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Hops and heart in Hagåtña

  • 6 min to read
Hops and heart in Hagåtña

MEET THE JOHNSONS: Husband and wife team, Anna and Ben Johnson, were living in India as brewery consultants when they came to visit friends living in Guam a couple of years ago. During that visit, they decided to live and start a microbrewery on island. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

TASTE TO PINT: Carabao Brewing offers four sizes for customers to sample the house made, artisan products. From left, the 5-ounce Taster; the 10-ounce Slammer; the 13-ounce Tulip and the 16-ounce Pint. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

In 2002 Ben Johnson, then a chef, created his first home-brewed beer. He was hooked: not long after, he quit his job to work in breweries full time and he’s never looked back. Johnson spent the next 17 years working his way up to head brewer, meeting his now-wife, Anna Johnson, and traveling the world together as consultants. Eventually, their pursuit of good beer landed the pair on a little island in the middle of the Pacific, working hard and having the time of their lives at their Hagåtña brewpub.

Located on Aspinall Avenue next to Fetch Guam and across the street from BankPacific, Carabao Brewery inhabits the former Mermaid Tavern. After buying the property, the Johnsons gutted the restaurant and rebuilt the interior mostly with their own two hands.

Thanks to their labor of love – and their reluctance to do what’s already being done – Carabao manages to stand apart from the culinary crowd, even while joining in on the foodie fun.

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

SUM OF ITS PARTS: Malts and hops, which are major components in the beer brewing process, are on display on the counter at Carabao Brewery. Over the years, owner and head brewer Ben Johnson has cultivated a list of international sources from which to procure the best hops available. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

“We have all these awesome neighbors that are doing great things and we just want to add to that. ... We don’t see it as a taking of the business or anything ... it’s bringing more people out here,” Anna Johnson added.

“We’ve had plenty of people who are like, oh, so you’re gonna have hamburger right? We’re like, no! Go to Mosa’s and get a hamburger, go to Stax and get a hamburger. We’re not gonna do a hamburger – those guys do hamburgers,” Ben Johnson said. “There’s already other people doing what they do well.”

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

INTENSE: Owner and head brewer Ben Johnson describes the microbrewery business as "cash intensive." Johnson estimates that the brewing hardware alone was a $50,000 investment, not including the installation or the buildout of the space. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

This supportive spirit isn’t just talk. The Johnsons are part of the second generation of craft brewers, who came of age back when craft breweries numbered just 1,400, compared to the 7,000-plus in existence today. Their generation was a community, they said, rather than a group of competitors. And that sentiment is at the heart of Carabao.

Their theory: if you make good beer and talk about it, more people will take an interest, more people will start making their own beer, and the island’s entire beer scene will just keep getting better.


Down the road, Ben Johnson plans to revisit his culinary roots, serving up gourmet sausage infused with local flavors such as beef tinaktak or chicken dinanche.

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

CHESA: While their commercial kitchen has yet to be pressed into full time service, the Carabao Brewery does make hand-made sausages available for take-out only, for now. The sausage filling depends on ingredient availability. Pictured are the pork/cheddar/jalapeno sausages which are sold 4 for $10, with a weight approximately of 22 ounces. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

For now, Carabao patrons are free to bring in outside grub – pick up a pizza at Tommy’s or tacos to-go at Caliente before heading to Carabao. Or, keep your eyes peeled for restaurant pop-ups, like this week’s collaboration with Primo Pizzakaya.

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

FRIED GOODNESS: The Carabao Brewery has a full commercial kitchen that will be fired up down the road. Right now, it's a perfect set up for pop-ups, like Chef Dylan Saad's collaboration for wing night. Saad is the chef and owner of Primo Pizzakaya. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

On Tuesday night, Carabao was packed with people as early as 5 p.m., from business people getting after-work drinks to families with young kids, there to enjoy some on-site wing slinging by Primo Pizzakaya owner and head chef Dylan Saad.

In other words, Carabao isn’t your typical bar scene. And that’s the point.

“We’re beer first,” Ben Johnson said. “There’s really not anywhere here that’s ... just beer-focused and that’s what we really want to do ... we’re not gonna be like any other place. We’re not gonna have late hours ... you’re not going out to drink craft beers until 2 a.m. ... you’re there to enjoy it.”

In addition to beers, Carabao offers wine, uber-trendy frosé and house-made sodas and plans to experiment with draft cocktails. But if you’re looking for a rum and Coke or a round of shots, you’ve come to the wrong bar.

“We honestly won’t be everybody’s place,” Ben Johnson said.

And yet Carabao, which opened less than a month ago, already seems to be a Hagåtña hot spot – so what’s their secret to success? Maybe it’s their extreme attention to detail, right down to uniquely treated water for each beer, or Ben Johnson’s culinary background; maybe their collaboration with other restaurants, or perhaps their determination to offer something that you can’t find elsewhere.

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

TASTY COLLABORATION: The Carabao Brewery had a pop-up collaboration with chef Dylan Saad, of Primo Pizzakaya. Chef Dylan brought back his famous wings, which have been removed from the Primo Pizzakaya menu. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

The correct answer: all of the above.

So, welcome to Carabao Brewing, a place where you can learn about ancient German beer feuds while sipping on a locally sourced coconut porter and enjoying fiesta-inspired gourmet sausage.

In short, welcome to craft beer paradise.

The beer brief

Carabao opened with six beers on tap, though the menu varies a bit with each visit as some beers sell out and the Johnsons make room for new additions. This week saw the addition of an Altbier, a German-style Amber (at the center of said beer feuds), to be followed tomorrow with the coffee-infused Café Niyok.

If you’re not sure where to start or not really into beer at all, make the 671 Kölsch your first order.

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

ONE FOR HOME: The Carabao Brewery offers products to-go, canned on the spot. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

“If someone comes in and says, hey, I only drink Bud, we’re like, check this out ... It’s the gateway to craft,” Ben Johnson said.

For the beer connoisseur, try a couple 5 oz. snifters of any brew with the name Vic. Named for Assistant Brewer Vic Herold, who showed up on their doorstep the same day they took over the space looking for a cold beer and has since become the Johnsons' right-hand man. Each beer is brewed with the hop variety Vic’s Secret (I couldn’t not buy it, Ben Johnson said) and is a spinoff of their original Vic Has A Secret pale ale (not currently on menu).

“So (Vic Has A Hazy Secret) and the Vic’s Private Thoughts ... it’s the same batch, (Ben) made it at the same time, and then he split it into two parts and this one was unfiltered and lightly (carbonated), the other one was (filtered) and carbonated,” Anna Johnson said. It’s the “same beer but manipulated slightly differently.”

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

CHOICE: Known as a "Crowler," 32-ounce cans from Carabao Brewery are filled with the brew of choice and canned right behind the bar, one at a time. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

Tomorrow, Carabao will release Café Niyok, a remix of their original Niyok Punch, a robust porter brewed with lactose and aged on freshly toasted coconut, now punched up even more with Guatemalan coffee from Guam’s own Spike Coffee Roasters.

A West Coast brewer whose beer philosophy is something like, the hoppier the better, Ben Johnson admitted that the Niyok Punch was actually his first stab at a porter.

“We were chilling at the beach and I was like, man, we gotta brew something tomorrow,” he recalled. Herold, taking inspiration from his surroundings, suggested a coconut porter, and Ben Johnson was all for it. “Did a little research the next day, came up with the recipe, so this is the first one I’ve ever brewed.”

You’d never know it.

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

BREWED FOR YOU: The Carabao Brewery can make your favorite brew available for take-out with their 32-ounce crowler. The crowlers are filled and canned on the spot, right behind the bar, as you wait. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

Making Guam home

The Johnsons arrived on Guam for the first time about two years ago. They were working in India at the time as brewery consultants but knew they wanted to ultimately open up their own place, considering India, Vietnam and the mainland U.S. for locations. Then a friend living on Guam suggested they pay the island a visit.

“He’s like bring beer! We need good beer,” Ben Johnson recalled. “And that got us thinking, what about Guam?”

It took them just two days to realize they never wanted to leave.

“There’s just something so amazing about Guam. It’s not a saturated market, but there’s so many people out here that are excited about craft beer, know craft beer,” Anna Johnson said. “There are so many people that were born here, raised here, spent five, 10, 15 years off island, have come back ... they’ve experienced the craft beer boom.”

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

SENSES: Customers can feel and smell the hops and malts that are on display on the counter at Carabao Brewery. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

Anna Johnson admits they worried about how they would be received - but has been blown away by the welcoming response.

“I think we were both curious how it was gonna go,” she said. “We have been met with open arms at every turn, everywhere ... everybody is pretty excited about what we are doing and super supportive.”

As mainland transplants – Anna Johnson hails from Alaska while her other half grew up in the Midwest – working hard to bring good beer to the island, the Carabao, their brewery’s patron saint, is an unexpectedly apt symbol of both the brewery and the Johnsons themselves.

“We wanted it to be our logo and then the name just fit,” she said. “You know the carabao is a hardworking, tough, strong animal; puts its head down, works hard, and that’s kind of how we are too. And although it’s not indigenous, it’s a local animal, it’s culturally significant. And ... we haven’t been on island very long but we want to be local. We feel like this is home.”

Hops and heart in Hagåtña

CHEERS: Chartee Brennan, left, and Mikayla Legaspi enjoy some brews at the Carabao Brewery on Aspinall Ave in Hagåtña. The microbrewery opened July 16 and has a capacity of just under one hundred people. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

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