Jesse Core is a confident man with a remarkable beard. Thick and of considerable length, it’s the kind of beard you would expect to find on a brewer (they say you should never trust a clean-shaven brewmaster).
Core plays the role well, and his company is flourishing under his leadership.
Core Brewing & Distilling Co. has been on fire since it opened in 2012. In the last 12 months alone it has seen 900 percent growth, which is enough to make the founder’s head spin.
“The reality is that it was a little too fast,” he told me. “We’re pulling on the reins a little bit.”
“Pulling on the reins” can be interpreted in different ways, however. For Core it means a new focus on process improvement and quality control while keeping fourteen 40-barrel fermenters full of beer at all times. Money was recently invested in an on-site quality control lab that will improve the brewery’s beer in the long run.
“That’s why we’ve got this gentleman from Siebel [Chicago’s acclaimed school of brewing science] here,” said Core. “That’s why we have three food scientists and an analytical chemist consulting us. It’s all to make sure our beer is awesome over a long period of time.”
It’s obvious that Jesse Core is passionate about beer. And he’s equally passionate about his business. I sat down with him recently to discuss both topics:
I read somewhere that you plan to expand distribution into Tennessee and South Dakota. How are things going with that?
It’s going well. We’re going to limit how much beer they receive…until we can satisfy our demand. We were short of demand three months in a row. I know that sounds like a good problem to have – and it can be – but it can also piss people off. It’s not good to short customers.
The new taproom in Rogers seems to be coming along. What can craft beer fans expect once you open the doors?
First of all, it’s going to be awesome! That’s about as humbly as I can say it. That place is badass! We’re going to sell our beer and continue to get people more familiar with the brand.
Will food be available in the taproom?
There will be hot dogs and chips, and we have partnerships with Mellow Mushroom and Bariola’s. So if you don’t want hot dogs and chips, you can call in a pizza and they’ll bring it to you.
How would you describe the vibe you hope to have there?
Just like [the taproom at the Springdale brewery]. There are a lot of really nice places to go in the Rogers area. What I want is for people to come in, hang out with their buddies, and drink some beer. We’ll have nice TVs in there, and we’ll have USB ports to plug into. You can bring your iPad, drink some good Arkansas craft beer, and relax.
What I wanted to build is a place I’d want to go. You know, I’m 41 now. I don’t want to screw around with a bunch of craziness. I prefer hanging out with my buddies, watching some sports, and drinking some good beer.
Note: I stopped by the new taproom for a quick look after our interview. Located just off I-49 on New Hope Road, it’s part of a new office complex that has a really cool architectural design. Core’s space isn’t very big, but with patio seating it looks like it will accommodate the same number of people as the brewery’s taproom, maybe more. Overall, it’s an impressive look for Core.
Do you have plans to expand into other NWA communities?
We’re looking. We want strategic locations. We absolutely will not cannibalize any of our existing business. The last thing we would do is open a pub on Dickson Street, where we’re in every bar already. That would be stupid.
My perfect location would be between your work and your house, so you can drive there, have a beer, and decompress before heading home. My target is 1,500 – 2,000 square feet, laid back, and close to residences.
Which of your beers is currently receiving the most attention?
This time of the year it’s all about the Raspberry Lager. It’s super light – a 4% beer. We use over 200 pounds of raspberry purée per 20 barrels. We go in the bright tank with it, which brings real filtering challenges. If we sent it out [without filtering] it would be this murky, turbid, pink mud. Sending it through filtration to create that brilliant pink color and lightness that you’d expect is a challenge. It’s a delicate beer.
What can we expect for seasonal releases this fall and winter?
We brewed Pumpkin Pie Lager yesterday with real organic pumpkin. This poses another challenge in the brewer’s world. We used oats, flaked barley, wheat, and pumpkin. It’s a sticky, sticky, sticky mash. It’s a real challenge in terms of breaking down that mash so we can have a decent lauter [the process of rinsing sugars from the grain to create the wort]. But it’s such a good beer. Maris Otter is the base malt. It’s a pretty high gravity beer, so it’s going to be a good 6.5-7%. There are six different spices in it, but it’s not overwhelming. It’s a little darker than others – it’s a full beer. You’re going to know you’re drinking a beer with that one.
Soon we’ll have the Imperial Chocolate Stout, which uses 30 pounds of chocolate per 15-barrel batch. That will get us into the winter, and then we’ll do the Old Grumpy Barleywine.
Have you considered a sour or barrel program?
Definitely barrel-aged. I’m a trained cooper because we’re also a distillery. So creating barrels for barrel aging is very important.
Sour beer is a little deviation from our current trajectory. I’m not saying never because it would be fun. I think sour beers, if done correctly, are really tasty. I’ve also had some sour beers that weren’t so awesome. I’ve made some sour beer by mistake. I guess I should have sold it! I will never say never, but right now we just have to keep focused on improving our quality and ensuring our customers are happy.
Do you plan to enter any beers at the Great American Beer Festival?
We’re thinking about it. I’m a beer judge; I passed the BJCP certification. It’s a hard test and it taught me a lot about different things. But I don’t want to be like other guys. This is more of the Sam [Calgione] from Dogfish [Dogfish Head Brewing] model, but who really cares what kind of style people try to fit you in? What if you don’t fit in any of the categories? There’s both an American- and an English-style ESB. I use hops from both, so what is mine? We’re going to be at GABF and we’re going to have a booth. But submitting a beer to the competition is not something I’m concerned about right now.
Who do you admire in the craft beer industry?
I think the way John McDonald up at Boulevard handled that whole [acquisition] deal – that was a very professional move. You know he was offered big money from Inbev and MillerCoors. But I guess he just told them to stick it. That was pretty sweet.
Then to sit there and say, “You know what? I don’t need it, I’m making plenty of money.” And to keep rolling until he got a company – Duvel – who makes some damn good beer, to partner with. And they aren’t going to bastardize Boulevard’s beer. I mean, can we say the same about Goose Island [which was acquired by AB Inbev] or Redhook [in which AB Inbev has a vested stake]? I used to drink Redhook like a fiend out on the west coast. It’s not the same beer anymore.
Core and his team are proud of what they’ve built. Sometimes it can be perceived as arrogance by those who don’t know them well.
“We’re proud of our stuff and we have egos about our products,” he told me. “But we’re not dickheads. I want people to get to know us personally. We’re good people making good beer. Whether we make 3,000 barrels a year or 300,000 – we want to be Arkansas’ brewery.”
His sense of state pride intertwines with his competitive spirit. Core hopes everyone in the Natural State will identify with his brewery, above all others.
“We want to be Arkansas’ premium brand,” he declared. “So when you go out of state and wear one of our shirts you can proudly say, ‘Core – that’s my brewery.’”
He has big dreams and he’s a savvy businessman, but first and foremost Core is a hardworking brewer. He takes great satisfaction in knowing that he transformed a sack of grain into a tasty beverage – and that you liked it.
“Every time I give you a beer and you say ‘Man, that’s nice’ it makes me feel good,” Core said enthusiastically. “We have 17 employees and we all worked hard to make that glass of beer. So it’s pretty damn cool to hear that from our customers.”
Brian Sorensen (@EBSorensen) is an admitted beer geek, occasional home brewer, and member of the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds.