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Hawaiian beer just doesn't taste the same in a Florida kitchen

Our first night on Hawaii's Big Island, we came upon the perfect place to recover from 18 hours of travel across six time zones with two young boys.

It was a microbrewery, or, more specifically, the brewery's hibiscus-dappled beer garden.

We devoured the airy-crusted pizza like we were in a fast-forwarded video. Our youngest son uttered one of his cutest lines ever: "Look at all the beavers.'' (Actually mongooses, but furry and about the right size.)

The beer was such a beautiful amber color and so delicious that the conversation between my wife and me consisted mostly of: "Wow! This is good beer.''

"Kona Brewing Company,'' my wife, Laura, said when I recently reminded her of this meal. "Best place on earth.''

So when I saw one of the company's beers, Fire Rock Pale Ale, at my local Publix, I thought, "Great. Now we can get it here.''

Assuming you aren't that interested in my 2002 vacation memories, this seems like a good time to get to the point, which applies to a lot of foods, drinks and whatever else we might try to transplant:

No, you can't get it here. Not really.

Sure you can, said Rich Tucciarone, Kona's vice president of brewery operations, who added that the company uses the same recipes and ingredients it always did.

It is also still considered an independent "craft brewer,'' although a few more questions confirmed my suspicion, based on seeing it in a Publix cooler, that this definition might be looser than it seems.

Fire Rock Pale Ale and Kona's other products are distributed in 17 states by Anheuser-Busch, with Florida emerging as one of its fastest-growing markets.

The beers are brewed in a Portland, Ore., facility owned by an alliance of craft brewers, which is partly owned by Anheuser-Busch, which recently announced plans to merge with Belgian beermaking giant InBev.

"With beer, nothing is simple,'' said Travis Kruger, manager of Dunedin Brewery in Pinellas County.

Take Guinness Stout, which some people consider the essence of Ireland: It's shipped in concentrated form and reconstituted at regional breweries all over the world, Kruger said.

"Those barrels aren't leaving St. Jame's Gate (Brewery in Dublin) and coming here,'' he said.

Finding out my pale ale was brewed in Portland actually alleviated my worst concern — that I was promoting the decadent practice of shipping grain to Hawaii and shipping beer back.

"From a carbon footprint standpoint it makes more sense to brew it on the mainland,'' Tucciarone said. Also, he said, "you'd be looking at 25 bucks for a six-pack.''

The other advantage of mass-marketing microbrews is that it has made our beer better. Remember when Michelob was about as good as American beers got?

But we shouldn't kid ourselves. Kona beers are not regional beers. They are not, as the Web site claims, "liquid aloha.''

My wife and I sampled the Fire Rock I brought home from Publix in our air-conditioned kitchen.

Without the freshness or the exhilarating circumstances we remembered, we found it tasty and refreshing.

But neither of us said, "Wow.''

Dan DeWitt's column appears regularly in the Pasco and Hernando editions of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.

Hawaiian beer just doesn't taste the same in a Florida kitchen 07/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 9:43pm]

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