Pals Manny Chao and Roger Bialous have made Georgetown Brewing a Seattle favorite.
When Manuel “Manny” Chao, ’94, walks into a bar in Seattle’s historic Georgetown neighborhood, he is instantly recognized by the staff and many of the patrons. “Hey Manny!” they all say as he waves hello and happily sits down at the corner of the bar, where I join him a few moments later.
“The corner is my favorite spot,” he says, settling in. “It’s where you get the best service, it’s where the action is, and because you can actually have a conversation with somebody.”
For Chao, the son of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants whose parents made their way in America as restaurant owners, conversations are currency. He’s in the relationship business, after all, having started his career selling craft beer to local hotspots as the first employee of Redmond’s Mac and Jack’s Brewery. Now, he is thriving as co-founder of Georgetown Brewing Co.—the largest independent brewery in Washington and maker of Pacific Northwest favorites Manny’s Pale Ale, Roger’s Pilsner, Bodhizafa IPA and Johnny Utah Pale Ale.
“When I was a kid, I liked hanging out at the restaurant, so for me there was always an appeal to being a small-business owner,” says Chao, who fell in love with craft beer in college and hosted tastings for his Zeta Psi fraternity brothers. At the UW’s Foster School of Business, Chao famously persuaded many classmates to do group projects on breweries.
Incorporated in 2002 after Chao left Mac and Jack’s, Georgetown was the largest draft-only brewery in the country until 2017, after which it began canning some of its most popular brews. Now distributed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Japan, Georgetown was named “Seattle’s Favorite Brewery” by The Seattle Times in 2019.
“Very early on, we had this rule where if we ever started arguing about something, we’d stop and go get a beer.”
Manuel “Manny” Chao
Manny’s Pale Ale alone is sold in more than 900 bars and restaurants in the Seattle area. When the bartender asks me what I want, I can’t resist drinking his namesake beer with the man himself: “I’ll have a Manny’s.” It’s darn tasty beer, as the company’s tagline goes.
Chao’s longtime business partner and co-founder at Georgetown Brewing is Roger Bialous—of Roger’s Pilsner fame. Bialous earned a Master of Health Administration from UW in 2000 and worked in health-care insurance before teaming up with Chao to play a pivotal role in Seattle’s craft beer revolution.
“We’ve been in business together for 20 years, and I still consider him one of my best friends,” says Chao, recalling how the two met through mutual friends and started playing Ultimate Frisbee together. “Very early on, we had this rule where if we ever started arguing about something, we’d stop and go get a beer.”
When Bialous joins us, I ask what he has ordered so I can see what real beer guys are having these days. He raises his glass and shrugs: “I got a Roger’s.” Chao laughs joyously and adds with a wide grin: “We drink everything.” Their buddy cop routine is legendary.
“I always try to treat myself as a consumer and drink our beers to compare them against other beers,” says Chao, who handles production, marketing, retail and sales for Georgetown, while Bialous manages financing, accounting and human resources. “You have to be able to sell to yourself. Like, what are you drinking? What are your friends drinking? As a brewer, you constantly have to do that—it never stops.”
As for having a beer named after you?
“That part’s crazy for us—to think we’ve made iconic brands,” says Chao, to which Bialous adds: “It’s a lot less weird than it was when we first had beers named after us. At the time, we weren’t creative enough to come up with something better.”
Creativity hasn’t been an issue for Georgetown of late. Bodhizafa is still Chao’s favorite beer and the gold medal winner in the American Style IPA category at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival. It is the company’s fastest-growing beer along with Johnny Utah Pale Ale, another award winner. Both are named after characters in “Point Break,” the 1991 action flick starring Patrick Swayze as Bodhizafa, a long-haired, bank-robbing surfer, and Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah, the clean-cut undercover FBI agent who infiltrates Bodhi’s gang.
“There’s a lot of dogs named Bodhi now. There’s a lot of sons named Bodhi. It’s pretty funny,” says Chao. “We wrote this business plan when we started—and this is the stuff you learn going to Foster Business School—but it’s all theoretical. You really don’t know how much you’re going to sell. So we started our brewery with Manny’s and Roger’s as our two main beers, and now it’s Bodhi and Johnny Utah and we’re the Point Break brewery. That was not in the business plan.”
At the company’s 45,000-square-foot brewery and tasting room in Georgetown, state-of-the-art equipment washes and fills one keg per minute and fills upward of 240 cans per minute. Still, Chao says, it’s the human touch that remains the most important ingredient of all.
“We just want to grow the company in a smart way and stay true to ourselves. That’s always been our goal.”
Manuel “Manny” Chao
“Yakima Valley has become the largest hop-growing region in the world,” he says. “It’s important to us to develop a relationship with the growers, and we’re out there for almost an entire month walking the fields, getting to know the farmers, bringing them beer. It’s really cool for them to see the end product.”
Taking better care of things is a big part of Chao’s mindset, whether it’s brewing beer for charity—Bob’s Brown Ale has raised more than $1 million for Ronald McDonald House, while The Home Shows Seattle Pale Ale was a limited edition run for a two-night Pearl Jam concert in 2018 that raised money to help fight homelessness in Seattle—or supporting his staff.
“It comes down to every little thing you do. How you pick your hops, how you train your brewers, having good filtration systems,” he says. “At the beginning, it was just Roger and me trying to build a company. Now we try to reinvest and give people who work for us opportunities. We have great employee retention because we’ve got a good culture.”
Chao has come a long way from the first sip of Redhook’s Blackhook Porter, which “changed my life” and set him on a path to craft beer stardom. Now, Georgetown’s own beers have become cultural touchstones in the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re blown away by all this,” says Chao, gesturing to his good friend Bialous. “A few years ago, I was at the UW driving range, and there was a group of students there hitting golf balls. When they were done, I heard one of them say, ‘Let’s go get some Utahs.’ I just smiled. We just want to grow the company in a smart way and stay true to ourselves. That’s always been our goal.”
Judging from the chorus of hearty goodbyes Chao receives as he’s leaving the bar, that pint glass is definitely half-full. Cheers!