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Ingesting the Opposition - Week 10: Core Brewing & Distilling Co.

Following Mississippi State's discombobulated win at Kentucky, we must be careful to take heed of the portents the football gods revealed. So before Saturday's game with Arkansas, ready your stomachs for battle by sipping from the glass filled by Arkansas' biggest brewery.

If I was asked to identify a glaring deficiency in my secondary and collegiate education—it was a liberal arts education, I should add, with which I have very few qualms—it would be in the sciences.

It's not that my options were lacking or that I shied away from the subject (at least not initially). I took the full complement of Biology, Chemistry (I and II), and Physics in high school to go with all the math electives I enjoyed at the time (yes, I took math classes as electives for the fun of it; back off). And I was afforded every opportunity to pursue any science under the sun in undergraduate school. Rather, it was simply a confluence of circumstances without any remote analog in my other fields of study: year in and year out, my science teachers and I were either mutually disinterested or mutually clueless.

I will let the final experience be representative of the series of calamities that was my exposure to the sciences:

I chose to take a 9:00 a.m. physics class to fulfill a science requirement in my freshman year of college. Physics in high school was noteworthy only because it allowed me to construct a contraption that included a Pink Floyd CD as a counterweight. But hey, I dug string theory, so why the hell not?

Well, this is why not—the professor turned out to be one of those guys who bragged about the size of the curve in his class. Yes, he was proud that he taught his students so poorly that people who made 60s on their exams were making A's. "My tests are three to four times more difficult than any other tests given at this university," he'd opine with disturbing self-satisfaction. After telling us how many hours we would need to spend each evening doing the homework he assigned, he would launch into another story about the engine capacities of motorcycles he used to ride in 70s, or about how—I kid you not—the one thing he'd never be without in outer space was a bag of beans, so that he could carefully flick them away from his body while suspended in zero gravity to propel himself in different directions if was somehow lost adrift in a freak accident.

Yeah, the jury was definitely still out on science.

Needless to say, I used his class—when I chose to attend—as a time for self-reflection (read: sleep) and doing other homework (read: doodling). I was one of the "geniuses" who could manage a 53 on his final, so I pulled a B.

That was the last science class I ever even thought about taking.

Three humanities degrees later, I wonder what could have been if I hadn't had the luck of drawing the shortest of the short straws that first year of college. Engineering? Medical school? Lord of the salamanders? I don't know. But how about this as a glimpse of that alternate reality:

It's the early 1990s. A college kid is nodding off during a microbiology class like a bleary-eyed drinking bird toy. His chief concerns are, in no particular order, women and beer, and the 8:00 a.m. start time of this particular seminar doesn't exactly jive with the schedule of his more worldly pursuits.

The professor for some reason doesn't believe that this kid is beyond salvation. So he approaches him one day about his jackassedness. But instead of ripping into him, he drops a morsel of divine wisdom: "You can make beer with what you learn in this class."

The haze lifts and the points of light focus. The opening notes of Beethoven's 6th stir from the recesses his mind.

That college kid was Jesse Core, the founder of Core Brewing & Distilling, the largest brewery in the State of Arkansas.

Science!

Core barley
Jesse, basking in a field of barley dreams.

Soon after his revelation, Jesse took up home brewing. He progressed quickly in the craft—he started off with a brew or two from extract kits, but was then off into the wild world of full-grain brewing. And while he dabbled in many styles, the beer he gravitated toward most was one I haven't heard too much about in brewers' reminiscences surrounding their home brew pasts: ESB. Apparently Redhook's ESB made such an impression on Jesse back in the dayhe recalls it being a "game changer" at the time—that he made that style part of his permanent repertoire from a very early date.

Meanwhile, Jesse's scholastic path took him places I am only vaguely familiar with. His software engineering and business administration studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels mutated to create a skill set that, to me, may as well be that of a desert ascetic. He could write code and was proficient as an I.T. specialist, but was also adept at "linear programming" and systems engineering.

Armed with this unique book learnin', Jesse would leave Arkansas to follow he work wherever it took him. And at each stop along the way, he kept on brewing.

Eventually, though, he'd had enough traveling, and the Ozarks called him home.

Core taproom

It probably goes without saying that Arkansas is a conservative state. Yes, it's part of the Bible Belt. Yes, it's home to dozens of dry counties and cities. Yes, blue laws generally forbid the sale of alcohol on Sundays. And yes, in 2014 there is still a public debate about the extent to which the government should even vicariously legitimize drinking.

But when Jesse "did a cannonball off the deep end" in 2010 by opening the Fayetteville area's first brewery, he didn't have to contend with some of the same restrictions I've come to expect after speaking with so many southern brewers and distillers. For instance, Core Brewing was never forced to be without a taproom like the early breweries in Alabama. So from the very beginning, it was able to immediately connect with the public and earn at least some instant return on its investments. Similarly, Core hasn't had to deal with nonsensical ABV caps like those in Mississippi. Even though Arkansas grocery stores and gas stations can't sell anything with more than 6.2% alcohol, the ABV limit for beer in in the state is over 20% (which can be sold in liquor stores), so Core has free reign to craft the beers of its choice.

With little to check its progress, Core grew. A lot. Fast.

It started out as a one barrel brewery with two employees (including Jesse) operating in a humble space less of than 2000 square feet. But demand for the beer grew much faster than Jesse anticipated. So Core added 5,000 square feet. And then another 5,000 square feet. And so on, until the space was close to 20,000 square feet. The brewing capacity is now 25 barrels, and the staff—which, cue "Circle of Life," includes a microbiologist—is now close to twenty.

And this is exponential, people. In the past year alone, Core's output has increased more than 900%, from a little over 30 barrels per month, to around 300 barrels per month. To say that growth of that magnitude was unexpected would be a major understatement. According to Jesse, it's almost too much for to keep up with. Add to that the company's plan to expand its distribution footprint beyond Arkansas and Missouri into the Midwest and Southeast, and I'm amazed that Jesse finds the time to mellow out with a glass of the beer he's brewing.

Core beers

The astounding growth of Core Brewing makes sense, though, when you start talking to Jesse about the beer itself. The brewery's fermentation space for six hundred barrels is absolutely needed—he's got two dozen well-honed, time-tested recipes he can throw into production at any minute. The limited editions run the gamut from the football themed "Arkansas Red" ale, to an adventurous imperial stout that's made with thirty pounds of premium chocolate. Meanwhile, the six he selected for the year-rounders may represent one of the more comprehensive portfolios I've come across this season: a classic ESB, a Märzen (called "Leghound"), an Oatmeal Stout, an imperial double red IPA, a Pilsner (the "Behemoth"), and an IPA ("Hilltop IPA").

You didn't read that wrong: two of year round beers are lagers. Given that the responses I've received from the series' other craft brewers about the absence of lagers in their lineups (which have ranged from a matter-of-fact statement about lack of resources to slightly defensive dismissiveness to a somewhat surprising discussion about consumer price thresholds), I was quite interested in Core's lagers. What made Jesse willing to absorb the lost time and extra resources of fermenting lagers at his microbrewery?

His answer made so much sense that I was almost startled: "We want to be the premier brewery in Arkansas. If we just made ales, we'd be voluntarily ignoring an entire half what beer is. Why would we do that?"

Can't argue much with that.

He of course added a couple of rejoinders about refining the manufacturing process to make grain-to-bottle time as short has chemically possible—again, Science!—and that, yes, it may take 30-50% longer to do lagers than some ales. But those were just afterthoughts.

You make lager because it's beer and it's good. That's it.

Core tanks

- Epilogue -

So, what's the deal with the Dachshunds all over the place? And why do they call themselves a "distilling" company as well as a brewery?

(1) After a tough high school football loss (as in just-lost-the-state-championship-game tough), Jesse's mom bought him a Dachshund puppy. His name was Barney, and he lived with Jesse's family nearly twenty years. So Barney is now immortalized as part of a family crest of sorts on Core's beer cans.

(2) Arkansas' biggest brewer got out of the deep end, casually dried himself off, built a three story diving board, and stepped off belly-flop style—Core is starting to distill spirits. The first release, which happened quite recently, was of an unaged white whiskey with a 50/50 mash bill of British barley and German wheat. It sold out in a flash.

Just as with his brewery, Jesse's got a hell of a vision for the distillery. He is thinking about doing a vodka, a rum, a bourbon (lots of corn in Arkansas, after all), and, quite interestingly, a brandy. (Altus, a city about an hour and a half south of the Fayetteville area, is apparently known for its wineries.) And everything is going to be craft made, even down to the barrels. Yes, Core is expanding once again, this time to swallow up a 10,000 square foot facility that will be devoted largely to hand-making the company's very own barrels for aging spirits.

Because, of course, Jesse is trained in cooperage, the art of barrel-making.

What, you're not?