50 States of Beer: Hawaiian IPA goes swell with Spam

Illustration for AFR by Maggie Owsley

Illustration for AFR by Maggie Owsley

One of the joys of living on the West Coast is its proximity to the Pacific. The ocean’s generally freezing, yes, but it also offers a direct connection to Japan, Southeast Asia and the many islands dotting its massive blue expanse. That Pacific pathway delivers a great many things to the continental United States, including excellent beer.

flag1-e1387275637193-300x233-e1389046495757-1I lived in coastal California for several years, and I never grew tired of Maui Brewing Co.’s many offerings. The brewery reflects a way of life I witnessed in my visits to the 50th state and among the Hawaiians I met on the mainland: laid-back, but with a palpable sense of adventure and a deep connection with the environment. The rhythm of the waves seems to dictate the speed of time: ebbing and flowing with grace and purpose but without hurry.

Fittingly, my favorite Maui brew is the Big Swell IPA, a tropical hop bomb in a blue can. No matter where you crack it open, the brew instantly transports you to Hawaii’s soft, sandy shores.

Big Swell is an American-style India pale ale, chock-full of West Coast hoppy goodness, with a medium body, pleasant white foamy head and smooth, fruity finish. The brew pours a hazy orange, reminiscent of the sweetest island sunset. After the initial grapefruit aroma, the drink delivers a sweet malt backbone and then a huge burst of Pacific Northwest hops. It leaves a clean and crisp taste on the palate, with just a hint of pine.

Image courtesy of Maui Brewing Co.

Image courtesy of Maui Brewing Co.

Maui Brewing Co. began as a brewpub in 2005, focused on hand-crafted ales made from the finest local and naturally sourced ingredients. As it expanded distribution, the company chose canning. The craft beer industry recently has embraced that process. Aluminum cans, like glass bottles, are recyclable, but they’re lighter and take up less space in trucks and shipping containers, letting craft breweries extend their reach without breaking the bank or drastically widening their carbon footprint. Cans also are much less sensitive to light and are more easily produced from recycled materials. And new can technology  – including subtle changes in the can opening and lip – enhances how the aroma reaches the nose and reduces any lingering associations with the mass-produced, yellow fizzy stuff.

Maui cans all four of its flagship beers: Big Swell IPA, Bikini Blonde Lager, CoCoNut Porter and Mana Wheat. It marks each label with a cheeky mini manifesto: “Welcome to the micro-canning revolution!”

Just as many Americans look down on canned beer, they turn up their noses at canned luncheon meat. Not in the Aloha State, where Spam has a devoted following and sells more than 7 million cans every year. Made by the Hormel Foods Corp. and introduced in 1937, Spam was sent to the islands to feed U.S. troops during World War II. One theory holds that its name comes from “spiced pork.”

What better match for a hoppy, crisp IPA than salty, greasy, fried comfort food? Spam Musubi is a popular sushi-like snack based on the luncheon meat, which is sliced, grilled and sandwiched with pressed white rice, wrapped neatly in seaweed. Its mixed textures and savory, umami-laden taste mirror Big Swell’s smooth boldness. It’s sold at beachside convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and food trucks, but you can make it and get a taste of Hawaii at home.


Makes 10 servings

Spam Musubi

Easy to make and eat, Spam Musubi is the perfect island snack. Aside from the classic canned luncheon meat, you’ll need sushi nori: pressed, toasted seaweed used to wrap sushi and found at Asian markets or online. This recipe, adapted from Serious Eats, calls for a rice press. If you don't have one, shape the cooked rice with your hands or in a small can with both ends removed. You could even use a Spam can.


  • 2 cups uncooked short-grain white rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 6 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup oyster sauce
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 can (12 ounces) Spam, cut into 10 slices
  • 5 sheets sushi nori
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil


Prepare rice: Soak uncooked rice in bowl of water for 3 to 4 hours. Drain rice through a sieve and rinse again with water.

In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of fresh water to a boil over high heat. Stir in the rice, then cover the saucepan and reduce the heat. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until the rice has fully absorbed the water and the grains have gotten plump. Stir in the rice vinegar. Set rice aside to cool.

In medium bowl, combine soy sauce, oyster sauce and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add Spam slices and marinate 10 minutes.

Prepare musubi: In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Saute several slices of Spam at a time, taking care not to crowd the pan. Cook 2 minutes on each side, until lightly browned. Set aside on plate, lightly tenting aluminum foil.

Cut the nori sheets in half and lay them on a flat surface. Center a rice press on the sheet and press your rice firmly inside. (If you’re doing this by hand, use approximately ½ cup.) Add a crispy slice of Spam, and then remove the press. Wrap the nori around the rice and Spam and seal the edges with a dab of water.

Serve warm or chilled with a cold can of Big Swell IPA.

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