Being Manny Chao: Above, the many faces of Georgetown Brewing Company’s brewmaster. Photographed by Michael Clinard at 9LB Hammer in Georgetown.
This is a love story. And as in all love stories, people get their hearts broken. People lose their way. And some people fight. You’ll hardly believe much of what happens, even though you know exactly how it ends. And in case you don’t, let’s just get that out of the way: It ends with one man’s first name signifying a city’s pride, its happiness, its unique brand of entrepreneurship.
If you’ve been to a Seattle bar in the past decade, you know that first name. You’ve seen people drink beer that bears the name and, in all likelihood, you’ve drunk the beer, too.
Geoff Kaiser is ordering one right now. It’s a Sunday afternoon and CenturyLink Field’s concession deck is practically in orbit around him. Fans in Seahawks jerseys, jacked on booze and testosterone, teeter in wide arcs from the stands to the restrooms. The tops of kids’ heads flash in and out of the crowd. A cacophony of 67,000 voices—the loudest such cacophony in the NFL—booms from the field, where the home team is laying waste to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Kaiser moved to Puget Sound seven years ago from Chicago, smitten with Northwest craft beer, and one beer in particular. So when it’s his turn to order, the 34-year-old financial analyst says the words that have become almost an incantation: “I’ll have a Manny’s.”
Even the insignia on the tap handle has momentum. The letter M and its one fin jutting out like a spoiler on a sports car set the pace for the rest of the golden script racing across the logo’s red oval: The aerodynamic a, two n’s, and the y bend to the right, straining under some imaginary g-force. The tightly wound s seems one slither away from springing off the tap handle. But the tiny, five-point star above the first n hardly befits the stature of a beer sold in more than 500 bars in the city (outselling Anheuser-Busch and Coors at a rate as high as three to one) and in more than 2,000 bars throughout Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Four years ago, Manny’s Pale Ale helped inspire Kaiser to launch the Seattle Beer News blog (now part of the Seattle Times website). “The great thing about Seattle is that you can even go into a bad bar,” he says, “a bar where you wouldn’t expect to find good craft beer, and you find good craft beer. And that beer is usually Manny’s.” He tips back the plastic cup of ale. At the front of his mouth there’s a quick bitter punch—the hops—which, by the time the beer reaches the back of his tongue, dissipates, and the taste is crisp, clean.
Everything about the beer—its flavor, its name—has an origin, of course. And it all started nearly 40 years ago and half a world away.
The boy acts up in class, or says a dirty word in Spanish—mierda, maybe—and the thud on the back of his head arrives like a thunderclap. Or he’s dragged out of his desk. Or his ears are pinched. You don’t cross the nuns in Las Palmas, grand capital of Spain’s Canary Islands, and expect to get away with it, especially at the Catholic school where five-year-old Manuel Chao is a student in the mid-1970s. The sisters keep the children in line with the power of prayer and light corporeal punishment.
He’s the son of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants who work late hours at a Chinese restaurant. So at the end of the school day he and his brother—two and a half years his senior—run to the home of the Spanish couple across the hallway from their apartment, Juan Manuel and Maria, the boys’ godparents. Chao is named after Juan Manuel, and he doesn’t think of the couple as godparents. They’re like parent parents.
In 1978, the family says goodbye to Juan Manuel and Maria and leaves Spain for the United States, where the father opens restaurants in Virginia, Maine, and New Jersey. He tells Manuel and his brother that they are, under no circumstances, to speak Spanish or Chinese. You are Americans now. You speak English. They miss Juan Manuel and Maria. Then one weekend, the father flies to Portland, Oregon, and when he returns he tells Manuel, now eight years old, and his brother that they are all going to live in the Northwest. The father opens a Chinese restaurant in Portland, and the family settles in the suburb of Beaverton, home of Nike.
When Manuel Chao is in high school—Aloha High, class of 1990—he lands an internship at the sportswear giant, where he runs the fax machine for reps in the international sales division. It’s a paid internship, but he spends his whole paycheck at the employee store until he is, head to toe, covered in Nike gear.
And that’s exactly how he arrives—decked in Nike swooshes—at the University of Washington in the fall of 1990 to study business. He pledges a fraternity, then blanches the first time someone says, “Hey, Manny!” He hates the nickname—his parents christened him Manuel—but he learns to smile and laugh it off. He and his new friends party a lot. They drink lager, the cheapest beer they can find at $35 a keg.
Something happens his sophomore year. A girl. He wants to impress her. He takes her to the fanciest place a 19-year-old college student can afford in Seattle in 1992, Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley. He scans the menu for a beer he recognizes. Nada. He flashes an ID—actually his 21-year-old brother’s ID—so he can order a drink and tells the server, “I’ll have the Blackhook Porter please.” He doesn’t even know what a porter is. The beer looks like coffee. He takes a sip. The silky taste hits his tongue, and he’s in love.
Hours later his roommate asks how the date went, but Chao doesn’t say a word about the girl. All he can think and talk about is the beer. He and the roommate start making nightly pilgrimages to Safeway, walking right past the cheap domestic beer that had been their staple and heading straight for the craft beers. They devour every beer by Redhook, makers of Blackhook, headquartered just a few miles from campus. They geek out on pilsners and porters and ales, and become acolytes of what at the time is a craft beer revolution in the Northwest—Diamond Knot, Hale’s, Redhook, local breweries taking advantage of the close proximity to Yakima Valley, 140 miles away, where 80 percent of the nation’s beer hops grow. Chao even keeps a beer diary, evaluating each brew.
While at home in Beaverton for the summer, he and another friend start brewing beer, experimenting, and deepening his obsession. In business classes back at UW, whenever there’s a group project, he convinces his team members to make the project a study of breweries.
After graduation, much to his parents’ frustration, Chao doesn’t land a business job but takes the morning shift cleaning the Hopvine Pub on Capitol Hill and works the rest of the day at a home brewing supply store next to Pike Place Market.
At a beer trade show he meets a man named Jack Schropp. Schropp and his business partner, Malcolm Rankin, have started a small-scale brewing operation, making and selling batches of ale out of the garage of Schropp’s house in Redmond. Chao has instant rapport with Schropp, who’s 15 years older but shares the same passion for craft beer.
Chao calls Schropp a week later, asking for a job. Schropp apologizes but says he’s got nothing. Chao calls the next week and asks for a job again. And the next. He calls every week for three months. He finally gets a call back—not from Schropp but from Schropp’s partner, Malcolm Rankin. Come meet us for a beer.
Over drinks the two men confess that they do need someone to help deliver and sell beer. So how about we put you on commission and give you $10 for every keg you sell?
It won’t be enough money to pay rent and living expenses—so he supplements his income by preparing high school kids for SATs—but Chao becomes the first employee of Mac and Jack’s Brewery. “I’d get there in the morning,” he says now, “wash kegs, fill kegs, then load the van up with beer and go do my route. And try to sell beer.”
Few bar owners at the time—1996—have heard of the three-year-old Mac and Jack’s. So Chao must talk his way into bar after bar, often before business hours, and convince the owners to sample the ale and put it on tap. Mike Bitondo, managing partner of the Garage, the Capitol Hill bowling and billiards bar, will later recall the earnestness with which Chao sold Mac and Jack’s. “It was good beer, but you bought it, really, because Manny was such a great guy.”
When the time comes to create a logo for Mac and Jack’s, it’s Chao who sits down to design it. “I took clip art”—of a lion’s head—“shoved a little line in the middle, and designed the little label around it. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but we liked it and we went with it.”
Chao becomes the de facto face of the brewery, if for no other reason than he’s the pitchman, the guy who arrives at taverns, beams a smile, and offers customer service. He travels all over the city and throughout Washington and Oregon, spreading the gospel of Mac and Jack’s.
He comes to see his success at the company as the fulfillment of his parents’ hard work and sacrifice, leaving Spain all those years ago. “The idea of starting a business and dragging two kids around,” he says, “and going to a foreign country where English is now your third language—I really admire them for doing that, and they did it because they wanted us to have an education and an opportunity.”
After five years, Mac and Jack’s amber ale becomes the third top selling craft brew in the state—at some 20,000 barrels a year—outsold only by Redhook and Pyramid. Rankin and Schropp have moved the operation out of Schropp’s garage and into a larger facility and hired eight new employees to keep up with demand.
Then, in 2000, Chao leaves, abruptly.
“I’m not sure what went wrong between Manny and Mac and Jack’s,” Bitondo, the Garage managing partner, says. “I’ve never asked.”
The BMW R1200C screams down Interstate 5. The glass canyons of downtown Seattle flash by. It’s July 2000. The rider guns it past Boeing Field, beyond the industrial decay of Georgetown, then Burien, Tacoma, Olympia. He pushes the bike farther and farther south, placing as much distance as he can between himself and the greatest job he’s ever had.
It had come down to a single conversation with Rankin and Schropp—the last conversation he would ever have with them, a conversation that a decade later Chao refuses to discuss on the record. Rankin and Schropp won’t reply to requests to comment either.
This much can be said: After five years a line had been drawn, with founders Rankin and Schropp on one side, and their first employee on the other. Chao felt that he had significantly helped the two men build the company, and that he should have a say in its direction. There’s more to it, of course, but by the end of the talk Chao was heartbroken, his pride wounded. He walked off the job on the spot, revved up his BMW motorcycle, and left Seattle.
He spends weeks on the road, touring state and national parks—Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Yellowstone—camping out under the stars, clearing his head. He burns up some of his savings to fly to Mexico, twice. He returns to Seattle a month later, in late summer, ready to start over.
An apprenticeship as a sushi chef in Madison Park lasts a year before he quits and takes another job, selling software. He hates it. He’s lost.
Over beers nearly every night at Fiddler’s Inn, down the street from his house in Ravenna, he and his housemate, Roger Bialous, commiserate. Bialous, a health care insurance employee, met Chao some five years earlier when Chao was starting out at Mac and Jack’s and Bialous was making a living by removing corneas from the eyes of the recently deceased, harvesting them for transplant patients.
Now the two men are at a crossroads. They both hate their jobs. And Bialous keeps floating an idea: Let’s start a brewery.
Chao, still smarting from his Mac and Jack’s experience, won’t even consider it. “I felt soured about the whole thing,” Chao will later recall. “But also, looking back on Mac and Jack’s, I just feel like we got really fucking lucky. I didn’t know if lightning could strike twice.”
Bialous sees a crack in Chao’s resolve. “I knew he’d always been super entrepreneurial, that he had always wanted to run his own business,” Bialous says now. You know this business better than anyone, he keeps pressing. You’ve at least got to give it a try.
Chao finally buckles, and they set out to create Seattle’s beer. “The more we looked at the market, we’re like ‘holy cow’, there’s this staple beer category, the pale ale, and no one local was going after it,” Bialous says. “Sierra Nevada in California and Mirror Pond in Bend, Oregon, were owning the market, but they’re not local.” They experiment, brewing pale ale on the back deck of the house. Batch after batch, throughout the spring of 2002, until finally, on the eighth batch, something feels right on their taste buds. “It was a crossover beer,” says Bialous. “It had a nice hoppy flavor, with the aroma right in front of your mouth when the beer first hit the palate, and then finished very clean.” When they serve it to their friends, Bialous, the cornea-removal expert, focuses on the optics. “People would try it, and you’d watch their eyes get big as the hop flavor hit their palate. They’d swallow and they’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s weird, I got a hop flavor without the bitterness.’ ”
Manny’s Pale Ale is born.
And just as he had done at Mac and Jack’s, Chao sits down to design a logo. He wants it to reflect Seattle—to be timeless and stylish at the same time. He uses Sting Ray, a free font available online that echoes the Corvette Sting Ray of the 1960s. The result is a tap handle reminiscent of a gas station sign, a sign no doubt like many Chao passed on his post–Mac and Jack’s motorcycle odyssey. The star at the top, perhaps the most distinct feature of the logo, is an afterthought.
“We started looking online for brewing equipment, and it became really apparent to us that stuff was cheap,” Chao says. “There was equipment out there, used equipment, like complete systems that were sitting in warehouses collecting dust and nobody wanted them.” They found a brewery system for sale in North Carolina, paid $28,000 for it (the system would likely go for $250,000 to $300,000 today), and set it up in a space in the old Seattle Brewing and Malting building in Georgetown, the same building where Rainier beer was mass produced in the early twentieth century.
On February 27, 2003, two months after Chao’s 30th birthday, he and Bialous—sole proprietors of the newly minted Georgetown Brewing Company—deliver two kegs of Manny’s Pale Ale to the Latona Pub in Greenlake. The place is packed with all their friends and the beer disappears within a couple hours, so they drive back to Georgetown for another three kegs.
Chao begins dropping in on his old Mac and Jack’s clients, all of whom are happy to see him and even happier to help him introduce his new ale to Seattle. Old Town Ale House in Ballard. The Nickerson Street Saloon in Fremont. The client list quickly grows. Mike Bitondo from the Garage on Capitol Hill doesn’t even require a visit; when he hears about the new beer Bitondo reminds Chao that he once said that if Chao ever started his own brewery he’d stock his beer in a heartbeat.
It’s early October 2012. Manuel Chao, now 39, drives his Toyota 4Runner from his Ravenna home to Georgetown Brewing Company’s new headquarters, a 37,000-square-foot warehouse and former fertilizer and insecticide plant. Some 40 employees work for Chao and Bialous now, producing nearly 80,000 kegs a year—80 percent of which is Manny’s Pale Ale. Other beers in the portfolio include a red ale, an India pale ale, a porter, and Roger’s Pilsner, named after Bialous. In 2011, the U.S. Brewers Association ranked Georgetown Brewing Company as the 52nd highest selling craft brewer in the nation. (Mac and Jack’s, with just 4,200 more barrels sold that year, was ranked 45th.)
There’s more to it than numbers, though. Kevin Lilley, who’s pulled the Manny’s tap for five years as bartender at the BottleNeck Lounge in Madison Valley, puts it this way: “We get a lot of former locals in here who’ve moved away and come back to visit. They say they want two things when they’re here: Pho from the International District.
When Chao tells the story of his beer—Seattle’s beer—there’s a smile on his face the entire time. But then there’s also a smile on his face when he’s putting on goggles to enter the warehouse’s massive brewing area. And a smile on his face when he introduces his partner, Roger Bialous. He even smiles when he talks about his time at Mac and Jack’s.
Finally, Chao smiles when he describes meeting fans of his famous pale ale. “They’re always surprised,” he says. “I’ll hear, ‘I thought you’d be some old German guy,’ or ‘I thought you’d be a short Mexican dude, but I didn’t expect you to be an Asian guy.’ Or, you know, ‘I didn’t even know there was a Manny.’ ”