KAILUA-KONA — Back in the days before cucumber sours and bourbon-barrel-aged stouts hit Hawaii Island’s shores, Kona was, as Fred Housel put it, “beer challenged.”
“If you wanted to enjoy good beer, you had to make your own,” he lamented.
As a homebrewer, Housel has been doing just that since 2005. And for the last eight years, he’s held the enviable position of being a judge at the Kona Homebrew Competition, held in the days leading up to Saturday’s Kona Brewers Festival, now in its 23rd year. Housel has also competed in the event for the last 10 years.
This year’s competition drew more than 100 entries from near and far, spanning numerous styles of beer, cider and mead. About half of the entries came from throughout Hawaii, said Kona Homebrew Competition director Mike Jeffress. They also received entries from up and down the West Coast as well as Alaska, Arizona, Missouri and Montana.
This time around, it was Alaska resident Paul Escamilla’s Pale Ale TB1 that took home “best of show” for beer. Kona resident Shawn Crawford’s “Cider House Rules,” meanwhile, was named “best of show” in the cider and mead contest.
Crawford’s winning cider is a straightforward take on the drink: “Apples and yeast and that’s it,” he said.
“It’s a refreshing drink,” he said. “It’s a good alternative to beer. Beers are a little heavy and stuff, but cider’s more crisp.”
His rationale for making his own cider is practical enough. The ciders he can make, he said, beat out any other he could buy on the island.
Additionally, Crawford said, he enjoys homebrewing because it gives him control over the finished beverage.
“The reason I do it is because you can make the beer taste exactly the way you want it,” he said.
That’s a common refrain heard from the brewers who took part in this year’s competition.
“I started brewing because you couldn’t buy beer in the styles you like,” said Waikoloa resident and homebrewer Michael Dahler, who competed in the spiced beer category. “And also, you can be creative.”
And for Michael Opstrup of Kamuela, it’s “because it’s magic.”
“It’s a little bit of chemistry; it’s a little bit of botany and it’s a little bit of magic,” said Opstrup, who submitted a Belgian pale ale to the contest. “It just blows me away that I can brew stuff that’s a lot better than a lot of people that actually have commercial examples. I have people all the time that say, ‘Man, this is good. I’d rather buy this than XYZ.’”
For this crowd, homebrewing is “like a science experiment you can drink,” said Jeffress. And part of the fun, he said, is the large variety of recipes and styles ripe for exploration and crafting.
“And the nice thing is everybody, they all have different palates, they all have different ideas of what they want to do with their beers,” Jeffress said.
The competition relies on about 20 judges, many of whom are homebrewers and are competing themselves, although they can’t judge the category they’ve entered.
And those judges carry some serious credentials.
The contest is certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program under the American Homebrewers Association, and judges have to undergo training and pass both a written test and a tasting test.
“You gotta know what you’re doing,” Housel said.
This year, judges sampled suds from across nearly two dozen categories of beer styles — from Trappist ales to American wild ales to fruit beers to spiced beer — as well as two cider categories and four mead categories.
And styles like the India pale ale continues to prove a popular category in the contest, with 11 IPAs submitted.
And it’s not just beer in the competition. Judges also pored over samples of cider and mead.
Housel, who judged mead submissions for the contest, said Hawaii’s homebrewers are putting out quality stuff in that arena, saying the variety of local honeys being produced give mead-makers lots of space to get creative.
“It can be mac nut honey, it can be Christmas berry. And each of those honeys have very distinct flavors,” he said. “Our homebrewers here make wonderful mead.”
And it doesn’t stop there, he added, saying a popular take on mead involves incorporating Hawaii’s bounty of tropical fruits like guava, lychee and lilikoi in the mead.
John Abbott, who helped start the first homebrew competition, said he’s thrilled to see how the competition has grown over the years. Abbott formerly ran the brewery at Kona Brewing Co. and now lives part-time in California and Hawaii.
As the homebrewing scene has grown over the years, Abbott said it’s only gotten better, from the qualifications of judges to the quality of product homebrewers are putting out.
That’s in part because of the amount of knowledge available from other brewers and the Internet, making it easier for homebrewers to identify and replicate beer profiles or flavors in their own brews.
And while the competition here is stiff, Housel said the local homebrewing has always proved warm, welcoming and willing to bring new brewers into the fold.
“It’s exciting to see new people come in and they contribute to new things to find and things like that,” Housel said, saying the homebrewing community ranges from beginners to folks who have more than 20 years of experience homebrewing.
Dahler said the community consists of people from all walks of life.
“I think it’s just people that like to experiment with different things and come up with a unique beer that you can’t buy in the store,” he said.