Kauai Beer Co. is a popular gathering place in downtown Lihue
There’s a stretch of Rice Street in downtown Lihue where few visitors venture. A place whose buildings—many of them constructed in the 1930s—have seen several small, local businesses come and go.
Not exactly a location you’d expect to find a shiny new craft brewpub, but walk past a used car dealership, a liquor store and a business called I Buy Gold, and there’s Kauai Beer Co., like an oasis.
It’s an overcast Thursday afternoon, but a small crowd is milling outside the brewpub’s two buildings. A couple of shiny food trucks are parked against the curb, each with a line of customers waiting to order.
“It’s Truck Stop Thursday,” explains Kauai Beer Co.’s rosy-cheeked, jovial owner Jim Guerber. “We have food trucks from all over Kauai come and park out front. You order from them, get a number, come inside and get a beer, and they’ll deliver your food to you.”
The year-and-a-half-old weekly event is a popular pau hana (after work) stop for Līhu‘e residents eager to unwind with a well-made craft beer.
“We don’t get a lot of foot traffic here. So, we needed to make ourselves a destination,” Guerber says.
From what I can see, mission accomplished, Jim. The brewery’s logo, which appears to depict a rooster skewered by a strange blunt sword, also intrigues me.
“The chicken is a symbol of Kauai, they’re everywhere,” says Guerber. “But it’s the stick we get asked about the most. It’s actually one of the two symbols in alchemy for fermentation.”
Visible through a window in the back wall of the pub, several 600-gallon stainless steel fermenter tanks work their magic converting Kauai Beer Co.’s proprietary blends of water, hops, barley and other ingredients into handcrafted ales. Sweet malty aroma from the tank room fills the adjacent wood-paneled dining room.
“We wanted to create a community bar and restaurant. A place where people could come, talk and just enjoy beer,” says Guerber. Just shy of its two-year anniversary this September, the brewery that opened with only a seatless tasting room for customers is now the bonafide town gathering place its owner dreamed of.
In September 2013, the brewery was open to beer lovers only two days a week—just about all the time Guerber and a friend could spare between brewing batches of beer and testing the limits of their new equipment. Doors are open up to five days weekly now, with a dozen employees, including Guerber’s son, Justin, as general manager, producing an average of 6,400 pints a month.
Owning a brewpub wasn’t part of Guerber’s original plan—at least not the pub part. A software developer and investor in several Kauai companies, Guerber had passionately homebrewed beer since 1978, when doing so was legalized in the U.S.
“Homebrewing is this incredible subculture,” says Guerber. “I had been brewing bigger and bigger batches, and those batches were getting better and better.
After moving to Kauai from California in 1994, however, Guerber’s passion turned toward crafting a beer that, if successful, would be identified with his new home island. His friend and current Kauai Beer Co. marketing manager, Larry Feinstein, felt the same.
Says Feinstein, “We met in Poipu in Jim’s garage. I tried a pint of Jim’s Black Limousine [now the brewery’s signature Bavarian Schwarzbier], and from then on I decided we should be really good friends.”
Together, they set about locating the perfect spot on the island to brew giant batches of Guerber’s beer. Warehouse and industrial locations came up short until, after more than a year of searching, Guerber’s real estate agent found him two downtown Lihue buildings: a former klatch of real estate offices and a nail salon. He decided to buy them outright.
“I didn’t really think about doing anything with the front of the house, but I recognized the opportunity when it presented itself,” says Guerber.
Upon opening, Guerber’s craft beer proved popular enough to keep business hopping despite odd hours and a dearth of chairs. One of the first recipes he experimented with, a malty and light German-style lager he named Lihue Lager, remains unchanged and is now the microbrewery’s most popular beer.
With Kauai Beer Co.’s lineup of craft beers growing, offering food seemed the next logical step. Eight months after opening, the brewery lured Joseph Fox, a former sauté chef with popular Merriman’s Fish House in Poipu, to lead the kitchen.
Fox pairs Guerber’s craft brews with an eclectic menu of international pub fare and comfort food. A Jamaican jerk chicken sandwich is paired with the Tropical Armadillo, an oatmeal pale ale with tropical fruit notes. Fox’s Cajun-Mexican creation, an orange coriander roasted vegetable tostada, is matched with the Līhu‘e Lager. Much of the food menu’s ingredients are sourced locally, but the owners have elected not to tout the fact.
“[Procuring local] is just what a responsible business owner and member of the local community does,” says Feinstein, simply.
In return, Kauai residents have so far largely embraced and engaged with the brewpub and its employees. The dining room’s tables and bar tops were crafted from donated remnants of an old Norfolk pine that once grew along Kaumualii Highway on the island’s southwest side. The brewery’s first batch of an experimental IPA recipe was crafted from between 30 and 50 pounds of community-donated Kaua‘i honey. Its name, IPAloha, was also crowd-sourced.
Back in Kauai Beer Co.’s standing-room-only dining room on Truck Stop Thursday, I watch customers match plates of food from the brewpub’s kitchen with the plasticware of food truck fare. Half-drunk pints of beer fill the tables. A mix of Kauai residents and vacationers from Oregon, Texas and Canada converse loudly over it all.
“Our dream was to create beer that people could come, try and talk about all over the world,” said Guerber. “Something they could only get on Kauai.”
Again, mission accomplished, Jim.