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How ‘ōkolehao, an alcoholic spirit made of tī root, could change the liquor industry

Hawaii Public Radio, Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Hawaiʻi's first-ever alcoholic spirit made from the root of the tī plant may soon get a boost in popularity from a Big Island brewery.

Hawaiian Spirit
Ola Brew Ki Farm for Distillation of Okolehao

Renovations are underway at the old Hilo Sugar Mill in Wainaku. Naʻehalani Breeland, President and Co-Founder of Ola Brew, said the building will be ground zero for ʻōkolehao production.

This will be the company’s first drink to be made entirely from locally grown ingredients.

"Not only is it kind of revering the first alcohol that was ever made here in Hawai’i. It’s telling the story of agriculture here in Hawai’i. And done right, it's incredibly delicious," Breeland said.

Head distiller Constantin Heitkamp began experimenting with ʻōkolehao four years ago and has since found a recipe that took home the top awards at the 2021 San Francisco Spirits Competitions, the Grammy’s of the spirits world.

Former Hilo Sugar Mill,

Brett Jacobson, Ola Brew Co-Founder and CEO, said a lot of the company’s product innovation is based on locally sourced ingredients. "We’ve done the non-alcoholic noni drinks, we’ve done the ciders, the seltzers, the beers. And we've finally stumbled upon something that can really make a huge impact in agriculture here in Hawaiʻi. That something is the tī plant," Jacobson said.

"Its leaves have been used by Native Hawaiians for centuries as house thatching, food wrappers, and hula skirts. But it’s the root of the plant that produced the island’s first-ever alcoholic spirit," he continued.

Jacobson said a lot of what Ola Brew is doing with ‘ōkolehao is piggybacking on the tequila industry. The tī root is actually a cousin to agave. "If we reach 1% of the tequila market just in the U.S. market with ʻōkolehao, that would be about $50 to $60 million a year worth of tī root or kī root grown here in Hawaiʻi. So we see the potential as massive. But why can’t we be 10%? And if we’re 10%, now we’re talking $500 million a year in agricultural products from a culturally significant plant," he said.

Another part of the vision, Breeland said, is that Ola Brew isn’t the only one making ‘ōkolehao. "We want to be kind of a demonstration for all these other potential ʻōkolehao distillers. That if they have a five-acre plot or even a one-acre plot they could have similar to the wine industry their ʻōkolehao distillery," Breeland said.

Ola Brew plans to open its ‘Ōkolehao Processing Facility in August 2024.

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