At the turn of the century, Kakaako hosted thriving brewery operations predominantly cranking out Hawaii’s indigenous brand: Primo Lager. Shut down during prohibition in the 1920s, Primo Brewing and Malting Co. bounced back to full capacity in time to supply thirsty soldiers, sailors and airmen in the war years.

The shear magnitude of military beer consumption led Primo to allegedly sacrifice quality in favor of quantity, thereby establishing decades of Hawaii’s undeserved beer stigma.

There used to be an old building on the corner of Cooke Street and Kapiolani referred to simply as the Brewery Building. It was once one of Primo’s operations. Mort Feldman, creator of Tori Richard (and Cooke Street) clothing brands, ponied up a lot of money to renovate the structure.

I used to work at Bruce Hopper Design around the corner on Drier Street, next to the building’s old truck bay. The graphic design studio was ensconced in what used to be a giant walk-in reefer; we went to work through a lavishly upholstered refrigerator door with chromed hardware.

Primo Beer was a beloved local brew for years. Now, local breweries are making a comeback in Kakaako. Keith Rollman

Back in my University of Hawaii days in the late 1960s, we drank a lot of Primo. Revitalized by new owner Schlitz, the brand was on its way to a dominating 70 percent market share. It wasn’t great, but it was wet and cold and, most importantly for a penniless student, cheap.

During the heyday of Primo, locals would even make crocheted caps that integrated peeled and flattened Primo cans around the sides of the cap. It’s hard to find them now.

When Schlitz’s new Primo brewery in Aiea shut down for good and moved production to the mainland, the feeling of pride in “our” local product shipped out with it. Primo subsequently disappeared altogether for several years.

Beer-Soaked History

In spite of several owners and attempts to re-establish the brand, local brewing of Primo, or anything else in Honolulu pretty much dried up. The Primo you see on the shelves now is brewed in Los Angeles by Pabst.  

Yet signs of Kakaako’s colorful, beer-soaked history remain.

The handsome red brick edifice of The Honolulu Brewing & Malting Company, dating to 1900, still proudly stands along Queen Street. Alas, not a drop of Primo Lager or Royal Ale has been produced there for decades.

The building serves as a daily reminder that Kakaako has a long history of brewing massive amounts of beer, and the lure of this tradition has finally been answered.

Nestled among the prolific luxury high-rises of Kakaako is a growing number of craft beer establishments. Earlier attempts at microbreweries, like Brew Moon and Sam Choy’s, may have been too early for the market. The big boys like Kona Brewing and Gordon Biersch had the deep corporate pockets to persist.

The new generation of craft beer establishments look a lot like those succeeding by the dozens in places like Austin, Texas. And, like their mainland brethren, Kakaako’s have the look of remaining part of the city’s new urban lifestyle for the long term.

Waikiki Brewing Company recently opened a second location in Kakaako on Queen Street. Keith Rollman

Kakaako’s newest addition, Waikiki Brewing Company on Queen Street, even features pretty decent smoked ribs, pulled pork and brisket. You could easily image yourself in Texas at Whitestone Brewery or Rentsch Brewery.

Waikiki Brewing joins Aloha Beer Co., also on Queen, and Honolulu BeerWorks around the corner on Cooke. Each has its own style, personality and constantly evolving selection of signature brews.

The award for most unique, however, goes to Glen Tomlinson’s Home of the Brave Brewing. Where else can you wander through an extensive “Brewseum” of World War II artifacts, stumble into the Wiki Waki Woo (tiki bar) and order a “Remember Pearl Harbor Mighty American Ale”?

Kakaako’s growing craft beer community is certainly a welcome addition to the downtown experience.

Whether you call them craft beer establishments, brew pubs or micro breweries, they all do the same thing. Make a handful of beer varieties with great care, and it allows you to enjoy a cold pint while sitting next to the gleaming stainless steel vat from which it was created. It really is a simple but winning formula.

Beer tasting and the associated cerebral conversations about the merits of various brews has largely replaced mindless bulk guzzling. In almost all instances you can avail yourself of a “growler” (an oversize reusable jug) and take home another 64 ounces of your favorite for further evaluation.

Many microbreweries aspire to the next leap up to canning and bottling, expanding into the headaches and opportunities of distribution and retail expansion. This actually gets pretty political at this point, as we’re talking about highly competitive, occupied turf.

Kakaako’s growing craft beer community is certainly a welcome addition to the downtown experience. I plan on helping these noble establishments the best way I can: by drinking a lot of beer.

I do think it would be appropriate, and a gracious acknowledgement of Kakaako’s storied past, for all of them to offer a free draft beer to anyone who shows up wearing a vintage Primo beer can hat.

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