By Jan TenBruggencate

Hawaiian sugarcane

Hawaiian sugarcane

Early European voyagers got their brew where they could find it.

Certainly, ships left their home ports well supplied, generally, with casks of rum, and perhaps bottles of wine, and maybe some traditional barley beer, but by the time they got well into the Pacific, and long months or years into their voyages, the booze often ran short.

Which leads to the story of the first beer brewed in the Hawaiian Islands.

Captain James Cook’s two ships raised the islands of Ni‘ihau and Kaua‘i in January 1778, and immediately began trading with the Hawaiian residents for fresh food, including pigs, root crops and fruits for beer.

They used the fruit as the basis of several kinds of beer-some palatable and some, not so much.

Cook was a stickler about bringing fresh goods aboard at his stops, in part to stave off scurvy. And British crews regularly brewed up fruit.

Among the first Hawai‘i products was made in late 1778 from brewing up Hawaiian sugar cane juice. But the crews liked some of their refreshments more than others. Sugar cane beer was not a favorite, although Cook himself spoke highly of it.

“Having procured a quantity of sugar-cane, and finding that a strong decoction of it produced a very palatable beer, I ordered some more to be brewed for our general use,” Cook wrote, as recorded in The Third and Last Voyage of Captain Cook, published by Hurst and Company in New York in the late 1800s.

But while Cook himself seemed to feel the stuff was tasty enough, the crew disagreed.

“When the cask was now broached, not one of my crew would even so much as taste it,” he complained.

He didn’t force the crew to drink it, but he wouldn’t let them have any of the ship’s valuable rum supplies while there was cane beer available.

“That I might not be thwarted in my views, I gave orders that no grog would be served in either ship. I myself, and the officers, continued to make use of the sugar-cane beer whenever we could get materials for brewing,” he wrote.

The recipe? Just sugar cane juice, yeast and hops, apparently.

“A few hops, of which we had some on board, improved it much. It has the taste of new malt beer, and I believe no one will doubt of its being very wholesome, yet my inconsiderate crew alleged that was injurious to their health.”

It wasn’t the first time a crew challenged their captain’s brewing efforts. They had also opposed drinking spruce beer that Cook had brewed up in New Zealand in 1773. That was reportedly a heavy drink, tangy from the resinous sap of the spruce.

Cook, an innovative man said it was just very hard to get British sailors to try anything they weren’t accustomed to.

“Every innovation whatever on board a ship, though very much to the advantage of seamen, is sure to meet with their highest disapprobation,” he wrote.


  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.