Interview with Ryan Sentz, Funky Buddha Brewery

We first encountered Funky Buddha at the Copenhagen Beer Celebration 2014. Ever since then we couldn’t forget the culinary and amazingly flavorful beers. Unfortunately you need to travel to Florida to get to drink them. But as there’s also alligators, rockets and beaches, it’s worth a trip. Particularly because there is one of our favorite breweries: Funky Buddha. We got to talk to the man behind the recipes, founder and co-owner Ryan Sentz.

Which of your beers would you have served beer hunter Michael Jackson?

Oh, geez. I think I’d be scared to serve him our Tripel. That’s our only Belgium beer that we have on regularly.
Maybe our Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, because it’s the one that kind of launched us. Just to see, good or bad, his reaction to something so different.

There is Maple syrup in there?


There is bacon in there?

There is no bacon in there!

Oh, it’s vegetarian?

It is!

Great, then I can drink it. You made me so happy right now!

I don’t eat pork either, so. We replicate the flavor with smoked malts and Applewood smoked salt.

You’re known for getting flavors into the beer exactly as it says in the name. Earlier we had the Blueberry Cobbler and it tasted exactly like that. Which brings me to the next question: How on earth do you get all these flavors into your beers?

Practice. Lots of failures.
We use real ingredients, so I think that helps. And not caring what it costs to brew the beer. My brother came on for the business side when I decided to open the brewery – I did the lounge on my own. It used to freak him out when I made him sign the invoice for the ingredients: “You are spending 30 thousand dollars on vanilla beans?!” – “We’ll get it back, we’ll get it back!” [laughs]. But now he’s okay with it; I’ve broken him down.
And I started off on a one barrel system – I don’t know if you had the chance to check out the Boca Raton location? It’s a glorified homebrew set up. It’s a 55 gallon drum. So it’s easy to fail on that and not really care.

Therefore, you do test batches.

Absolutely and we did one today: We did a pink grapefruit double IPA today.
A lot of times we’ll pull of some, say, a Blonde Ale, and we’ll treat it, like throw pink grapefruits in there or add hibiscus. Just to see how it is. And then I’ll develop an exact recipe after. Like: That worked, but how would I also change the base recipe.
You know, I get bored. I want to try something new all the time.

But, do you get issues with like yeast?


Do you have special yeasts?

No, I wouldn’t say special yeasts. There’s always little issues and there’s things we’ve figured out over the years. Like when we first started out and added fruit in secondary, we weren’t getting as much yeast out and we produced bottle bombs. So we’ve had to learn about that. Now we add it during fermentation and we just bought a flash pasteurizer to help with those issues. We are constantly learning new techniques and ways to do it.
But to your point: I’ve been a homebrewer for twenty years. I’ve been trading beers, trying as many beers as I could. And nothing would bother me more than when you see a beer that was called Chocolate Stout and you try it and it doesn’t taste anything like chocolate. Therefore, I made it a point that whatever we say it tastes like, it needs to taste like it. At least to me.
I’m all for subtlety and I have definitely beers that are subtle. But when I call a beer Peanut Butter & Jelly, it’s going to taste like Peanut Butter & Jelly. Or we won’t do it.

Do you get the ingredients locally?

When we can. I always rather source locally or I even grew my own rosemary for a brew that we’ve done recently. But I wouldn’t settle for local if I could get something better from somewhere else.

How do you know that you get good ingredients?

We’ve had cases where I ordered a couple of hundred pounds of Kiwi and they got here but weren’t ripe enough.
Now when you get into larger batches, I tend to use frozen ingredients. There’s a little more consistency with that, because they are all picked at their peak time and then flash frozen.
Because we use natural ingredients, our beers are going to be different sometimes. But also if you go to a store and buy a banana one day and the next day, they will taste different, even if they are from the same batch. So sometimes people mention, “this tastes different”. Yes, because we’re not using an extract that tastes exactly the same every time.

What interest you more: Common or exotic ingredients?

The great thing about travelling is you get exposed to flavors. We talked about Peanut Butter & Jelly, that’s something you in Switzerland probably don’t have. And for you that’s probably a very odd thing to think of. But where you live, I could probably find a combination of foods that I would never think of putting together. I look for as much inspiration as possible. It can be in a grocery store trying a piece of candy. My wife is Brazilian, so when I go there, I try different cuisines.

Your beers are a culinary experience by themselves. As that, do you think they work better as a food pairing or better by themselves?

When they hit, yeah. I’m not great at doing food and beer pairings. Maybe the very obvious ones. But as far as “this hop is bringing out the intensity of this cheese” that’s just a talent I don’t have. Our really heavy ones are great with desserts. Others that were culinary inspired I had with a cheese and they worked really well.

So you say you’re not good at pairing your beers with food, but how do you come up with recipes that are successfully food like?

That I’m good at [laughs]. That to me is easier. I can taste something before I make the beer. But you know, oftentimes it takes twenty to thirty iterations of that beer before I’m like: Okay, now we’ve got it.

So twenty to thirty test batches. And you serve them?

No, we pour them out or we add something. We’re not afraid to dump beer. You can’t be. Even if nine out of ten people say “that’ll pass”. If I’m getting an off flavor or somebody else feels there’s something wrong, we dump it. A lot of people here in the tap room, especially being in Florida, it’s their first time ever drinking craft beer. And it’s their first time drinking Funky Buddha. If they don’t like it, they’ll never give us a second chance.
That’s why we try to do things on a smaller scale first. But we’ve dumped 900 gallons of beer before, because when we tasted it there was something going on that we didn’t like. Especially when dealing with sours, we’ve had problems with that.

How often are you standing at the brewing kettle?

Not enough. I mean I am in the brewhouse every single day. I’m checking the tanks every day, make calls to put more yeast on this or do that. I still do almost all the recipes, but I let the brewers experiment as well. But I do maybe 95% of the recipes. But actively brewing? Never. I definitely miss it.
I get in and do a homebrew still though. I still make a five gallon batch once in a while.

In Willy Wonka he tries to invent a chewing gum that at first tastes like a breakfast, then a lunch and finally a dinner.

It’s my all time favorite movie – and I love Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, but you’ve got to watch the original version. The other one is garbage.
The quote on our wall is actually from Willy Wonka: “We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams”.

So while Maple Bacon Coffee Porter is obviously the breakfast beer, what’s the lunch beer?

Peanut Butter & Jelly.

The dinner beer?

Good question. Thankfully, we don’t have anything meat related, because that would be gross. I don’t know about dinner, but we definitely have a lot of dessert ones.
We actually do a Pi day, you know π, 3.14. So on March 14th we do all of our pie beers: Blueberry Cobbler, Apple-pie, German chocolate cake, which is a with coconut and chocolate. We do a key lime Berliner, a lemon meringue.

And what are you going to do on the 23rd of April on the 500 year anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot?

Wow. They must hate me. So, probably hide in my room [laughs].
Yeah, we are pretty much the anti-reinheitsgebots brewery. So, maybe just thank them for introducing us to a certain way of brewing and beg for their forgiveness.

Last Friday when we got here and I’m sure it’s going to be the same later today, the tap-room was packed, there was loud music and the whole place was lively with all kinds of people. So your tap-room seems to be very popular.

It turned out to be. It was perfect timing for a lot of things. When we first started there was no other production brewery in Broward County, an area with millions of people. We are fortunate enough that we appeal to a wide audience. A lot of people that say they don’t like beer still want to try a blueberry cobbler beer. And we try to have a very non-pretentious attitude and vibe. We pride ourselves in good customer service and to be welcoming.

How important from a financial perspective is this tap-room?

Oh my god, huge! This is what allowed us to buy more tanks, buy a centrifuge. With distribution, you obviously get volume. If I can serve two thousand barrels here, I can serve hopefully thirty to fifty thousand barrels outside. But for every beer I sell here in the tap-room, I have to sell fifteen beers outside to make the same amount.
And this is our research and development. This allows us to make small batches and find out if people like it or not. Like one time when our cellar man was the employee of the month, I let him make a beer. I drank it and thought it was great. He had a novel concept. But we couldn’t sell it to save our lives. So this is a good way for testing things.

Not sure if I remember correctly, but you’re the biggest craft brewery in Florida now?

No, no, in South Florida.

Where does the south start?

[Laughs] Good question. But I guess Palm Beach and West Palm Beach. So maybe you could go as far as one and a half hours north from here and it’d still be considered south. Then it gets into central Florida with Tampa being central as well, but at the west coast. The east coast of Florida and the west coast are very different from each other.

So who’s bigger?

Cigar City is bigger in volume. Who else is bigger? I wanna say Yuengling, but they are not craft, right? Then there’s a brewery called Florida Brewing Company, they do a lot of contract brewing [for example the Duff beers and some special Harry Potter beers served in the Universal Theme Park – ed.].

Where are you distributed? Mainly in Florida?

Only in Florida, really. Mikkel has been emailing me. So while I am not going to the Copenhagen Beer Celebration this year, I am sending beer out there. I don’t think it will be for the festivals, but for the bars around it.
So every once in a while we are sending beers to different festivals, but otherwise we’re 100% in Florida.

Would you like to expand your distribution?

Oh, absolutely. But I don’t want to expand and run out of beer in Florida. Or expand to another state and then realize I need more beer and then pull out of that state again. So I’d rather build a bigger brewhouse first and then go outside of Florida.

Are you going to build a bigger brewhouse?

Yes. We’re looking at it right now.

It seems to be a recurring theme when I talk to brewers that there’s always something new you need to buy and by the time you’ve completed the expansion, you already need to expand even more to meet the demand.

Yeah. It’s non-stop. But it’s also fun. Our big project was opening this kitchen in the tap-room and the banquet room. That’s done and now we’re like: Okay, what shall we do next? We took on 60 thousand square feet. Maybe we start distilling or start to make cider. [laughs]

Why does Florida have so many good breweries?

Good question. But I think you could go to any state or any country for that matter and you’ll find someone making really good beer, which is awesome. You couldn’t have said that about Florida five years ago though.
Then again, you had Cigar City, you had Saint Somewhere which made some really great beers. There was Dunedin. But in a state so big with so many million people; Florida is like the last place to get anything. Everything starts in New York and then trickles down to Florida or starts in California and then comes this way. Florida has a lot of older people and retirees..
But we are catching up. We’re getting there.

So what happened, if you say it was different five years ago?

I think there was a lot of people that were homebrewers and we were looking at the rest of the country and wondered why it’s different down here.

How is the community among brewers in Florida?

It’s good. We are still all fighting a bigger fight against macro, thankfully. I’m definitely worried that in the years to come, there’s going to be a change. At one point craft beer will fight amongst each other over taps, because there’s a finite number of taps in the bars and restaurants. Right now, we can say “take off that Budweiser, take off that Miller Lite”. Pretty soon some brewery will say “take off that Funky Buddha, take off that Cigar City”. Everyone is not going to be playing nice.
Funky Buddha is here because other breweries existed. Cigar City helped me. So did Tequesta. They told me how to build my first system. When we were building here, we thought about buying a 15 barrel system. And Joey from Cigar City told me that if we do that, we’ll outgrow it before we open. So we bought a 30 barrel system, and thank god, because we outgrew that. He didn’t have to say that. He could have thought “Go fail! Make less beer.” But he didn’t. And you don’t have that in other industries. A guy selling carpets will not tell another guy that’ll sell carpets: “Hey, don’t do this or you’ll be losing money.”
I am hoping it stays that way, but I don’t know.

Is Cigar City being sold to Budweiser? [In the meantime it got sold, read here]

No comment! [laughs]
I don’t know. Would it surprise me? No. Just because there’s a lot of money being thrown around right now.

Yeah, like the billion dollars Ballast Point got.

And if you look at someone like Goose Island, five years ago, they sold for 34 million. And they are the same size. I think those numbers make people really consider it. And the industry is changing, the landscape is changing. You have Budweiser that is buying all these craft breweries. They are doing it because craft is taking their segment. Just a little bit, so far. But pretty soon, Budweiser will be able to go to a bar and say “If you want to carry Budweiser – and still, everybody wants to carry Budweiser – you will also have to carry these six craft beers and they are all ours.” They are going to squeeze out other brands. They are going to be able to roll out IPAs for 5.99 per sixpack because they have the scalability.
I think a lot of people are fearing that and they are cashing out. They say “I’ve done this for 20 years and the industry is changing, I take a billion dollars”.

What was the highest price you were ever offered?

You know, it’s funny: Finally, people are starting coming to us. But it’s not even something I’m thinking about right now. I love what I do. I got into this thinking that hopefully it will be a business that my kids will want to run. I see that my daughter has zero interest in doing that, but I have a two year old son who I’m holding out hope for that he wants to be a brewer.
But it’s going to happen. Getting offers is going to happen not because we are Funky Buddha, but it’s going to happen to any brewery that gets to a certain point. At least for the next couple of years. Then, who knows? It’s like the tech bubble that happened years ago, where everybody was offered absurd amounts of money for companies that weren’t really worth it. Is that going to happen? I don’t know. People smarter than me need to figure that thing out.
If someone would offer me one billion dollar, I think I’ll cash in. I would be able to take care of a lot of people. It would be insulting not to take that money.

Whale hunting.

Yeah, I used to be a whale hunter.

Which whale would still get you excited?

You know, honestly, all beers get me excited that make other people excited. I want to know what everybody is freaking out about. Luckily we are in the industry so we have the ability where we can kind of walk around the line.
A couple of years ago, Toppling Goliath, I was like “god, everybody talks about them, let’s see if they are really worth it… holy shit! Yeah! This is worth the two mile line.”
So, I always want to see what people are freaking out about. And there’s not a style I don’t like. Actually, I don’t like the aggressively vinegary sours. I love a Cantillon, but halfway down the bottle I am eating Toms [anti-acids – ed]. But I won’t stop, because the beers are so good [laughs].
I don’t trade anymore. And I have a weird feeling if someone suggests to me to trade my own beers. I cannot do that. But I love it when other people do. As a person that used to trade, it is the craziest thing for me when I hear people say “I got a Dark Lord for a Maple Bacon”. Holy shit! That to me is awesome!

Looking at the screen, you are limiting some of your beers: People can only buy four Last Snow at a time.

Yeah, because you don’t want people to be hoarders. I want to make sure that locals that want to try a beer can get it. And someone who’s not going to trade the beer can get it too. If you want to buy it to trade and it’ll help you get what you want, I love that. But I also want someone who has never tried Maple Bacon to have it. So we limit it. Especially as we don’t make enough.
Well: “So just make more!” But then I cannot make another beer. And if I make too much, will people stop caring?

The Funky Buddha name comes from the original location, right?

Yeah, I don’t have a good story. I’d like to make one up.
It was R&R Tea Bar and Funky Buddha Lounge when I bought it. It was a hookah and tea lounge. I got rid of the R&R part, kept the hookas and tea and immediately brought in craft beer.

What reason would there be that you’d chose Funky Buddha as the name right now?

Good question. I like the idea of the Buddhist philosophy. Having a name like that kind of forced me to learn about it – because people would definitely ask me about it.
We kind of embody it now, being funky, being a little different, but hopefully also accepting and tranquil.

Who works here?

A lot of people now. When we started, I had four employees in the lounge. Now we have 140 employees. As far as family, it is my brother and I and both of our wives. We really are a family organization.

Last question: Which five beers would you tell people to drink before they die?

I am really into Berliners right now and the best I’ve ever had is from New Glarus. What actually really got me into Berliner though, were Hottenroth from The Bruery and Festina Pêche from Dogfishhead.
I’m not going to say five of those, because if you’re going to die, you want to drink some good stuff.
Next an Imperial Stout. I used to be into nothing but Imperial Stouts. And I like them thick, decedent and when it feels like you need a spoon, the big ones, like Dark Lord or Black Tuesday. Or Cigar City’s Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout is unbelievable. But I’ma say Huhnapu. InBev or not InBev.

You say that because you don’t have to wait in line for it.

[laughs] This is true. But I did. I was the guy waiting in line before now. There was a time where I would wait.
Then Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. That to me is the quintessential Pale Ale and it’s what started IPAs.
Now I try to think of something not American. Westvleteren XII is too easy. Although it’s a great beer, but everybody talks about Westy XII.
Stille Nacht or Rochefort 10. Yes, I go for that one.
Now I try to think of what got me into trying to brew something different, more culinary. Hmm, I think I have to get back to you on the last one. I don’t wanna blow it.
The last beer would be “Melt my Brain” by Shorts Brewing. Shorts is very influential to me and captured what I wanted to be as a brewer: Really creative and culinary influenced and no real boundaries or restrictions.
This beer tastes exactly like a gin and tonic. I know that sounds blasphemous to some, but to me that is what excites me about beer. We really are given a blank canvas and have endless amounts of inspiration to pull from.

Are you more into Westcoast or Eastcoast IPAs?

I am more Eastcoast. I drink ‘em both and it depends on my mood and I like the dryness of the Westcoast IPA. But I’m not always into the super piney IPA and the cat pee Simcoe ones. I prefer the tropical Mosaic IPA. I love New Zealand hops, like Nelson Sauvin.

Can you still get it?

We can and we have, but we probably can’t get them before 2021 anymore. It is so hard and so expensive. That’s the hard part of the industry right now: You have to look into hops four years into the future. Just the other day I’ve had a guy visit me from a hop farm. It’s a good business to be in right now.

The interview took place on 19 Februar 2016 in the Funky Buddha taproom in Oakland Park.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.