The non-believer could call it a coincidence, but, for the faithful, who still believe that the aina (land) possesses power, Maui Brewing Co.’s Uala Lager is magic in liquid form. This small-batch beer is brewed exclusively for the Old Lahaina Luau using uala (sweet potato) that was locally grown on Maui at Hoaloha Farms in Waikapu. But at the time of conception, unbeknownst to the 60-acre farm, the luau in Lahaina and the brewery in Kihei that created the Uala Lager is that the beer is actually a modern reincarnation of ‘uala ‘awa‘awa, a beverage made by the early Hawaiians out of fermented sweet potatoes.
According to Kawika Freitas, general manager of Old Lahaina Luau, the Uala Lager is very popular with their guests. It drinks smooth like a typical lager, but has a sweet finish. It tastes like Maui Brewing Co.’s Bikini Blonde, with more body. The sweet potato beer is so popular that the brewery and brewpub can’t regularly stock its taps because most of the Uala Lager is consumed by guests at the Old Lahaina Luau. Considering the popularity of this locally made craft beer, it’s funny to think that it was originally supposed to be made from kalo (taro). The goal of the collaboration was to create a brew that was made from a native plant or food, and taro seemed like the natural ingredient, but Hoaloha Farms wasn’t really into it, says Freitas. Hawaiians revere kalo as a relative because the first taro plant came from the grave of Haloa, the first kanaka (person), and son of Papa (earth mother) and Wakea (sky father).
“It was disrespectful in a way for us to use kalo [to make beer],” explained Freitas, “so we went back to [Hoaloha Farms] and asked them what they would suggest that our ancestors planted, and he said sweet potato.” Maui Brewing Co. liked the concept and made the beer.
Hawaiians were well aware of the sweet potato’s nutritional value, bringing this purple carbohydrate with them on the canoe when they settled Hawaiii. Like taro, uala was a staple to the early Hawaiians and its tuber could be baked, steamed or boiled for consumption; its leaves were also edible. Like the early Hawaiians, Maui Brewing Co.’s founder and CEO Garrett Marrero recognized that the sweet potato could be fermented and made into an intoxicating concoction.
At the brewery in Kihei, the uala is steamed, peeled and thrown into the mash tub just like grain, converting the starches into sugars so it ferments. It took over half a year to nail down the Uala Lager, but, when they did, they made a smooth, craft beer with a 5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). The Uala Lager is delicious and one of the rarest beers in the Islands, found only at the Old Lahaina Luau, and, if you’re lucky, at the Maui Brewing Co. brewery.
“We ended up with a unique, special beer that I think communicates not only the story of innovation in craft beer, but the synergies of working with another local company for mutual benefit,” says Marrero. “If you open the door and say, ‘We can work together and collaborate to make something really cool,’ that is when you end up with a great, like the Uala.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of HAWAI‘I Magazine.