The Primo Return of Primo

This was first reported back in late November during what I’ll continue to call “The Great Ennui of Late ’07” when the Bulletin was looking pretty sparse. I’m returning to the new year reinvigorated, or at least willing myself to try, and so I’m trying to catch up on old news people have sent in, and this comes to me by way of my island connection, a regular Bulletin reader living in Hawaii. Thanks Doug. It seems the old iconic Primo Beer brand has returned as of December, so far in kegs only. Bottles will be back sometime in April.

First, a little history. Primo Beer was originally made by the Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co., which was founded in 1898. After Prohibition ended, it was renamed the Hawaii Brewing Co. and by the 1950s became the best-selling beer on the islands. In 1963, Schlitz Brewing bought the brand, building a new brewery in ‘Aiea, and they continued making Primo until closing it in 1979. At its height, the Hawaiian brewery produced over 400,00 barrels per year. A few years later, in 1982, Stroh Brewing bought the brand and changed the label as well as the formula, trying to sell the brand outside Hawaii in several states. With mixed success, sales grew and then fell again, and eventually Stroh stopped making Primo in either 1997 or 98 (accounts differ on this point). A year or two later, Pabst acquired the brand, along with several others brands from Stroh’s and they are the current owners of the brand.

So last year, Pabst made the decision to bring back the label. And that makes sense, Primo was one of those iconic brands that people couldn’t help but associate with Hawaii. Using a silhouetted image of King Kamehameha, who in 1810 united the Hawaii Islands under his leadership of the Kingdom of Hawaii, was a genius marking move and the bold Hawaiian shirts made in the 1960s-70s with the Primo label continue to be collector’s items right up to the present.

The new Primo is being launched by the Primo Brewing Co., a division of Pabst Brewing. A new recipe was created by brewmaster Phil Markowski, who justly won fame and fortune for his beers at the Southampton Publick House on Long Island, New York.

The beer itself is being brewed by a craft brewery on the island of Kauai, Keoki Brewing, who initially will brew around 200 kegs each month. Once bottled production starts up, that will be handled stateside by Pabst in Irwindale, California. But since Pabst doesn’t own any breweries, that means Miller Brewing — who does own a brewery in Irwindale — will be contract brewing the beer for Pabst. According to a press release, “the draft and bottled versions will be distributed by Paradise Beverage Co.”

It will be interesting to see if they can successfully revive the brand. I imagine it will be great as a tourist beer and for locals looking to support a well-known local brand, at least as far as the draft beer is concerned. The bottles stateside may prove trickier, especially after the initial novelty wears off, as it inevitably will.



  1. jesskidden says

    Primo’s claim to infamy, IIRC, dates from the Schlitz era (when Schlitz was not known for traditional brewing practices to begin with), when it was reputedly shipped in bulk (as either wort, concentrated work or perhaps as a high gravity brew to be diluted in HI?) from Schlitz’s LA area brewery. The 400k capacity of the Hawaiian brewery was very small for a Schlitz plant at the time, most of their breweries were in the 4-6 million bbl. range, save for the one in Tampa (current Yuengling facility), which was 1.5 mil bbl.

    When Stroh got the label in the Schlitz purchase, they (like all the major brewers) were desparate for a “super-premium” to compete with A-B Michelob, which dominated the segment. Along with their own Signature and the Schlitz all-malt Erlanger, didn’t they also try to market their Primo version as a S-P? Of course, they eventually just bought Augsburger (which was enjoying some pretty wide distribution for a Huber brand- I bought it regularly in NJ), and promptly ruined it.

  2. Brendan says

    I recently attended a marketing focus group for this beer. In my opinion the taste was very nice. It was a tasty lager with some good flavor. I am not a huge Lager fan but I actually enjoyed it. I did notice that they will probably go about marketing this beer incorrectly. It seems as though they will be going after the Corona crowd and focus on image over taste.


  1. […] brewer Keoki Brewing Company of Kauai to brew Primo under license.  Keoki brewed Primo in kegs for draft distribution while the bottled version was brewed at the Miller Brewery in Irwindale, CA. However, In 2009 Keoki […]

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