No Jokes at Laughing Buddha
By: Grant Y
The notion of a beer connoisseur may sound like a novel concept to those outside of the Pacific Northwest, but as the hops capital this side of the planet, Washingtonians are a bit finicky than most about their beer. It's no surprise then that hundreds of small microbrews and even some now famous breweries, such as Redhook, have all spawned right in our backyard.
One of the rising stars on the microbrews scene is Laughing Buddha, an Belgian style brewery with Asian-inspired flavors. Among the beers offered are the Mango Weizen, a summer ale made with wheat and mango, the Pandan Brown Ale, brewed with pandan leaf and palm suger, the Ginger Pale Ale, flavored with ginger, galangal, and Mandarin orange peel, and the Dragon King Lager, a "classic Japanese" lager, brewed in small batches using the first press.
We met the owners of Laughing Buddha, Chris Castillo and Joe Valvo, for a first-hand tour of their brewing operations, located in the heart of Seattle's industrial district. Long-time friends, the idea of a Far East themed beer had been fermenting between the young, 30-something duo for years. Possessing an appreciation of craft beers along with complimentary skills in brewing and business, Chris and Joe decided two years ago to make that idea a reality.
While both founders consider themselves brewmasters, Joe takes the head role in crafting the recipes while Chris, who recently quit his marketing position at Microsoft, acts as the front-man of the business.
The name of their brewery, Laughing Buddha, was inspired by a combination of personal faith and branding. Both founders consider themselves Buddhist and even sport a traditional religious shrine in the front lobby -- with offerings of beer, of course.
Growth has been fast from the beginning, which included a forced move to a new South Seattle location to ramp up on capacity. Upgrading their facilities with equipment from a failing brewery in San Andreas, Laughing Buddha jumped from the status of home brew to a 15 barrel or 500-gallon brew house.
One attribute to Laughing Buddha's success is duo's uniquely flavored beer, which follows the New Belgium tradition - a live and let live mentality - rather than the German Reinheitsgebot standard, which only allows water, barley and hops. Sales at stores like Uwajimaya and Whole Foods have been brisk, along with demand at Asian restaurants and bars.
"We were trying to fill a specific need," Chris states, when asked how they came up with Laughing Buddha's offerings. The implication is that the Northwest, known for it's German powerhouses like Redhook, could also be in the mood for something a bit more ethnic; a ginger pale ale and nigiri in place of a pork sausage and porter.
Brewing beer for a living might seem like a dream job, don't tell that to the tired duo, who as the only employees, put in 12 to 15 hours a days to keep up with demand. All brewing is done manually and in two-week batches. After each batch is brewed, a bottling truck comes to the brewery to pack the beer, much like at other microbreweries in the region.
To add even more volatility to the mix, recent gas prices and a withering drought in Eastern Washington has sent hops prices soaring, causing every single brewery to scramble for limited hops "We're all affected," Chris says, though he adds, "It's a really good community, everyone is really helpful."
If the young brewmasters' success continues, their new location in South Seattle that is already starting to feel small might have to give way to bigger facilities. With Portland in their sights for the coming year, Laughing Buddha is hoping to keep their growth at a healthy rate.
However, asking whether or not the pair has experienced growing pains, Chris grimaces like a weight-lifter with 800 pounds above his head, "You'd better believe it."
Laughing Buddha can be purchased at Whole Foods, Uwajimaya, Top Foods, Central Market and is served at a growing list of bars in the Seattle area. For a full list, please visit their website at: http://www.laughingbuddhabeer.com.
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