’d forget some. I’d make some of them upset. Sebastian Pastore over at Widmer. There are a number of people who have had an impact on me in the industry.

What are the biggest challenges about operating a brewery in Hawaii?

Just that. Operating a brewery in Hawaii. Logistics. You pretty much need a PhD in logistics to make it work. You have raw materials coming in from all over the world. You have to piece it altogether in the most remote place on the planet and then get it out to market. Sometimes that gets a little challenging. It takes many of us watching, and it’s taken me a decade to figure it out. It’s taken me a long time to really analyze how to do it, where to keep inventory, and when to have bottles come in. When do you have the grain come in? When do you have the hops come in? We can only ship hops during certain times of the year because it’s hot. In the tropics, they’ll get torn apart, so we only ship in the wintertime. That adds to the excitement.

Do you have room for growth in this facility?

Yes, we do. We’re actually at 55 – 60% of capacity. We can take it up to 85 or 90%, and then we’d have to start looking for a place to go. At the rate we’re growing, we’re starting to have conversations and looking at other opportunities.

What’s the production?

We’re going to do a tad over 6000 barrels this year.

Where do you enjoy drinking beer on the island of Hawaii?

Outside of my lanai, watching the sunset, I definitely love drinking over at Humpy’s, over on the Kona side. Over here, we always do Hilo Burger Joint. Whenever I get a chance, I like to go up and see Tom [Kerns] over in Waimeia. He’s a phenomenal brewer and I like to drink some of his too. Wherever I am, I like to grab a very good brew, whether it’s ours or somebody else in Hawaii who makes a very good brew.

Has anything surprised you about the beer industry since you became an owner?

Yeah, it has. Probably the biggest surprise to me has been the camaraderie that brewery owners and brewers in general have with one another. I’ve never seen it in any other industry. For example, Kona Brewing Co. needed something a couple weeks ago. I don’t know if it was hops or grain, whatever it was, it was in their warehouse within 24 hours. Same with us, we’ve had times where we’ve needed something and the next day we have it. That doesn’t exist in a competitive environment in most industries, where we’re competing with them in the marketplace – it’s very clear – but when it comes to the actual production of – for many of us – a sacred product – that doesn’t get in the way. That never gets in the way. That’s what surprises me the most, is the continual, really phenomenally good relations, even with people you don’t know, that you’ve never met before. Just this automatic brotherhood of passion for the same thing. It’s a wonderful thing, it really is.

Craft Beer Hawaii
Are you going to collaborate on any beers with other breweries on the islands?

We have, already. We collaborated on a beer, which was called Able Ale. We collaborated with Big Island Brewhouse – Tom – up in Waimeia. Ron Jeffries and I continue to talk about collaborating on a beer, and as soon as we have the time, we’re going to do it. We’ve been trying for the last year – literally – to do it, and we haven’t had time. He’s been so busy with all of his growth. We’re going to do it here in our facility. It’s a matter of getting him over here and then we’re going to turn around and do it in his facility, right behind it.

Do you know what style it will be?

We do, but we’re going to keep everybody guessing on that. We figured that out about a year ago, what we want to brew, and I think we already have approval through the TTP, through the government, to do it. We just have to get to it.

If you could only drink one more beer, what would be in your glass?

Hapa. No doubt, Hapa, every time.

How come?

It is, for me, one of the best balanced, most rounded and slightly robust beers on the market. And when I say slightly robust, it’s got enough juice, but it’s not so big or overpowering. I want a second. I just love how the browns mix the hops and malts together. For me it’s that’s balance that’s so incredible in the Hapa. That’s why it would be my last drink.

Would you pair any food with it?

Absolutely. A burger. A nice old burger. You bet. Any kind of burger. You could put blue cheese on it. You can put anything on it, and it just pulls together. It’s just lovely.

Where would you enjoy it?

Anywhere enjoying the sunset, or overlooking the ocean. That would be my favorite place. We need more of those places.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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