Booming by the barrel: 8 months after opening, Ola Brew Co. continues to grow

  • Bartender Alec Armijo pours beer on Friday night.

  • German Lager, left, and Old Industrial IPA. Elizabeth Pitts/West Hawaii Today

  • Kiawe Vanilla Porter, on tap at Ola Brew in Kailua-Kona. (Photos by Elizabeth Pitts/West Hawaii Today)

  • Ola Brew Co. cans its IPA at the Old Industrial Area facility. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Cans and kegs of Ola Brew IPA are stacked in a refrigerated unit at the Luhia Street brewery. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Brett Jacobson checks on a batch of cider at Ola Brew Co. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Mike McQuiston, Ola Brew Co. brewer and quality control, works in the brewery on Luhia Street.

  • Naehalani Breeland shows Ola Brew Co’s walk-in refrigerator full of white pineapple for cider. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Brett Jacobson and Naehalani Breeland toast with an IPA and dragonfruit cider at Ola Brew Co on Luhia Street. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — It’s been eight months since Ola Brew Co. opened its doors on Luhia Street.

Less than a year is but a blink of an eye in the business world, but what a ride it’s already been for the brewery tucked away in the old Kona Industrial Area.

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It’s been nearly nothing but expansion, expansion, expansion.

The brewery has already increased its production capacity and landed its first canned product, an India Pale Ale, on retail shelves.

And the folks behind the brewery aren’t showing any signs of letting up. They’re still putting forward new ways to improve sustainability, new initiatives to support local farmers and new craft beers and ciders for customers.

“We’ve accomplished a lot, and we still have a lot to accomplish,” said Naehalani Breeland, director of marketing at Ola Brew Co. “And I think what continues to drive us is that we can see the impact that we’re making in the community, and it’s inspiring for us to be able to contribute in that way.”

Breeland said that at the end of last year, the brewery wasn’t planning to take its retail out of island for at least a year. But within several weeks of opening, they were approached by several distributors.

Their first cans landed on shelves in July and, through distributor Paradise Beverages, Ola Brew’s IPA — the company’s top-seller — is available in close to 200 stores across the state, including Foodland, Costco, Walmart and KTA.

Since July, said CEO Brett Jacobson, they’ve made more than 200,000 cans of the beer. The company also has plans to have a canned cider hit shelves in October with a lager to come the following month.

Meanwhile, Ola Brew also has 55 outside accounts for their draft products on more than 100 taps.

Sellers swear by their suds

Thom Cornog, craft beer sales manager at Paradise Beverages, said the beer’s reception in retail stores has been “overwhelmingly well” — a result born from the perfect combo.

“It’s a local beer and they’re leading with their flagship IPA,” he said. “You can’t go wrong with that combination right now.”

At Kona Wine Market, Ola Brew is on two of the six draft taps in the store in addition to the canned IPA available, said Sterling Leatherman, managing member.

Leatherman said he tried Ola Brew’s lager at last year’s Aina Fest, before the brewery had its grand opening, and was impressed.

“In the beer business, what we’ve discovered is that just like wine and other adult beverages/libations, people want a variety,” he said. “They want to try new things from new regions, from new ingredients, from new breweries. And freshness is always key.”

“And then it also being a local brewery, it had sort of the trifecta of potential as far as a good-selling product, which has held true,” he added.

And their ciders, Leatherman added, were “just kind of the icing on the cake.”

“I thought it was really visionary and just smart considering all of the beautiful fruit that we have here,” he said.

Ola Brew’s growth has also come with a four-fold increase in how much they can produce — going from an annual production capacity of 3,000 barrels when they opened to 12,000 barrels with their current equipment and tank space.

That also boosts the opportunity to support local farmers.

Jacobson said many people who own underutilized farmland have approached them asking if they’d be able to sell crops to the brewery if they grew them.

“And that was the real mission in the beginning — let’s create a demand for more organic farming here in Hawaii,” Jacobson said. “So it’s pretty cool to see that that’s actually coming to fruition.”

Support begets support

The focus on supporting local agriculture is what they believe is driving much of the support coming from the community, Breeland said.

“Being able to support a lot of local farmers as well as knowing that we have truly hundreds of investors here in the community is definitely a huge draw,” Breeland said, “and I think that’s where we’re getting a lot of our support.”

Leatherman too said that support for farmers lends to Ola Brew’s appeal to customers.

“That kind of goes without saying that these are our friends, our neighbors,” Leatherman said. “They directly impact our local economy and so if you support Ola, you’re supporting them; you’re supporting the farmers as well.”

Ola Brew’s work with local farmers isn’t just about creating a demand for what they grow, they’re also working on making the supply sustainable and accessible as well.

Eight years ago, when Jacobson first started farming here, he wanted to grow pineapple and dragonfruit, but, he said, it was tough getting enough starts. And the going rate for those he could find was $2-$3 a piece.

“Well, if I want to plant 20,000 pineapples I’ve got to come up with $60,000,” he said. “It’s just crazy, this isn’t sustainable.”

Recently, they’ve undertaken an initiative to plant the pineapple crowns leftover from production for several months at their farm down south and then donate the plants to farmers so they can grow them, with Ola Brew as the guaranteed buyer when they bear fruit.

“So that guarantees us fruit,” said Breeland, “and it guarantees them some cash.”

Breeland said that program is still being developed, but said next year it will produce about 50 percent of the pineapples they use.

What the future holds

Ola Brew continues to work on sustainability efforts in the brewery itself to reduce their use of imported carbon dioxide. Those efforts include a carbon dioxide recovery system as well as a nitrogen generator.

The recovery system will capture carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation process so it can then be used to carbonate the beverage in the finishing process. The nitrogen generator, meanwhile, will be used for transferring beer between tanks as well as in the canning process.

Between the two systems, Jacobson said those technologies will bring their imports of carbon dioxide down from 80,000 pounds a year to zero by October.

The company also plans to open their restaurant at the business — the kitchen was recently certified by the Department of Health— at an anniversary party on Dec. 15.

And in about eight weeks from now, the brewery will begin launching very small 10-barrel batches of “more innovative beers,” Breeland said, rolling out a new beer on a weekly basis.

Jacobson said those releases will be available canned and on draft exclusively at Ola Brew.

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But, knowing how it’s been for the business thus far, those, too, will probably move quickly.

“Every week we’ll release a specialty beer,” he said, “and it’ll be very limited — we’re talking like it’ll probably sell out in a day or two.”