- Steve Balzer is the master brewer at a microbrewery at a private club in Kalaoa, Hawaii.
- Balzer says he enjoys the independence and collaboration with local farmers that working at a microbrewery allows.
- This is what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Natasha Bazika.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
I’d started brewing beer when I was 21 at college in Oregon and kept doing it as a passion. After graduating from college in the 2008 economy crash, I didn’t have much luck job-wise.
My degree was in marketing and economics, and while I initially had a job lined up, after graduation I was laid off before I even started, so I worked part-time jobs and brewed on the side. After four years of unstable temporary jobs, I decided to go back to college. I enrolled in Siebel Institute of Technology – out of Munich, Germany, and Chicago – for a masters of brewing.
It can be challenging to get in the door in the brewing industry.
My first job was as a keg washer in Portland. People were willing to work for free, but I was lucky enough to get the paid gig of keg washing. From there I moved up to the cellar, and then brewer. I even helped someone start a brewery in Portland.
In 2018 Big Island Brewhaus was looking for a head brewer. They approached me with a two-year contract, I said yes, then they moved my family out to Waimea and I started to run the brewery.
As my contract came to an end, the vice president of operations at a nearby private residential club community called Kohanaiki contacted me to see if I’d be interested in being the master brewer at their brewery. I took on the job in May 2020, just as the pandemic worsened and everyone went into lockdown.
The brewery had been shut down and vacant for quite some time before I came along. So during the pandemic, while the club had no members, I cleaned, reorganized, and resurfaced the tanks. When guests started coming in early October 2020 and everything slowly started reopening, that’s when the ball started rolling.
This brewery is much smaller than I experienced in past jobs. At the corporate breweries where I worked before, I was never in charge of accounting, management, or any of the paperwork. At Kohanaiki, I’m a one-man team, so I need to pay attention to the budget and spend at least a few hours every day answering emails.
Even though it’s more work, I prefer the structured system and being tuned in on the business side. Other breweries I’ve worked at didn’t have a budget, so it was easy to go a little crazy spending, but here, I know what I can and can’t spend.
It’s hot in Kalaoa, so club members tend to prefer light, fruity beers over dark beers.
The best part about my job is I can brew whatever I like. We mostly create beers that are around 6.2% alcohol. IPA sells well on the island, as does rosé beer and other fruity variations. I’m currently working on a spiked apple cider beer – Belgian double style. I plan to ferment it with apple juice. I also have oak chips soaking in rum, which I’ll add to the beer when aging for a rich flavor.
During the hot months, I also have seltzers on hand. I fought this craze for so long, but eventually I had to give the people what they want, which is seltzers and rosé beer.
Since we’re a microbrewery attached to the resort, I often chat with members, ask their opinions, and listen to their requests of what they’d like to drink. I’m open to brewing anything and everything, as long as I know it will work.
Working in a small brewery, I’m also able to turn over funky ideas quickly. In corporate brewing you have to make a certain number of kegs for that one beer, but here I can make just one keg of a beer before moving onto another to keep it varied.
I can also more easily work with different yeasts. In a corporate environment, brewers are held to a style of yeast in-house, but here, I can make small batches with different yeasts. I don’t even need to use the same yeast again.
Coming from the mainland US, I’ve experienced new challenges while brewing in Hawaii.
A challenge I’ve faced with brewing on the island is water quality. I’ve lived in places where the water quality is good, but here, the water is littered with sodium. I use reverse-osmosis water from nearby Kona, to which I add calcium, magnesium, and other elements to get the flavor profile I want.
Another difference of brewing on the island compared to the mainland is access to local exotic fruits. The club has an onsite biodynamic community farm, and my friend also has a family farm where I can visit and buy different fruits. Anytime I need inspiration or want to see what fruits are available, I’ll go directly to the farm, try different fruits, and instantly think of new beers to make. I allow the flavors and fruits to guide me, rather than creating a recipe and not having the right ingredients to carry it out.
As the island began welcoming back visitors and members around October when the pre-testing COVID travel program started, I began preparing for events. We held Oktoberfest, but instead of the usual German lagers, I also showcased different German beers to introducing unique styles of German alcohol to club members.
We’ve also recently opened to “meet the brewer” events. I show the members what I do and teach them about beer, from the specifics of the brewing process to the variety of flavor profiles. We also do a tasting, where they can try all the different types of beers we have on tap.
As a master brewer at a micro-brewery, I can merge brewing with business ideas.
The brewery is near the 18th hole of the resort’s golf course, so when I first joined Kohanaiki I thought it would be great to set up space for golfers to have a pour after their game. We began offering this last year after reopening, and now guest golfers can watch sports, have a beer, play darts, or just sit and socialize.
Recently, I’ve been thinking of brewing a Mexican mocha. Think spicy, locally brewed coffee, and a touch of lactose for a darker side beer. There’s also a champagne-style beer in the works. I’m looking to incorporate grapes, so it would be a base beer with half grapes.
I have many ideas and time to explore them. It’s just one of the many perks of working at a private microbrewery.
Natasha Bazika is a freelance writer currently based in Sydney. She has contributed to CNN Travel, Architectural Digest, Housebeautiful, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram.