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Ola Brew Delves Into New Market With Award-Winning, Uniquely Hawaiian Spirit

May 20, 2023 Max Dible, Big Island Now

Ola Brew Co. has been making energy shots, teas, seltzers, ciders and brews for years. Now, the Big Island-based brewery has executed its opening foray into the arena of spirits.

Ola introduced its Okolehao to the public at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in April, pitting the uniquely Hawaiian alcohol up against entries from across the globe. The Okolehao did not disappoint, earning the prestigious Double Gold honor in the category of “Best Other White Spirit.” It went on to be named Best of Class.

The award means that the competition’s 50-plus judges performed a blind taste test of the liquor, and every one of them independently graded it out as a gold medalist. One other spirit in the category received the Double Gold moniker, but fell to Ola’s Okolehao in a head-to-head tasting for the top prize.

“We’ve been working on developing an Okolehao for almost two years,” said Ola founder and CEO Brett Jacobson. “We were really passionate about it because it will be our first alcoholic product for which every single ingredient is grown in Hawai´i. Also, because of the cultural significance of it — to make a product that has been used throughout Polynesia, no one even knows for how long.”

History of Okolehao in Hawai´i

Okolehao is made from the ti root, which is a cousin to agave — the plant base for tequila. The Huffington Post once described the spirit as “Hawaiian Moonshine.”

“The easiest way to describe it is Polynesian tequila. Depending on how you ferment and distill it, you can make it taste like tequila,” Jacobson explained.

But a replication of tequila via the ti root is not what Constantin Heitkamp, Ola’s lead distiller, is aiming for.

“Constantin is doing precise distillation work,” Jacobson continued. “He’s made it so it’s more of a unique product. People are like, ‘What is this? I’ve never had anything like it.'”

Naehalani Breeland, president of Ola Brew Co, said the most commonly told story of Okolehao is that early Hawaiians would make a fermented beverage out of the ti root. They would place it in an imu (pit oven), cook it and convert it into a glaze that could be, and often was, eaten like candy. The glaze was then soaked in water and eventually created a beverage that was approximately 2% to 4% alcohol by volume.

There is dispute over the introduction of the distillation process to the evolution of Okolehao and its consumption across the islands. Some claim sailors from the West recognized the product as alcohol and introduced distillation to the Hawaiians. Jacobson and Breeland are in the camp that believes the Hawaiians had likely already discerned the process of distillation for themselves, as there is evidence of early distilleries in places throughout Polynesia, such as Tahiti.

In either case, Okolehao is an indigenous alcohol of Hawai´i. It was consumed regularly before King Kamehameha outlawed the spirit in 1818. However, it is widely accepted that Ali´i continued drinking the beverage during the ban, as did visiting Westerners.

Okolehao returned as a common drink among the people of the Hawaiian Islands some time later, but was outlawed again when the United States initiated prohibition. The US ban drove the production of Okolehao into Hawai´i’s backcountry.

“Where it started and all it’s gone through over the centuries to where it is today, it kind of got lost what it was,” Jacobson said.

Ola’s Okolehao is Exclusively Hawaiian

The origin plant of Okolehao has a significant place in the culture of Hawai´i.

“Ti root is used for lei making, hula skirts, floral decorations and (considerably more). Okolehao is another way to revere the plant,” explained Breeland, who is of Native Hawaiian descent. “For us, it is symbolic in a way because we are using as many local ingredients as we can in our beverages. We will be able to use the entire plant in production of our Okolehao.”

Jacobson said using the entire plant, and nothing else, is equal parts the challenge and the pride behind production of the spirit.

“We just thought if we were on this island, and all we had was ti root, what could we make?” he said. “That’s what we’re doing — 100% ti root.”

Beyond the root itself being used to develop the Okolehao, the leaf can be processed and turned into paper, which Ola plans to use to label the bottles. The green matter can be combined with indigenous micro-organisms and used as a fertilizer for the brewery’s ti farming across the Big Island.

“We have this biomass, and we’re going to compost and reapply that,” Jacobson said. “All the nutrients the ti absorbs, we pretty much put back into (the land).”

“Full circle. Sustainability. That’s what we really like about this,” he continued. “It won’t take a lot of inputs. Everything will be self-regenerative. It’s really exciting, not just for Ola Brew but for the whole industry in Hawai´i.”

The company just leased 50 acres north of Hilo, where it has set up a tissue culture lab and a plant nursery. The plan is to start 10,000 new ti plants each month, essentially in perpetuity. Eventually, Ola intends to expand to 150-200 acres on the Big Island, with long-term plans for upwards of 1,000 acres of ti planting statewide. A processing facility for the root is in the works, and Jacobson said he will look into construction of a large scale distillery at some point in the future.

When Will Okolehao Hit Shelves?

It may be a stretch before patrons of Ola Brew can find the uniquely Hawaiian spirit on the shelves of their local grocery and liquor stores, and the like.

Jacobson said the company’s small distillery in Kailua-Kona will only produce about 20 gallons of Okolehao monthly, which translates into roughly 100 bottles. Thus, the product will be exclusive to Ola’s tap rooms in single-serving form, likely available in the next three to four months.

Large scale production, he said, is probably 18 to 24 months down the road. However, despite the popularity and success of Ola’s beers, ciders, seltzers and hard teas, Jacobson believes the company’s burgeoning spirits wing will prove to be what carries the brewery to national and international relevance.

“We’ll never sell beer outside of Hawai´i. It just doesn’t make sense. You can get amazing beers all over the world, and it’s kind of the same thing with cider and seltzer. Products that are 90% water, it’s hard to create a global or even a national market for them,” Jacobson said.

“There is big potential for Ola to grow on a global scale with a more concentrated product, like a spirit. We see the spirts of Ola as our gateway to being a national and international brand,” he continued. “We’re doing a bit of that with seltzers and hard teas in California.

Those are unique, but other breweries could copy them. Okolehao (and other spirits) will be our foundation for building outside the state of Hawai´i and outside the (country).”

Ola also developed a starfruit brandy and entered it into the worldwide competition in San Francisco last month, where it was awarded a gold medal.

The brewery’s Hibiscus Lavender hard seltzer won a Double Gold, as did the Okolehao, though the seltzer did not claim Best of Class honors, leaving it one wrung below Ola’s premier spirit on the award ladder. Ola’s Lemongrass seltzer was also awarded a silver medal at the competition.

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