Though early the bar was almost full. Loud groups of intoxicated tourists occupied both ends. In between slumped a husky man in a faded T-shirt, a few empty stools on both sides.
I ordered a Lahaina Town brown ale from Maui Brewing Company. His head shot up.
“That beer is OK, but their coconut porter is much better,” he said, his dark face covered with at least a week’s worth of stubble. “Wanna try some?” He held out the can he was drinking.
I thanked him but said I wasn’t much into flavored beers.
“C’mon, man, take a seat, give it a try,” he shouted.
I sat, but demurred on the beer.
A favorite haunt of music great Willie Nelson, Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon seemed a good starting point after checking in at a tiny inn off the main strip in the Maui town of Paia.
Once home to a sugar factory, Paia is close to famous windsurfing spots and features restaurants, art galleries, surf shops and bad traffic. It is also the first town on the Hana highway when heading east. The drive through the rainforest includes more than 50 one-lane bridges, dozens of waterfalls and many stunning vistas.
But this is not a story about my first trip down the legendary Road to Hana. I covered that a while back.
This story is about beer.
“Who took my seat?” A voice beamed from behind me.
I stood up, but my new friend grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back.
“I gave it to him. He’s a good one. Sit next to him,” he declared.
A bespectacled man in a similarly faded shirt fairly fell into the stool to my left.
“Whatcha drinking?” he asked while reaching in front of me to grab a can of coconut porter I’d assumed was empty.
The conversation progressed as it had with his friend, but with more slurring and swearing.
“Seriously, take a sip, man,” he demanded.
Feeling penned in, I picked up the almost empty can and took a sip, trying not to think of backwash.
Velvety with smooth roasted overtones and a touch of toasted coconut flavor, I was surprised, and impressed. I finished what I still consider one of the best brown ales around and ordered my first coconut porter. By then my new buddies were regaling me with stories about their work at the Maui Sanitation Department and life as a local in a tourist mecca.
By the end of the second porter the man to my right had careened into a story about a “rich haole” he challenged to report him to the cops after he “might have” clipped her car while backing out of a parking spot. Haole is a derogatory term often used to refer to white people, especially those with little regard for locals or their customs.
My pals invited me to a house party. There was going to be music, locals, dancing, but getting there required a 15-minute drive, up the mountain, in the dark.
“Don’t worry, buddy, I’m driving,” the man to my right said.
Not me you’re not, I thought, and spent our final beer repeatedly declining the invitation.
Once back on the mainland I researched how Maui Brewing added coconut to their beer, developed a recipe based on what was supposed to be a clone of a porter I loved from a brewery in Northern California, and gave it a shot.
Even better than the Maui version, I thought, if only because the coconut flavor is best when the beer is fresh. Then again, I’m biased.
To be fair, my fall into the sinful world of brewing flavored beer had begun a decade earlier when a friend shared a bottle of Beer Geek Breakfast from Mikkeler Brewing.
At an estimated 7.5% alcohol by volume, the oatmeal stout with coffee is higher-octane than I usually prefer, and the semisweet malts almost overwhelmed my palate, but I liked it, and I had visions of a drier, smoother, more coffee-forward version.
Hoping the bitterness would play well with a substantial hop profile, I used an espresso roast. The result was a hit, but only among friends who loved hoppy beers or strong coffee.
I found it a tasty if hearty meal, and rarely went for seconds.
Over a half dozen or so batches and a couple years I tinkered, gradually using smaller amounts of cleaner, less bitter hops and replacing the espresso with a medium roast coffee.
But I also continued to brew the porter and more traditional ales.
Late one night while sipping on a glass of the coconut porter I thought of the cold-brew coffee in my refrigerator. I poured in just a touch and was hooked.
That weekend I brewed my first porter with coconut and coffee, the result so quaffable I had to leave the keg in a separate building in my backyard. With the glasses inside the main house I had to walk outside at night to refill my glass in a sometimes vain attempt to make each keg last longer.
And now I’m thirsty.
For any beer purists who made it to the end, if you’re disappointed now, wait until the next beer dispatch where I discuss recent attempts to further degrade myself by brewing with the bright-red fruit of a cactus.