Dible column: Brewfest could crank up party atmosphere, fully embrace uniqueness

Make Kona crazy again.

The Kona Brewers Festival — or Brewfest, as it’s more commonly known — has become a West Hawaii institution. The oldest such festival in the state, it draws breweries from across the country, takes 400 volunteers to pull off and in 24 years of existence has raised nearly $2 million for charity.

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Not too shabby.

But less rowdy than refined, it’s not a place where crazy things happen.

“It used to be,” a long-time attendee told me as we stood against the metal railing separating the walkway from the sand fronting King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for a festival replete with dehydrated, scantily-clad Adonises and Aphrodites euphorically collapsing hotel-side in puddles of their own vomit and urine.

That’s what Ironman is for.

And I wouldn’t advise any alterations concerning alcohol portion control. Ten pull tabs earning each patron the equivalent of roughly five to six beers feels about right — especially considering the higher-than-average alcohol by volume content of craft beer, mitigated only to a degree by bite-sized pierogis, deconstructed tacos and a variety of appetizers sprinkled in as palate cleansers between swigs.

Still, Brewfest feels stuck in a purgatory of identity crisis, somewhere between an elaborate wine tasting and a beach party. After nearly 25 years, the time has come for the festival to decide what it is.

Organizers would find no objection from me were they to glide down the glitz and glam route. Strictly black tie. Replace the live bands with a light orchestra. Transform the end of the hotel luau grounds from a spot to congregate into a handful of tastefully dressed dining tables. Then line everything in sight with tiny white Christmas lights.

Boom. Class.

But that feels a bit wrong, doesn’t it? These are brewers, after all, not socialites daintily spitting back an array of over-priced reds and whites into the rustic spittoons of some pretentious Napa winery.

These are blue collar scientists, many of whom got their starts conducting sweaty experiments in garages. They’re like Bill Gates, only a little bit cooler and not nearly as rich.

And we who attend are beer drinkers. At the end of the day, we enjoy long pulls off schooners, savor the aroma of hops and know the only acceptable place to discard peanut shells is on hardwood floors at the base of our barstools.

Sure, some of us may use terms like “mouth feel.” An unfortunate utterance for anyone not judging a competition. And even then, questionable.

But like the pale, middle-aged guy sporting socks with sandals invariably parked in a buckling beach chair somewhere on every swath of sand in Hawaii — we, too, deserve forgiveness.

No. The evolution of Brewfest should be less Sonoma Valley and more South Beach. And both the event and its attendees could do a little more to cultivate a party atmosphere. The Trash Fashion Show hosted by Kona’s own councilperson Rebecca Villegas was easily the highlight of Brewfest 2019 in this regard.

Runway models jiving and shaking to themed music booming out of speakers sent electricity pulsating through the crowd, coaxing back sustained howls of raucous cheering.

But while smiles and jovial conversations made clear both before and after the “trashion” show that pretty much everyone with a wristband and a full glass was generally enjoying themselves, the collective energy never reached or returned to its mid-festival peak.

The Kona Brewfest has the distinct advantage of convening outside and oceanside — and possibilities abound. Instead of a spot to congregate, the festival should designate the live music area at the edge of the luau grounds a mandatory dance floor. If you ain’t groovin’, keep on movin’.

The beer grounds themselves are start-to-finish congested. Scale back the number of breweries invited by a handful, reduce the number of tickets sold by a few hundred and create a sense of exclusivity with a dollop of mystique. Who doesn’t loves lording cool experiences over unfortunate friends who missed out? One imagines the selfie opportunities essentially boundless.

Then use all the extra space for other forms of entertainment — fire twirling, hula dancing, acrobatics on aerial silks. Hell, what about karaoke? This is Hawaii.

I’ve been to Brewfest the last two years. This year, I also attended the Brewers Dinner the evening prior at Kona Brewing Company. It’s all more than a little difficult to criticize. I mean, they had alcoholic ice pops there! The brewery and restaurant are fantastic, and I’ve immensely enjoyed covering the company’s annual festival.

But some of the stories long-time festival goers told Saturday, none quite suitable for publication in our newspaper without some seriously creative censoring, inspired me to imagine how spectacular this already exceptional event could be with a handful of added antics and just a few more questionable decisions — within reason.

A man can’t help but ponder. And after all, what would the world need writers for if not to dream?

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For that matter, what would the world need opinion columnists for if not to advise experts with significantly more knowledge and experience on how to improve something that’s already perfectly fine the way it is?

Max Dible is a reporter for West Hawaii Today and can be reached at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com or 930-8623.