How Beers from the Tropics Do When They Travel

July 12, 2017

By Michael Donato, July 12, 2017

There’s a warm breeze keeping you comfortable and rustling the palm leaves as you lounge with your feet on the cool sandy shore, watching the sun turn red and slowly set over the ocean. The waves are gently crashing a few feet away, creating a tranquil soundtrack to the scene. Your favorite person in the world is lounging next to you and you’ve got nowhere to go and aren’t in a rush to get there.

There’s a beer in your hand. It’s cool and refreshing and you’re enjoying it immensely. What beer is it? Does it matter? It might be your first, your fourth, or you’re not even keeping track. It’s an important part of the moment, but it’s also just an accessory to the overall mood. The beer is great because everything’s great right at that moment.

Eventually the vacation ends. You get back on the plane and head home. The palm trees continue to sway while you’re on the tarmac, the warm weather basks the next visitor as you fly away from paradise.

The beer though. Can you bring the beer with you? Does a nice tropical brew taste as good back home in snowy New York as it did in sunny Hawaii? Can you sip that beer on a concrete patio in the suburbs with the sounds of traffic in the background and feel like you’re back on that beach? What happens to your subjective feeling about that beer?

I fell in love with Kona Brewing Company on my honeymoon to Hawaii. Specifically I enjoyed a beer they called Coco Loco Toasted Coconut Brown Ale while at the brewpub in Kona. I’d never enjoyed coconut anything before this trip and suddenly I was eating and drinking it everywhere. It turns out that the mostly stale flakey stuff inside the last Russell Stover chocolate is not a good representation of it.

Casey AndersonFive stars, sun's great, this is refreshing, I've got no problems.

If someone asks me my favorite beer, a question I find pretty silly, I usually answer with this. It’s pretty hard to top the overall effect of drinking a delicious beer with your wife on your honeymoon on a tropical island. This is my deserted island beer, my go-to, the beer I stock my fridge with.

So naturally I wanted to have that beer again. I knew you could get Kona beers around New York, but this was a one-off beer and wasn’t even in the main part of the menu at the brewpub. It was not available in New York, or New Jersey. Kona really only sent their Longboard Lager and Fire Rock Pale Ale to the continental US. Could those scratch my itch?

I kept an eye out for the beer, and I did in fact stumble upon it just two short years later, in Las Vegas, thanks to the Craft Brew Alliance and the added distribution footprint. The Kona Koko Brown was still delicious, and I enjoyed it immensely, though it’s definitely worth noting that I was again on vacation and in a warm climate. Now in 2017 they’re in every state and I make sure to pick up and drink a sixpack of Kona Koko Brown every season, sit on my deck, and imagine I can still hear those waves instead of air conditioners, the neighbors, and traffic.

My experience is pretty typical. People from cold weather cities often vacation in tropical islands and resorts, enjoy the local food and drink, and then return home craving some of those tastes.

Do they then think favorably upon those beers? Do the images of swaying palm trees and warm beaches that might come with buying something called Longboard Lager tend to make it taste better? Does branding like “Find your beach” and “Liquid Aloha” have an effect on our perceptions of those beers?

Just the connection of the beer with the place you’re having it makes it taste better.”

It’s pretty clear that it does. Looking at the data by month shows obvious peaks and valleys, particularly for Corona. Corona, and all light lagers, tend to be better received in the summer and less favorably rated in the winter.

The graphs for beers from other tropical locales, or specifically Kona Brewing, aren’t as clear cut. The peaks and valleys are all over the place and in some cases it appears that beers checked in in Hawaii or closer to the equator actually perform better than up north, but it’s inconclusive.

For one, outside of the fact that Kona is now brewed on the mainland, a lot of these beers are brewed in the tropics and shipped, something that is only going to degrade the beer through heat and time before it gets to someone’s mouth. It’s going to be harder to evoke that visceral enjoyment if the beer doesn’t even taste the same.

One thing that does shine through is that beers that have a location attached do better, often much better, than the average. I always attach a location to my check-ins, even if it’s just my house, but it’s interesting that just the connection of the beer with the place you’re having it makes it taste better.

Beer is immersive, and social, and checking it in is a sign that you’re having a good time and enjoying yourself. I was in Hawaii just before Untappd so I don’t know what I would’ve rated the various beers I drank, but there were definitely times, and beaches, that I wasn’t thinking about cell service. Adding a location to your check-in may mean better ratings, but the best ratings come when you forget to check-in at all.

Data from Michael Donato & UntappdThe average Untappd score of a group of tropical beers, graphed against the binned latitude.

There is also a small correlation with latitude and ratings, in that as you go north you get better ratings on these tropically brewed beers. Look at the graph above, and you'll see that there's a prime distance from the equator, where we enjoy those tropical beers best – maybe because we remember where we got them, or because we're drinking them during summer months. 

The trend starts to reverse itself at a certain point, but distance from the brewery may start to have something to do with that. The beer at those latitudes may be less fresh. 

The context always plays a part. This is certainly part of the reason that hype and whales taste so good, because the achievement of finally tasting Pliny the Elder, or a Treehouse NE IPA is clouded (ahem) by the excitement of that event. Even if it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, it’s rare that the occasion doesn’t last in your memory. The accomplishment of getting to the front of the line, or finding a beer release party, automatically gets you excited and primed to have a good time and enjoy the beer you’ve been craving.

Beer is social, and inevitably someone’s going to ask you if you’ve ever had Heady Topper or Dark Lord. Except in a hyper-local sense no one’s asking you if you’ve ever had Hops and Dreams by The Alementary, even if the beer stands up with all the ones they are asking you about.

Tropical beers have a way of invoking an experience and story with each sip, and that raises the beer to new levels of enjoyment.”

So it’s pretty hard to untangle the tropical beers from the vacations on which we met them. We’re craving these beers based on nostalgia and not so much because they’re world class beers. In truth, beers like Corona, Red Stripe, and your favorite island beverage are actually pretty bad when put against some of the more full-tasting craft beverages available to you locally.

Kona does make some pretty good beers, but a lot of them wouldn’t stand out if they didn’t evoke Hawaii. I want to try Kona’s Hanalei Island IPA, the new seasonal, because it reminds me of my time at a Luau on Kauai drinking Mai Tais and watching fire dancers.

If that beer was released by your average mainland brewery I might not even give it a second look. Don’t believe me? Read Lee Breslouer's review of Hanalei Island elsewhere on this site and notice how he both loves it and thinks it’s a poor representation of the style. Context matters. It’s really no surprise that some of the latest trends in beer are taking the IPAs everyone loves, and packing them full of tropical flavors.

I’ve had hundreds of beers that are, in some quantitative way, better than Kona’s Koko Brown, and yet it’s always in the conversation for my favorite beer. Tropical beers have a way of invoking an experience and story with each sip, and that raises the beer to new levels of enjoyment.

Your favorite beers are there not because they topped some leaderboard, but because they hit your palate in the perfect way at the right time.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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