Discover a laid-back yet world-class beer scene steeped in history and tradition in the Cook Islands, the South Pacific’s low-key paradise.
Pricey poolside Mai Tai’s are best left to Fiji and Tahiti because, in the Cook Islands, locals favor the home brewed. Bush-beer brewing is a two-century-old Cook Island tradition–the beer, made from fermented fruit, sugar, malt, and hops, was traditionally served in secretive community gathering spots known as “tumunus.” These drinking clubs are hidden deep in the jungle and named for fermentation barrels carved from the base of a coconut tree. The breezy, orange-scented homebrews still get passed around in coconut shells while patrons sing and socialize, Cook Island-style.
Authentic tumunus exist off the tourist track, and their ancient recipes have recently been revived in the form of modern breweries. Tumunu bush-beer tastes like a light summer ale, and Cook Island breweries honor that original flavor by showcasing beers with fruit-forward notes and beach-ready drinkability. When the spendy tastings and urban lumberjack contingency of the worldwide craft beer scene feels a little too hip, try a refreshingly authentic Cook Island cold one (plus, chances are it’s pretty hot out).
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Venture Into the Jungle to Tour Matutu Brewery
Follow the dirt road off of Rarotonga’s main road in the Vaka Takitumu district to find Matutu Brewing, where local brewers Eric Newnham and James Puati conduct tours and tastings twice a day, Monday through Friday. Sample the Mai Lager, Kiva Pale Ale, and rotational beers like a coconut vanilla stout before touring the facilities, where the beer is brewed and hand bottled. For an extra $10, the Matutu crew will even pick you up and drop you off from your accommodations, so put a few back while chilling with the resident chickens underneath thick jungle foliage and native tiare maori flowers. Be sure to bring back a 3-liter recycled soda bottle full of your favorite brew: It’s island tradition to always share your beer with friends.
Sample Roadside Stands and Stroll the Muri Night Market
Rarotonga, the most densely populated island in the Cook Islands group, is only 32 kilometers in circumference and easily circumnavigated by motorbike or explored leisurely by bicycle. So, select a trusty steed and leave the timeline behind while you scour the island for laid back roadside stands selling homebrewed orange beer, coconut liqueur, and papaya infused rum. Keep your tasting light and fill up a bottle or flagon with your favorite before cruising over to the Muri district for the Muri night market, where shoppers are allowed to bring their own drinks. Peruse the stalls for strands of black pearls, bright textiles, and hand carved cookware while pairing your drink with seafood curries, fresh papaya, and coconut pie sold in open air stalls. If you’ve enjoyed your evening properly, be sure to call a taxi back to your accommodation or stroll home to the many hotels nearby.
Fill up Your Flagon at Rarotonga Brewery
Although this brewery is the new kid on the block, two-year-old Rarotonga Brewery already has a loyal legion of friendly regulars, who appear after quittin’ time with reusable flagons to fill at the brewery’s window. Friendly owners Tuki and Tooks partnered with the owners of Hallertau Brewery in Auckland, New Zealand to invest in upgraded facilities and produce the Cook Islands Lager, a refreshingly crisp beer that evokes the spirit of tumunu bush-brews. Beyond serving excellent beer on tap, this brewery is the perfect place to socialize in the late afternoon, when you can blend in with the raucous crowd of locals, expats and visitors.
INSIDER TIPPurchase one of the branded flagons (they make a perfect souvenir) and bring some local lager to the beach the next day rather than wasting money on expensive imports.
Pass Your Cup in Traditional Tumunus on Atiu Island
To really immerse yourself in the homebrew history of the islands, take a quick 45-minute flight on Air Rarotonga to Atiu Island, the land of birds… and secret bush-beer drinking clubs. When Christian missionaries arrived on the island in the 1800s and outlawed beer, locals took to brewing and drinking bush-beer in tumunus they hid in the jungle. These clubs became symbols of traditional culture, and allowed native Atiuans to exchange ideas and conversation while enjoying beer in a setting similar to traditional Polynesian kava drinking ceremonies.
Today, 5 or 6 traditional tumunus still exist scattered about the island, open to locals and visitors alike on Fridays and Saturdays. Come prepared to introduce yourself and join in on discussion and song while the tasty brew is passed around, and remember, it is customary to bring the brewer $5 or some ingredients for the next batch.