In a world that faces a growing hop crisis, in a time when craft beer gets more attention than ever, two men make the choice to open a brewery. Less than one year ago, Chris Castillo and Joe Valvo opened Laughing Buddha Brewery in South Park. Chris bought Joe his first home-brewing kit more than a decade ago when the two were college roommates, and the two based their new business on Joe's amateur experience, comfortably brewing once a week. Now they have a distributor, placement in nearly every bottle shop in town, and a three-times-a-week brewing schedule. Joe and Chris poured through nearly 20 kegs at the Brewer's Fest over Father's Day weekend and had one of the longest lines all day long. Walk in to their tiny tasting room on a Saturday—a small bar and two tables in a South Park industrial space, decked out in DIY tiki—and you might not be able to sit down.What makes Laughing Buddha stand out is Chris and Joe's mission to focus on modern Asian-style beers, a wide range of styles incorporating Asian ingredients. After weather destroyed much of the hop crops in Slovenia and the Czech Republic and drought severely affected Australia's hop supply, a worldwide hop crisis hit in December 2007. Many small breweries had their supplies limited or were out-and-out denied. But since Laughing Buddha was brand-new, it wasn't beholden to hop-heavy styles.Asian beer is synonymous with crisp, light lagers and pilsners, and Laughing Buddha pays homage to them with its Dragon King Lager. Brewed with rice amid the hops and malt, the beer has more flavor than a Japanese rice lager and more character than macro-brewed varieties. Like any lager, the Dragon King goes with everything as well as with nothing at all. The simplicity of this beer shows some talent, and the brewery's other beers show creativity and a food-friendly flavor profile that will soon have restaurants knocking in droves.Fruit beers get a bad rap. Brew nerds dis the style, but employed prudently, fruit can round out a beer, adding character without turning it into beerade. The mango purée added to Laughing Buddha's wheat beer, Mango Weizen, "is just enough to bring out the subtle mango and fruit notes that already come from the wheat after fermentation," Joe says. Brewed in the American wheat-beer style, their Mango Weizen is a rich gold with lively carbonation, bolder than German hefeweizens; it contains enough hops to keep it from finishing too sweet, achieving a Zen-like state between fruit and grain. Try it with pork anything.Made with ginger, galangal, and mandarin orange peel, Laughing Buddha's Ginger Pale Ale throws off the sweet scent of ginger immediately, but not the sharp scent you get from ginger ale or freshly grated ginger; it's subtle, more like the steam snaking off of a bowl of tom kha gai. When I go out for Thai food, one of my favorite parts of the meal is that first big intake of smells after the food hits the table. This beer gives me that same feeling, and the flavor follows through with outstanding balance and a zing of ginger to punctuate. It would be fantastic with sashimi, lemongrass-chili beef, or any Southeast Asian curry.The first beer I tried from Laughing Buddha was the Pandan Brown Ale, and I still can't get enough of it. The ale pours a dark burnished brown, but drinks much lighter than it looks. Chris says, "If you've ever been to Viet Wah or Uwajimaya and seen something green in the dessert section, it has pandan leaf in it. The flavor is not quite vanilla and sort of hazelnut." The nutty component is there, but it's not overly obvious. The Pandan Brown has a hint of richness that coats the mouth, but still comes off refreshing and easy enough for a session beer (that is, one you can drink all night). Do yourself a favor and grill something before you drink it.Laughing Buddha beers are currently available at Dragonfish Cafe and Quinn's Pub, which has a particular thing for the Dragon King. Pike Street Beer & Wine, Bottleworks, and many groceries with a more in-depth beer selection carry 22-ounce bottles ($3.99), or you can purchase bottles and growlers straight from the brewery on Saturdays (growlers of fresh-tapped beer get two thumbs up). Visit the brewery's Web site, www.laughingbuddhabeer.com, for a more complete list of places to purchase its email@example.com
Laughing Buddha Brewery 9320 15th Ave. S., Unit CE2, 274-7869, SOUTH PARK. Tasting room open 1–6 p.m. Saturdays.