Tapping new markets

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It’s rare that a day goes by when Issa Hillweh, owner of the Hilo Town Tavern, doesn’t have a customer ask for the house brew.

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It’s rare that a day goes by when Issa Hillweh, owner of the Hilo Town Tavern, doesn’t have a customer ask for the house brew.

“On the mainland, it’s been a thing for a decade now,” Hillweh said last week. “You can’t go down the street without seeing one (a craft brewery), and each person’s brewing their own kind of beer.”

But a Hilo Town Tavern brew could be on its way soon. Hillweh is in the final stages of the permitting process for a new type of liquor license approved during the last state legislative session.

The newly-created small craft producer pub license, or a Class 18 license, is “kind of a superclass,” said Gerald Takase, Hawaii County director of liquor control.

Establishments can manufacture and wholesale products in addition to retailing them. Retail has two components, Takase said: “Sell like a store, and then also dispense like a bar or restaurant.”

He said the licensing designation is intended to help promote small local businesses.

“We’re kind of following the other states into it,” Takase said.

The Big Island isn’t without local beer or wine. A few miles away from the Tavern, Hawaii Nui Brewing (Mehana Brewing) brews and cans beers for sale across the state, and offers growlers to go. In Waimea, the Big Island Brewhaus has been making in-house beer since it first opened in 2011, and has a current lineup of 13 brews ranging from pilsner to pale ale. And Volcano Winery has been in business since 1986.

“In the past we’ve had brewpubs and wineries,” Takase said. “It’s kind of taking it to the next level because small craft producer pubs combine all three types of alcohol. They can brew, they can do wines, and they can also do distilled spirits.”

Hillweh also plans to make spirits at the Tavern. He bought a still eight months ago in anticipation of the legislation passing, and has been saving for the past three years to eventually be able to purchase a brewing system, which will cost about $130,000. The cost for the new permit itself is $1,000 annually.

“I’m committed,” Hillweh said. “So somehow, it’s going to happen.” He’s started a crowdfunding page to help with the costs of bringing the back warehouse of the tavern up to code so it can be used as the new brewing facility, since the building code has changed since the space was first used as a kitchen. Those costs will be more than $30,000, Hillweh said.

“You’ll be able to view the whole system, and there’ll be seating in there, and then you can walk through the pool room and do a circle around,” he said.

Selling house-made beer and spirits is “something I’ve been wanting from the beginning, for years,” Hillweh said. He has owned the Hilo Town Tavern since 2010. The day after the new designation was signed into law, he said, he was at the county offices filling out his permit applications.

“We’re all kind of learning together,” Hillweh said. On Monday, he’s traveling to Portland, Ore., for ten days to visit craft brewing facilities and learn more about the process itself and what types of systems work best.

According to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, the craft beer market grew 17.6 percent in 2014 and held an 11 percent share of the total American beer market. The craft spirits market is still young, but growing rapidly.

“What we’re seeing nationwide is all the craftings are going up — beers, distilled spirits,” Takase said.

With the new designation, he said, “There’ll probably be a lot more offerings on the market.”

“It’s really giving the consumers more choice and helping these small businesses make a go of it,” Takase said.

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The Hilo Town Tavern’s GoFundMe page is located at https://www.gofundme.com/hilotowntavern.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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