Primo’s Long Lost Sister: Prima Beer a Guest Post by Paul Kan
Many of us remember or at least have heard of Primo Beer. In the late 1960s, this Hawaiian beer captured an astonishing 70 percent of the local beer market. With the label’s image of King Kamehameha I’s silhouetted profile featured on everything from hats to surfboards, Primo was a legend in the Islands. Primo has had a small resurgence, but its history is often overlooked…and very few people know that it had a distant sister beer created by the same man.
Primo was the child of Alfred Hocking…or more precisely Senator Alfred Hocking of the Republic of Hawaii’s senate. After the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, a self-proclaimed republic was announced; Hocking represented Maui in the new legislature. If Hawai’i had a Samuel Adams, it would’ve been Alfred Hocking. Agriculturalist, businessman, politician, and brewer, Hocking did not like to sit still. Hocking founded the Honolulu Brewing and Malting Company and rolled out Primo Beer in 1901.
Not content with brewing only in Hawaii, Hocking began scouting for other locations around Asia. In 1905, he sent Louis Schweitzer, the secretary of Honolulu Brewing and Malting Company to explore opportunities in China and the Philippines. The choice of location for the new brewery seemed to be a toss-up between Manila and Shanghai. However, the Philippines already had San Miguel Brewing, which was not thrilled with the prospects of a competitor opening nearby. San Miguel’s directors strongly objected, citing a Spanish law that granted it the monopoly on beer brewing in the Philippines. [i]
Not spoiling for a fight in Manila, Shanghai was seriously considered as the other option. For Schweitzer, Shanghai “was the Paris of the Far East and everything is on the move. There is business everywhere.” But, for unknown reasons, Hocking chose the British colony of Hong Kong for his new brewing enterprise. Perhaps because Hocking was British born, he was drawn to the far-flung outpost of the British Empire. He opened Oriental Brewing in 1908. One of the beers it sold was “Prima” and its advertising pitch echoed that of Primo’s —“The Beer that’s Brewed to Suit the Climate.”[ii] In just a few years, Hocking had become the father of two beer brands in the history of the early 20th Century Pacific Rim. Prima didn’t have the staying power of Primo; the Oriental Brewery closed within five years.
Although Primo Beer has had its ups and downs in Hawai’i, Hocking’s presence can still be felt around Honolulu. The building that housed the Honolulu Brewing and Malting Company and produced the first batch of Primo still stands on Queen Street in Kaka’ako, down the road from Aloha Beer Company. And, Hocking’s Honolulu house is located in the same neighborhood as Roosevelt High School and is on the City and County of Honolulu Historic Registry of Residences.
[i] “Schweitzer Talks about his Manila Brewery Plan,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 12, 1905, 1.
[ii] Martyn Cornell, “A Short History of Beer in Hong Kong,” Brewery History 156 (2014), 8.
From Alexander Gates: Mahalo for the offer of providing this piece to the author Paul Kan. From the author “Paul Kan grew up on the Windward Side of Oahu. He currently lives in Pennsylvania where he owns Burd’s Nest Brewing Company and teaches at the US Army War College. His book Hawai’i Beer: The History of Brewing in Paradise will be released next year.” All photos courtesy Paul Kan and used with permission, except the original beer advertisement retrieved from art.com, which retains the watermark.