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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Laughing Buddha - High Concept Brewing

We can only guess at the conversation that led Chris Castillo and Joe Valvo to found Laughing Buddha Brewery:
Joe: We're pretty badass homebrewers, let's start a brewery!
Chris: Problem is, there are 297 breweries in the Northwest.
Joe: We can't just brew another IPA.
Chris: Right, we have to distinguish ourselves.
Joe: You mean like brewing double IPAs?
Chris: No, man, I mean--
Joe: Black IPAs?
Chris: No, no, I mean something really different.
Joe: Ohhhhhh, I get it. You mean, like brewing with purple yams and pandan leaves?
Chris: Exactly!
That's not an exact transcript, mind you, just a rough approximation.

Actually, having now sampled the three most exotic Laughing Buddha beers, it seems more likely that the conversation didn't start with beer at all, but food. Northwesterners have really taken to Asian cuisine--in addition to the myriad Thai, nouveau Chinese, Malay, Korean, Cambodian, and Indian restaurants now festooning our neighborhoods, the techniques and ingredients of Asia are also drifting, as if by osmosis, into non-Asian dishes. It was only a matter of time before they drifted into the brew kettle as well.

Laughing Buddha, founded less than two years ago, has already garnered a lot of press for their fusion brews--and rightly so. We don't actually need another brewery making a flight of pale ales and IPAs. Valvo and Castillo have taken a chance on a new idea, and the early results are intriguing. I tried the Purple Yam Porter, Mango Weizen, and Pandan Brown, and indeed, they represent something original in brewing. Let's start out with a basic description.
  • Purple Yam Porter, 7% abv. Brewed originally for Oktoberfest (“Instead of a pumpkin ale, we’re giving our fall seasonal an Asian-fusion spin”), it's a dark ale brewed with purple yams and vanilla beans. The aroma has less roasty malt than you'd expect; it's more like cola with a note of squash. It's thin on the palate, and with the mild vanilla note, again suggestive of a soda. But it's also earthy and autumny, a quality that must come from the yams. Strangely, there's also a slightly minty or menthol note I can't account for looking at the ingredients.
  • Mango Weizen, 5% abv. The Indian mango lassi inspired this beer--and it's evident in the finished product. Lassi is a traditional Indian drink made of yogurt; it's very crisp and cooling. Mango lassis are sweeter and full of mango flavor, but remain light and crisp, also with the intention of cooling. This beer manages the quality by adding a small enough amount of fruit so that the aroma and flavor suffuse the beer without adding much sweetness. It is a perfect summer beer.
  • Pandan Brown, 6% abv. The base beer is a traditional brown ale--it looked and smelled relatively predictable. Added to this are pandan leaves and palm sugar, two ingredients I know nothing about. The pandan leaves are distinctly herbal, but having no basis for comparison, I'm not sure how to describe them. I'd like to drink this beer a few more times to calibrate my palate to it.
So what to make of the beers? Two pieces of advice: forget the style names. We're off the normal grid here, and "porter," "brown," and even "weizen" are misleading. I've read a bit of the commentary by other bloggers (of course, they're mostly Oregonians: Angelo, Bill, Da Beers), and this is a common criticism: they're not really porters or browns. Second, it's probably best to try these with as little expectation as possible. I'd like to buy another round of the beers and acclimatise my tongue to the flavors. They're disorienting at first, and one's initial reaction is to reject them. But this is the thing with change--it's always going to seem weird the first time you try it.

I hold this idea that brewing will naturally evolve and incorporate strange and unexpected ingredients. No doubt when the first Belgian wit ale was made, people thought it was bizarre, too. Maybe we'll ultimately regard purple yams as a misstep, but maybe not. Laughing Buddha is less than two years old, and they're learning as they go along, too. I'm delighted to see something new emerge, and I will be a happy supporter of their experiments.


  1. Laughing Buddha are really doing a great job with their brews.

  2. Are they on tap anywhere?

  3. Stu, I don't know off-hand of a place. My sense is that the newly-arrived bottles are the first wave to hit Oregon.

  4. We grow pandan in our garden in Isaan, Thailand and mix it with our morning coffee. I am thoroughly enjoying the Pandan Brown Ale!