CEO Sitdown: Kona Brewing Company’s Billy Smith

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Mokulele and Southern Airways CEO Stan Little sits down with Kona Brewing Company President Billy Smith in this edition of CEO Sitdown

In this edition of the CEO Sitdown I had the opportunity to have a beer with Kona Brewing President Billy Smith at their brewpub and restaurant on Big Island in Hawai‘i. Beers from Kona Brewing, especially the Big Wave and the Long Board, have made their way all over the globe. The Hawai‘i operation is now separate from the national and international Kona brand, but their commitment to the local experience forges ahead.

Q: Billy, you have to have the most fun job in Hawaii. How did you become the president of Kona Brewing?
A: My journey really started back when I was 13 helping my dad with his hobby of home brewing. He sparked my passion for the brewing process. Fast forward some years (26 of them in the beer industry) and I found myself working for the parent company of Kona Brewing, Craft Brew Alliance. This lasted for twelve years until last year when Kona Brewing Hawai‘i was split-off. I started with them at the Red Hook Brewery as a brewer, and they moved me to New Hampshire as a brewmaster. After two–and–a–half years, they then asked if I wanted to move to Hawai‘i. It was a very easy answer! I came here as the Manager of Brewery Operations and started doing more things on the business side. I later moved up to General Manager, and ultimately now, President.

Q: You mentioned the split-off. Anheuser-Busch/InBev now owns the Kona Brewing Company product for the world outside of Hawaii, but Kona Brewing in Hawai‘i is independent from that. How did that happen?
A: It actually had to do with the Department of Justice. We are very lucky to be a part of the brewing community here, and our product takes up about 40% of the craft beer market in the state. The concern if we were to become a part of Anheuser-Busch is that it would have created a conflict of interest that could have affected the larger merger. This allows us to keep our brewing local and keep our brewpubs (like this one and a second location in Hawai‘i Kai) local.

Q: This brewpub, and certainly the new brewery next door that is under construction, are tourist attractions. With limited tourism due to COVID, how have you adapted?
A: It really made us even more dependent on the locals than ever before–but that’s in our nature anyway. We have always focused on the community, local foundations, and our kuleana.* You just don’t realize how much your business is impacted by visitors until they stop arriving.

Q: Kona Brewer’s Festival, benefitting the Ke Kai Ala foundation, has a Home Brew Competition where anybody can submit his or her own homebrew. The winning brewer gets to come here and make it on a larger scale. How has that worked out, giving the keys to the brewery to an amateur?
A: We last did it in 2019, and it worked out great. The winner was in the military and stationed on Oahu. His beer was a mango habanero IPA. It was really good– it hit all the senses. We included it as part of our Backyard Batch, which is available only in our brewpubs. The week it was received at our Hawai‘i Kai pub was timed perfectly to his retirement party, so all his friends got to celebrate his retirement while drinking his beer!

Q: Do the raw materials you use in making the beer come from Hawai‘i?
A: They either come from here, or they are inspired by here. We are known for coffee here in Kona, so we use local coffee in our Pipeline Porter. Chocolate, passion fruit, lilikoi, pineapple, beets– we find inspiration all around us.

Q: What was been your biggest challenge as President in 2020?
A: The biggest challenge was (and is) safety: Safety of the team and safety of the community. In the restaurant business, we know that what we do can affect the larger community, so we have the added responsibility to go the extra mile in making sure that we are taking the right steps as we navigate through the pandemic.

Q: The new Kona Brewing facility is nearing completion here in Kona. Can you tell us what to expect? It’s a massive complex.
A: Our new 100K barrel annual capacity brewery will allow us to meet our local consumer demands for fresh Kona Brewing beer while doing so in the most sustainable way possible. This growth opportunity will also give us the capability of putting our “liquid aloha” into cans (our previous brewery was only able to put beer in kegs). In the end, Hawai‘i will be seeing a larger variety of our beers out in the market, whereas before, consumers would have to go to one of our pubs for that experience.

Q: Assuming the pandemic will end sometime in the next 12 months, what can you tell us about the future of Kona Brewing in Hawai‘i?
A: Now with our new-found sole focus on Hawai‘i we look to expand the Kona Brewing experience across the islands. We are really excited about sharing more of what Kona Brewing means to us all.

Stan: Billy, thank you for your time. It has been a privilege to share a beer with you and learn more about Kona Brewing in Hawai‘i. I wish you the best of luck and look forward to staying in touch.

* Kuleana is a Hawaiian term commonly translated to mean responsibility.

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