Maui moves beyond mai tais with craft beer, cocktails in Kaanapali

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      It’s Thursday at 1 p.m. in Maui, and that means it’s happy hour. Well, not officially—but every hour is happy hour when you’re on vacation, right? Stretched out on deck chairs around the pools that line Kā‘anapali Beach, visitors sip mai tais as they turn the pages of their novels or spray on sunscreen between naps. It’s a good life.

      But not everyone is drinking Polynesian concoctions. Beer is the beverage of choice for some, including a few dozen people who mill around the tasting room at Maui Brewing Co., where I’ve come for a brewery tour. While hitting the beach is still undoubtedly the main reason mainlanders come to Maui, many also want to check out the island’s evolving culinary scene. Increasingly, that includes local, handcrafted beverages that go beyond tiki drinks.

      “The demand for craft beer is going up fast,” says Darren Moser, Maui Brewing Co.’s director of brewery operations. He recalls that in 2007 when owner Garrett Marrero opened this production facility a 10-minute drive south of Kā‘anapali in Lahaina, Heineken was widely seen as the local beer of choice. But a combination of tourist and home-turf demand has pushed up production—so much so that MBC is building a new 42,000-square-foot facility in Kihei. Set to open later this year, with the restaurant to follow in 2015, it will triple production from the current 22,000 barrels of beer annually. “People in Hawaii seek out local,” Moser explained. “They’re proud to purchase something that’s made here because the vast majority of products are not.”

      MBC makes over 60 different beers, and almost 70 percent of its production is consumed in Hawaii. The company uses as much local product as possible—even the cans are manufactured on Maui—and local farmers provide the produce for seasonal beers like the Lemongrass Saison and the Lorenzini Blood Orange Double IPA. Ironically, they can’t source enough Hawaiian coconuts to keep up with demand for their signature Coconut Porter; the coconut they toast on-site comes from Asia.

      MBC’s brewery and tasting room—along with its sister brew pub in Kahana, about 20 minutes north—are lively places to meet people over a flight of beer. But there’s nothing like a view to go with your cold beverage, so after I finish the tour I head back to Kā‘anapali.

      There's a nightly sunset cliff-dive ceremony at the Sheraton Kaanapali.

      Overlooking the beach at the Sheraton Maui’s Cliff Dive Grill, I take a long sip of MBC’s Black Rock Lager, which is made specifically for the hotel. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset ritual: every evening, a young man climbs the lava rock that juts west out into the sea, lighting torches along the way, and then makes a swan dive off the cliff into the ocean. The tradition honours the Hawaiian legend in which the last chief of Maui proved his spiritual strength by leaping from sacred Pu‘u Keka‘a, or Black Rock, into the Pacific.

      The view of Kaanapali Beach from the clifftop Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.
      Carolyn Ali

      The Sheraton occupies a prime position on Kā‘anapali Beach. Built in 1963, it was the first resort in the area and thus claimed the most geographically arresting location, high atop Black Rock. From the dramatic viewpoint, glorious sandy crescents stretch both north and south. Since then, megaresorts, condos, vacation clubs, and more traditional lower-rise properties, like the Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, have filled in the five-kilometre beachfront to make the area a major tourist destination.

      Kaanapali Beach Walk
      Carolyn Ali

      But unlike Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, Kā‘anapali has managed to retain a laid-back feel. Perhaps that’s because this planned resort community backs onto a 36-hole golf course and the lush, green foothills of the West Maui Mountains, rather than more high-rises. But it’s also because everything just seems to flow here—a boardwalk runs the length of the hotel strip, mostly right next to the beach, making an early-morning run a pleasure. The beach walk also facilitates car-free restaurant-hopping and strolls to the ABC convenience store in the open-air Whalers Village shopping mall. (What Hawaiian vacation would be complete without ducking into an ABC for provisions?)

      Views over the golf course to the West Maui Mountains in Kaanapali.
      Carolyn Ali

      Still, it would be a mistake not to rent a car for at least a day to head upcountry. At 1,200 metres above sea level, the fertile highlands of Kula rival the seaside for scenic beauty. This is where many of the ingredients used by the island’s hotel restaurants are grown, and at Kula Country Farms you can buy a bag of famously sweet Maui onions or a few rotund papayas, or pick your own sprightly strawberries.

      On the drive up the following day, I get sidetracked by a small sign at the side of the road that points the way to a “vodka farm”. This turns out to be a 32-hectare organic sugar cane farm that opened on the slopes of Haleakalā in April 2013. It’s the home base for Ocean Vodka, which has a distillery on-site and offers tours of its operations.

      You can tour Ocean Vodka's production facility and farm on Maui.
      Carolyn Ali

      The Maui-based family that owns the farm launched their organic vodka in 2006, initially using imported sugar cane because there wasn’t any certified-organic commercial product available on Maui. During the tour of the distillery, the guide explains that they’re transitioning to the product they grow, and aim to have the farm supply 100 percent of the distillery’s needs within the next year. The water that goes into the vodka is already local; it’s seawater sourced off the coast of the Big Island, brought up from 900-metre depths and desalinated. The guide explains that 80-proof vodka is 60 percent water, and that the company believes this deep-ocean mineral water gives its vodka a uniquely clean, silky, full-bodied character.

      With panoramic views of both Maui’s north and south shores, the vodka farm is worth a stop—and with a $10 tour, you can sample the spirit. It also has a charming “martini garden” planted with citrus, passion fruit, basil, rosemary, and more; guests are encouraged to pick a few ingredients for free to make their own “farm-to-glass” martini back at their hotel.

      The beach north of the Sheraton Maui in Kaanapali
      Carolyn Ali

      Of course, you can always get a cocktail at a beachside bar. Later, next to the pool at Kā‘anapali’s Westin Maui Resort & Spa, I chat with mixologist Freddie Sconfienza. He confirms that hotel guests in general are much more interested in craft beer than they used to be, and that they seek out local Hawaiian brands.

      That’s not to say they’ve abandoned the mai tai. According to a survey of bars and restaurants by Kā‘anapali Magazine, the resort area’s half a million annual visitors consume 6,750 of the rum drinks daily. “A mai tai is a must-have—they’ve got to get it out of the way,” says Sconfienza with a laugh. But once holidaymakers have paid their respects, many want something more creative.

      Sconfienza is happy to oblige, and he’s always mixing things up, both literally and figuratively. Last year, he created a beer mai tai for a Kona competition for the world’s best mai tai, in which he combined MBC’s Mana Wheat ale with coconut rum infused with fresh citra hops and topped it all with citra hops, yuzu, and elderflower foam.

      He’ll be showcasing more beer cocktails during a mixology session at Kā‘anapali Fresh, an annual culinary festival in late August that involves hotels and restaurants throughout the beach resort area. The festival emphasizes Maui’s agriculture with farm tours, a dinner around the theme of the evolution of Hawaiian dining, and collaborative meals in which resort chefs and Hawaiian celebrity chefs highlight local products. In addition to beer and cocktails, there will be lots of wine on offer.

      Good thing there’s plenty of time to rest up by the pool.

      Access: The third annual Ka‘anapali Fresh runs from August 29 to 31 at several Ka‘anapali locations. For specifics on the area, see the Ka‘anapali Beach Resort Association. The writer travelled as a guest of the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau; for island tourist info, see Go Hawaii.