Declaration Brewing smells a certain way during happy hour, after the employees of several nearby cannabis businesses get off work. Three of them, old friends from high school, leave their pot posts early one afternoon to share stories before the crowds arrive.
It's not always easy to split your job before 4 p.m., but since Anthony Karas, Corey Buffkin and Ryan Buffkin all own their respective weed businesses, approval from the boss isn't required. Karas and the Buffkin brothers have each created award-winning growing operations, expanding their businesses in similar lanes without stepping on each other's toes.
Not that they're scared to mix it up.
Often sharing the podium at cannabis cups and competitions, the three friends have found success while running their own shows: Karas co-founded and co-owns Lama Brand Cannabis, a wholesale cannabis provider, and concentrate extraction company Single Source Colorado; Corey Buffkin is the founding grower and co-owner of Green Man Cannabis, a Denver dispensary chain, as well as pot businesses in Oregon and Nevada; and Ryan Buffkin co-owns and leads the growing staff at Denver Recreational, better known as Den-Rec, which has two stores in Denver.
Between them, they hold well over sixty awards from such competitions as the Dope Cup, THC Classic and High Times Cannabis Cup. And the three will tell you that they each can trace their success back to Evergreen.
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They all lived in that scenic town, population around 9,000, back in 1994. Karas was attending Evergreen High School when he met Ryan, who was a year younger, and his brother, Corey, who had just enrolled at Red Rocks Community College. The brothers, who'd recently moved to Colorado from Savannah, Georgia, quickly became friends with Karas, who played football with Ryan in high school.
"They talked real funny," Karas says. "I was a jock."
"We were jocks, too," Corey replies. "We just smoked weed."
Their friendship grew after Karas and Ryan graduated from high school. By then, Corey was attending the University of Northern Colorado, and they'd crash on his couch after long, hazy nights in Greeley. When Ryan and Karas lived together in Arvada, they returned the favor to Corey. As they moved through college and then through their twenties, the three continued chasing fine herb across the Rocky Mountains, experimenting with plants in their closets as a not-too-secret hobby.
Then Colorado's medical marijuana movement took hold in the early 2000s, and before the three of them knew it, they were growing cannabis as caretakers in houses, basements and warehouses under the brittle protection of the state's medical marijuana laws.
"We call them the 'binder days,' when you have your list of patients on a binder stuck to your wall. The first equipment we used was basically converted street lights," Ryan recalls. "The medical era is when Corey and I realized how to do this well. It's easier to be good if it's small. It's much more difficult when it's large."
While the Buffkin brothers had been working together in their early years, they split up after launching their medical marijuana careers, heading their own growing operations in Colorado's medical and recreational pot realms.
As cannabis growing began to transition into a commercial industry, Corey set up a grow to supply medical dispensaries. After working in the ski industry, Karas eventually joined him, and the two began selling to dispensaries on South Broadway's Green Mile of pot shops.
"I remember running the block on the Green Mile with five-gallon buckets. There was a certain protocol, and we'd go shopping first, to see what others had. Ours was always better," Corey recounts. "We could run pounds for $4,400 or more back then, and this was all legal. It was the wild, wild West."
Once walking into stores with medical marijuana in Home Depot buckets and selling cannabis wholesale was no longer a legal option, Corey and Karas partnered with several medical dispensaries as head growers. The two parted ways when recreational cannabis sales became legal, however, with Corey co-founding Green Man Cannabis and Karas launching Lama in 2015 with another cannabis colleague, Matthew Willey.
Today Corey is a partner in One Cannabis, which is now part of a publicly owned pot company with dispensary franchisees and cannabis product brands across several states. He's the calmer of the two brothers, more focused on enterprise. "We grew our whole lives and beat the shit out of each other," Corey remembers fondly. "But we have a different mentality. I'm an out-of-state operator now."
Ryan joined Urban Dispensary for his leap into retail cannabis, then jumped to Natural Remedies, a now-defunct downtown dispensary, when the recreational market took off in 2014. He eventually landed at Den-Rec, which has two Denver dispensaries. He's a co-owner and the head grower; he and his life partner, Fallon McCaskill, have been running the flower operation for over five years now.
Ryan proudly wears his dispensary logo on his hat and shirt, and swells with gratification as he describes his detailed selection of Kush and Cookies phenotypes and the critical acclaim they've received.
He and his brother haven't run a cultivation together since their twenties. But while they take different approaches to running their businesses, "we're basically the same person," Ryan says of Corey. "We've talked about working together, but we both have our own things. Our models kind of diverged as we got older in this industry. I just enjoy being in the kitchen and joining those cannabis cups."
Like Karas, over the years both brothers have gained strong reputations in the industry. "We can count on one hand the people who came into the game day one and have thoroughly stayed in this," Ryan says. "To have a few of them who you've known for so long is even rarer."
Working in the same field has given the men plenty to talk about over beers. They share tips on waste management and good electricians, and tell each other who seems trustworthy or sketchy in the still-growing pot industry. Their close bond allows them to do more than talk shop, though. There are lots of old memories to share, as well as new topics to tackle, such as the challenges of being cannabis business owners with teenage kids.
"We're all dads now. We have kids in school. Sometimes they don't want to take my truck, because it smells like weed. Then you have PTA meetings, or just talking business on the phone around them," Karas says.
The Buffkins nod in agreement.
"It still sucks sometimes," Ryan laments. "They get asked about what we do for a living, and what do you want them to say? I don't put myself in a career day, and then have to wonder about lying to a bunch of kids. But if they search my name on Instagram, it's nothing but cannabis."
They share a lot, but never growing tips. While all three argue that competition hasn't affected their friendship, they still want to be known as the best among their peers, and that includes childhood friends and even family.
"We'll bounce some ideas off each other, but nothing like business plans or what nutrients we're using on certain plants," Ryan explains. "It's not a 'fuck you' mentality, but it really is a competition between us. Corey and I have always had a competitive spirit."
Karas, fresh off a swig of beer, interrupts the Buffkins with a devilish grin. "I learned from both of their recipes."
The friends insist there's room enough for all of them in Colorado, not to mention the rest of the country. Ryan and Karas chat almost daily; Ryan says that he and his brother talk a few times each week. At that, Corey enthusiastically points out that he tried calling Ryan three times the week before to no avail, and Ryan responds with smiles and blushes.
While their conversation sounds like any between friends, all about work, fishing and fantasy football, when they get together and the buds and blubbers come out, the roasting — both literal and figurative — begins. Aside from this bar meeting, though, the only time they seem to all be in the same room lately is at growing competitions. Standing in a smoking circle with people who've been friends for over 25 years involves a similar level of shit-talking.
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Corey admires a lime-green bud that Karas has shown him.
"Man, this is good," he says. "What is it?"
"Grape Stomper. I got it from you, years ago," Karas says, laughing.
"Oh, yeah," responds Corey. "Mine was better."