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A Passion for Hops

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A Passion for Hops

At the source of beer, brewer Fred Colby might have found the Philosopher's Stone

The yellow lab, Benny, greeted Fred Colby’s sister in the manner all dogs prefer, by shoving his nose up between her legs. Pushing him away she exclaimed, “You crotch-sniffing bastard!” and a beer was born.

Now that might not be a typical birth for beer, but then, what Laughing Dog Brewing bottles right here in Ponderay isn’t just your typical beer, either. In fact, if you want to get right down to it, Laughing Dog makes ales (a subset of beer) that have a national reputation and distribution and more importantly, a number of River Journal fans.

“Yakima (Washington) is the center of the hops universe,” said Fred Colby, brewmeister and owner of Laughing Dog, a business he shares with his wife, Michelle. “Every year they host the Fresh Hops Festival, which they advertise by saying ‘Come to the source.’” In the first four years the festival was held, Sierra Nevada took top honors. “In year five and six, (the second and third years Laughing Dog competed) we creamed them,” Fred exulted. “We didn’t just take first, we knocked ‘em completely out of competition!”

A beer lover would give you as many reasons for Laughing Dog’s success as there are beers it bottles (currently there’s five regular, four seasonal and two reserve ales). But for hopheads throughout the nation, Fred points out that “we’re one of the most hop-centric breweries around. We love hops,” he grins.

Fred grins and exults and exclaims a lot, by the way, because this is a man passionate about beer, both the drinking and the brewing of it. Not that he necessarily saw a brewery resting on his career path when he went to school to become an engineer. He went back four times and “skipped any semblance of graduation as I went to work for a company to pay for my schooling.” And then he went back again, to become a computer systems engineer, and went to work at Coldwater Creek back in the day, and actually opened their sixth store. “What kind of people did Coldwater Creek hire back then?” he asked, and that’s another Colbyism—instead of answering a question he asks another that he thinks you should know the answer to. “It was entrepreneurs!”

Coldwater Creek grew beyond the entrepreneurial stage, and in 2005 Fred and his wife poured their life savings, and a hefty small business loan, into opening the brewery.

“It’s a no fail situation,” he said. “It’s do or die,” and going into their fifth year, Laughing Dog is doing.

There’s a lot more to a successful business than the product it produces, but the product has to be pretty special as well. And when it comes to beer, Fred says, “It’s truly more microbiology than anything.” Then he’s off on a verbal quest into the different types of hops, yeast, and temperatures, that then delves into sweating copper pipes, the cost of stainless steel and how to wire an electrical panel that can rival those found in an Air Force jet.

“There’s not a thing in this brewery I can’t do,” Fred said and for a moment he’s more serious, reflecting on what it takes to run a successful business. “Breweries are funny things,” he mused and admitted that when it comes to being a boss, “I’m a taskmaster.” Even more important, however, “We don’t back away. I stay the course. You know what they say about a successful business?” he challenges, and when no one offers an answer he provides it. “They make it past three years. We’re in our fourth!” and the smile is back again.

And not just in their fourth year of business; with steadily increasing orders from beer distributors throughout the United States, Laughing Dog has already grown out of its puppy kennel, and will be taking over 10,000 square feet in the old KMart building come January.

And then it’s back to beer as he teaches his students/guests how to smell a hop. “Cascades is the quintessential Northwest hop,” he said, but added there’s a lost varient of the “cluster hops.” It’s question time again: “Guess who owns them?” he grins. Yep, that’s right, it’s Laughing Dog Brewing. Not that all Laughing Dog’s ales are made from cluster hops—Fred has a walk-in cooler full of cascades hops and another with pelletized (and patented) Simco hops, and more. It’s pulling the flavors out of the different varieties of hops that creates the different flavors of beer. Well, that and the water, the yeast, the malt, the barley, the temperatures, the equipment...

Given all the variables, it’s almost a miracle (or alchemical magic) that beer can carry such a consistent taste from year to year. Not that Fred would agree—he thinks that’s the result of a lot of hard work. “People don’t expect a change in the taste of their beer,” he said. “So maintaining the same flavor is fairly complicated. We have a computer program that calculates the changes in ingredients.” Still, one year’s Alpha Dog won’t taste exactly like the next year’s. “We let it change to a degree, we just don’t let it get out of hand,” said Fred. “After all, that’s the purpose of a craft brewery.”

No alchemist in his quest for the Philosopher’s Stone could be more overjoyed with the steps along the way, from the crow’s head to the green lion (or India Pale Ale to Dogzilla). So how does the Philosopher’s Stone translate into brewed beer? It probably doesn’t.

“If I didn’t love beer, I wouldn’t do this,” Fred said, “but I’m sure one day the brewery will get so big that I’ll be ready to move on,” he offered. So what might come after? “Bourbon!” You wouldn’t think someone so passionate about beer could become equally enthralled with something else, but it’s a transition Fred makes with ease. “You know how bourbon starts, don’t you?” he asked in one of his expected interrogations.

“It’s just barley beer.”

The smile on his face practically lights the room and you know the story for Fred isn’t about the final product at all... it’s about the adventures along the way. Lucky for us, the product is pretty fine as well.

You can learn about Laughing Dog Brewing by visiting their website . But if you really want to understand this quiet, local revolution in the field of ales, stop by the brewery, located at 55 Emerald Industrial Park Road in Ponderay. That’s just behind Idaho Computer and Satellite on Hwy. 200, across from the Bonner Mall. Pony up your $5 for an eight-glass tasting platter, and explore the ales from light to dark. Then ask Fred a question—one question is all it will take and you’ll walk out the door with more knowledge of beer than you thought existed.

READ: The Hard Work of Tasting Beer

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Landon Otis

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beer, Fred Colby, Laughing Dog Brewing

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