For a small business, Maui Brewing Company is making big waves. Non-existent a dozen years ago, the company’s beer can now be found across the U.S.–and in more than 10 nations.
“I always joke that my beer experience all comes from the consumption side,” said Garrett Marrero, who co-founded Maui Brewing Company in 2005 with his wife Melanie Oxley. Enjoying beer has served Marrero and Oxley well. Today, “MBC World Headquarters” is housed in a 42,000 square foot modern complex at the Research and Technology Park in Kihei. And the company is expanding; a new restaurant at the Kihei HQ is in the works, as is a second location on Oahu. And earlier this year, Marrero and Oxley took home the nationwide honor of Small Business Person(s) of the Year.
When the beer lovers started traveling to the Valley Isle in 2001, Marrero tried Kona Brewing Company beer. In addition to falling in love with Maui, they quickly discovered an open niche for craft beer. “I was drinking what I thought was a local beer, and over the years, finding out that the beer was actually made in the Mainland,” Marrero said. “I saw that as a flaw in what they were doing. I thought it was doing a disservice to the community and to the state, that this ‘local’ beer was being shipped in. We saw an opportunity to make an authentic, local, Hawaiian craft beer.”
Though the couple didn’t have any official experience in the brew business, they were confident of their skill set. “I always drank craft beer and I knew what good beer was,” Marrero said. “Melanie was in finance and I was in investment consulting, so I came from understanding the numbers and understanding finance. That’s a big part of beer and the business of beer.” Of course, making craft beer in Hawaii adds tens of layers of challenges, Marrero said. “You just have to be willing to navigate those waters,” he said.
Marrero and Oxley took their first step in 2005 when they bought the Fish & Game Brewing Co. (which was just a restaurant) in Kahana. Today, MBC is the largest craft beer producer in Hawaii.
“Garrett and Melanie have shown impressive growth, expanding in size, sales and scope of their business,” said Linda McMahon, Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. “By 2007, increasing demand led them to open a second location in Lahaina with a 25-barrel capacity, giving them the ability to provide brewery tours and making it a tourist destination as well. By 2013, they were producing more than 19,000 barrels of beer a year, boosting revenues to more than $10 million.”
The company that brings you local favorites including Bikini Blonde Lager, Big Swell IPA, Coconut Hiwa Porter, and Pineapple Mana Wheat, currently pours in a 39-faucet tasting room; the new Kihei restaurant will have a mirrored 72-faucet system–36 per tower. The Kahana brew pub is still open, and a second location on Oahu is coming soon.
In addition to creating much-loved brews, MBC has built a destination for visitors and locals alike. It would not be unusual seeing families playing giant Jenga in the retail/game area, while visitors and post-work locals enjoy a cold brew sitting on the laid-back covered lanai, listening to live music; MBC also has arranged for some of Maui’s favorite food trucks to rotate in front of the property, providing ono grinds for all.
But Marrero and Oxley aren’t complacent about their success. They work everyday to grow the company. Marrero said opening a restaurant at the Kihei HQ is a natural connection to their fans and craft beer drinkers. “Having the restaurant here gives us an opportunity to interact directly with them at the source of our beverage,” he said. “We make 100 percent of our beer here in Kihei, and that includes a pint that you get at the Blind Lady in San Diego–or in Denmark.”
“Why do we make 100 percent of our products here on Maui when it could be made for cents on the dollar on the mainland?” Oxley asked. “Well then that wouldn’t be right for us to call ourselves Maui Brewing Company anymore if we did that.”
“When a visitor comes, they get to experience not only the food and the beverage … but they also get to go on a tour and see us make the beer,” Marrero said. “If you were in here yesterday, you’d smell all the coconut toasting… because we don’t use any extract or flavors.” MBC is not just a place to have a drink. “You get the experience, the direct connection, when you see the brewery making the beer that you might enjoy back home or maybe that you’re experiencing for the first time.”
Earlier this year, Marrero and Oxley won the U.S. Small Business Association’s top title: Small Business Person(s) of the Year. The national recognition came as a bit of a surprise to the couple, even-though they had won the SBA award for the State of Hawaii.
Two weeks before the winner was announced, Oxley and Marrero were still debating if one of them should go to the East Coast for the award ceremony. They had just returned from a trip there. Then the local rep for SBA mentioned that it would be important for Hawaii to be represented.
Believing it’s important to honor the state, they decided Marrero would go to DC. “We wanted to be there in case we won of course, but more than that, we wanted to be there to represent Hawaii,” Marrero said. “That’s really why I went.”
It was a rough trip for him–he’d traveled to Washington DC three times within four weeks. “But I forgot all about being tired the moment I realized that we won,” Marrero said. “I was shaking [when] I called Melanie after we won. It was really pretty epic. You can’t compare it to anything.”
Walking through the doors from the tasting room in to the brewery is like stepping into another world—clean as can be, large metal drums, wide cement walkways, pipes and tubes running everywhere. If you’ve never been to a brewery–or any manufacturing facility–it is mind-blowing, like in the movies. Also, stepping into the cold room, watching forklifts move pallets of chilled beer was a joy on a hot Hawaii afternoon.
MBC’s operations are also impressive for the most experienced brewery visitor, including employees. One of the team members we spoke with was working at a brewery on the Mainland when he read an article about Marrero and MBC in a magazine; he was inspired to apply for a job without even traveling to Maui.
MBC brews fresh handcrafted ales and lagers–and a great Island Root Beer; they plan to add distilled spirits and soda to the Maui Craft Beverages line, however. “We’re adding a ginger beer and a cola–all natural like the root beer,” Marrero said. “And we are also adding whiskey and gin, and potentially some other spirits as well.”
The sodas, spirits and canned cocktails will be first available in Hawaii before being distributed to 24-states and 13 countries, as is the case with the beer. “We always think Maui first, the rest of Hawaii after that,” he said. “Before we leave the state, we always want to make sure Hawaii is taken care of.”
Hawaii-first is a principle Marrero and Oxley weave throughout their lives; community plays a big role in the MBC world. Marrero and Oxley often reiterate the importance of brewing beer locally. They also want all of their team members to be stewards of their communities and the ‘aina–and curators of the craft beer way of life.
Those who live the craft beer culture believe how a beer is made is important; they discuss beer and enjoy tasting a wide variety of ales and lagers. Beer is not just a social lubricant that makes money for those who brew it. It’s a way of life.
Marrero has always been a strong supporter of independent brewing–one of the key proponents of craft beer culture. Being an outspoken advocate for craft brewers has earned Marrero a seat on the board of directors of the Brewers Association (BA), the not-for-profit organization that represents America’s small and independent brewers. The BA board sets the definition for what it means to be a craft brewer–the brew-house must be small, traditional and independent, meaning less than 25 percent owned or controlled by an alcoholic industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
Early this year, Marrero began receiving texts asking if he had sold MBC. Marrero said the thought of selling to a corporate manufacturer made his gut sink. “Independence matters for a number of reasons,” he said. “In craft beer, there’s a mantra about being authentic–and of course innovative and having a sense of place and a sense of community. When you’re not an independent company and you’re owned by a Bud, Miller or Coors, you’re another cog in a wheel of a huge engine that solely exists to turn profit and it has very little to do with what we do as a true craft brewery.”
Marrero believes it’s important to continue clearing up the confusion, which stemmed from a misprint in the February/March issue of Great Lakes Brewing News. A family-tree graphic that showed which companies own which beer brands was included in the publication’s cover story “Mergers, Makeovers and Monster Breweries.” Maui Brewing was inaccurately listed as owned by Constellation Brands.
People do care where their beer is made, Marrero said. And aside from the beverages they make, the interests of independent companies are very different from those of a “captive brand.” For true craft beer lovers, it’s important to know that the beer came from a small and independent brewer.
“I wouldn’t even argue on quality,” Marrero said. “Being fair, I think Budweiser and Miller have some of the best brewers in the world. They have the capital to invest in the absolute best technology.” Marrero wouldn’t want to drink one of their beers because he doesn’t believe in the company–which is tantamount. “But also, that is just not a style I like–American light lager–it’s just water to me,” he said. “Most people would agree; once you go to craft, you wouldn’t really want to go back and drink a domestic. But I would hate to argue on quality because they… can make the same exact product, the same way, every day, and it’s going to taste identical across all their plants. That’s a skill.”
Marrero said the true difference between Big Beer and Craft Beer is in the mindset–the heart of what the company is about. “Look at Budweiser; they’ve now bought 12 or 13 craft breweries to make themselves look like us,” he said. “They believe in the facade of choice.” When you go to a stadium, and there are 10 beer taps. Big Beer wants to own and control all 10 of those even though they don’t want the public to think they own each of those beers, Marrero said.
“And I’ll give you a great reason why we should be the ones you’re supporting,” Marrero added. “Craft brewers employ over 110,000 people in this country.” Budweiser, which makes millions of barrels more beer than MBC does, employs only 17,000 people. “We manufacture an authentic, American, or local product, not just here in Hawaii, but across all of America, and brewers are contributing to job growth and capital investment in their communities,” he said. “And they’re more philanthropic.”
Dean Wong, executive director of Imua Family Services, had this to say: “Let me say right off the bat that in addition to the quality product, the creative business model and the right intentions behind their business, that this company, its founders and crafters have an amazing heart for community and compassion for supporting this community.” Wong said there are too many examples of giving back to name–but supporting Imua would certainly be an example.
“We’re giving a huge percentage more of our earnings to charity and philanthropic organizations,” Marrero said. “Ultimately it comes down to, as a craft beer drinker, as a consumer, what do you believe in when you vote with your dollars and make that purchase? Do you want that to leave your community overnight and go to the coffers of a big, multinational corporation who is just bent on world domination or do you want it to go to a local company that is sustainable, charitable, employing your neighbors and paying taxes in your community? It really comes down to your belief system.”
In a bold move, the nonprofit Brewers Association–with Marrero on the board of directors–recently announced that the craft brewing community intends to Take Craft Back from Big Beer. The #TakeCraftBack campaign–launched at TakeCraftBack.com–is looking to raise $213 billion to purchase Anheuser-Busch InBev, the international conglomerate that has been acquiring small and independent breweries across the country.
“Independent craft brewers refuse to be muscled out by Big Beer,” said a campaign spokesperson. “And we are uniting on an unprecedented scale to take on Big Beer and their efforts to make it harder for beer drinkers to find their favorite independent craft beers at their favorite bars, liquor stores and restaurants.”
The Brewers Association says Take Craft Back is the largest crowd-sourcing campaign in history; though it just launched, it’s already making strides. More than 10,000 independent beer backers have already pledged more than $3 million to help brewers meet their goal. That may seem like a far distance from the billion-dollar goal, but it’s also an innovative campaign that’s raising awareness about the difference between craft beer and Big Beer. Beer lovers everywhere can spread the word with hashtags #TakeCraftBack and #IndependentBeer.
Many conversations with Marrero and Oxley return to the crucial question: How are you local, if you’re not local? Marrero and Oxley graciously stay away from talking directly about the lawsuit filed in March against Kona Brewing Company; yet, it does pertain to all brewers.
Two beer drinkers filed the suit, claiming they were mislead into believing Kona was made in Hawaii. In September, a federal judge refused to dismiss the suit saying Hawaii is “a state as well as a state of mind.”
The Hawaii state of mind and the craft beer culture are held in high esteem at MBC. We use the term here a lot, “the craft beer way of life,” Oxley said. “Our employees hear it; it’s one of our ethos; it’s used in some of our training.” Oxley said the Island and Craft Beer Cultures will also be reflected in the restaurant that is being built at the MBC headquarters in Kihei.
The foods we will feature will be as local as possible, they said. “We won’t use a bad tomato just because it is local, however,” Marrero said. Coming to MBC in Kihei and being able to celebrate the pairing of food with beer–and sharing that with well-informed employees, nurtures the craft beer way of life.
Maui Brewing Company is now the largest brewery in the state, a fact Marrero and Oxley appreciate. “I’m a big dreamer, so that’s where it starts–with a dream,” Marrero said. “And from a business standpoint, you also have to make it work. So if you think small, you’ll be small. If you think big, you can be big. I remember the first time we were out of the state and Melanie saw our cans [in a store]. She said, ‘Did you ever think our cans would be on the shelf here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, totally, otherwise all of this wouldn’t have been worth it.’”
Marrero is equally proud of their efforts to become more sustainable–decreasing water and energy use, and making their own power while still making better beer. “No matter all the awards, all of our brewers are always hell bent on improving a beer,” Marrero said. “We always believe that perfection is something that’s pursued, but never gained, never obtained. So we want to make sure that we’re always staying true to our goals and to our founding principles, and I think that’s really what has allowed us to become the largest brewery in the State of Hawaii.”
Marrero and Oxley are currently demonstrating their environmental responsibility with a large solar project at MBC HQ. By early 2019, the facility will be operating with energy generated by photovoltaic panels. “The PV will produce 100 percent of the energy for brewing operations here on site,” Marrero said. “So when you pick up a can of our beer, it will be one of the most sustainable packages … because the beer was brewed with energy generated on site. We’re very excited about that, including not just the PV and thermal, but battery storage, bio-diesel backup generators, all of the above. It’s a pretty aggressive project, but we believe it’s the right thing to do for the community. And as we all know, electricity is not cheap here in Hawaii so it’s also fiscally responsible.”
Marrero and Oxley think that environmental consciousness rubs off on people when they live in Hawaii; they also both grew up with a California attitude. “It’s always been part of our life,” he said. Recycling, not wasting things, always turning off the light when you leave a room, turning off the water when you brush your teeth–they are natural.
Marrero said everyday living on Maui, the concept of environmental responsibility grows even more important. For MBC, there is the fiscal side of sustainability–how much money is spent on electricity and how much is the investment to zero that out. “You look at all those, but on the other side, you just take pride in the fact that your footprint is so little,” he said.
But how do we do this while minimizing the impact to the community?
“That’s the really cool part; we don’t believe in just investing a ton in solar and wasting energy,” Marrero said. Environmental awareness starts with the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. “It’s the same thing with energy. You’ve got to reduce your consumption and be as efficient as possible before you start layering sustainable generation on top of that.”
“I think it’s fun, actually,” he said. “I’m excited for the day that I can post a picture of our electric bill and say we did 60,000 barrels last year, and we only spent $1,000 on electricity. I wanted to grow, and I wanted to create something special, but [the purpose] wasn’t to be big. I think what led us to become the biggest is that we stayed true to our founding principles of authenticity, and integrity, and community.”
Or maybe MBC is the biggest brewery in the state simply because–as Al Janneck, the owner of Milagro’s (which carries MBC)–said, they have a “great product.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Sean M. Hower