(Note: this is the first in a series of stories on UAFS alumni entrepreneurs. If you are a business owner and a UAFS alumni and would like to have a story written on your business, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
Core Brewing Company may be headquartered in Springdale, but the company is undoubtedly a Fort Smith business. The qualities that have made its owner, Jesse Core, a successful businessman are the same ones that have defined Fort Smith – tenacity, resiliency, grit and empathy.
Just six years old, the company has experienced meteoric growth since its inception in 2010, becoming one of the largest breweries in the state and expanding into regional markets across the southern United States.
But Core may have never gotten into brewing had it not been for a professor at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, which was still Westark Community College when Core attended in 1992.
As a freshman, he was frequently tardy or absent from his classes, until his microbiology professor pulled him aside one day to admonish him for repeatedly skipping class. As an incentive to increase his attendance, he explained to Core how he could apply the lessons from the class towards something that was becoming increasingly more important to Core: beer.
Core’s father had homebrewed, and Core had been fascinated by the process of brewing, watching his father dump powder into water that produced a frothy head, the transformation from raw material to a finished good.
The idea of turning his passion for good beer into a career resonated with him. Microbiology, a field that already appealed to the “nerd” in him, became even more alluring.
He began attending class regularly, and learned the foundation for homebrewing, which he began doing in his spare time. He did not plan on brewing remaining just a hobby, but the time wasn’t right to capitalize on his ambitions.
“In the mid-‘90s, Arkansas was not ready for craft beer,” Core said. “There was just not much of a market, and frankly, I didn’t know enough to take the leap.”
Still, Core was enthralled by microbiology but disappointed in the lack of career prospects.
“I would’ve continued on with microbiology, but the more I learned about it, the more I saw that those guys just weren’t making a lot of money,” Core said. “They worked really hard and just didn’t have many career options.”
Instead, Core pursued a career in software development, an emerging market that took him away from Fort Smith and to Miami for a year, then Boulder for three years, then San Diego for seven. The latter two cities were undergoing a beer renaissance with the advent of craft beer, and it was while working in Boulder that Core was introduced to “real” beer.
“I went from having very little craft beer knowledge – thinking domestic beer was craft beer – to seeing true American craft beer,” he said. “It had a ton of flavor and a ton of character. You could tell it was a gourmet product.”
Core also saw the positive impact breweries in Boulder had on the community by creating jobs and attracting tourists.
“It created a tourist destination for people. People came from all over to see these places and see how beer was made,” he said.
In his 11-year hiatus from Arkansas, Core continued to brew for himself at home, honing the craft while seeing firsthand what it took to make good craft beer and run a successful brewery.
He returned to northwest Arkansas in 2004, working in the Information Systems Department at Tyson Foods. It was then, in 2010, seeing the booming economic and population growth of the area, that Core made a simple decision: Arkansas needed some “really good” craft beer. And it would start with Core Brewing Company.
But that simple decision had complex consequences. Scaling from homebrewing to brewing on a commercial level was the difference in millions of dollars of equipment and labor. To make matters more difficult, Core was starting his business in the middle of the Great Recession, when investors’ pockets were understandably tight and craft breweries, which were few and far between in Arkansas at the time, were a hard sell.
“People were stuffing money in their mattresses,” Core said. “And for me to tell people, ‘Hey, I’ve got this 70-page business plan, here are all the things we’re going to do with the company’ – it was hard to convince them when we didn’t really know if Arkansas was going to embrace craft beer.”
He was confident enough that he took a leap of faith and invested his retirement to start the company. At the company’s inception, Core had three full-time employees and brewed with his uncle, Kit, from a one-barrel brewing system.
Around the same time Core started the company, his dog, Barney, died at age 19. The dachshund was given to him by his mother to cheer him up after the Grizzlies lost in the state championship when Core was a sophomore.
Even though he was heartbroken by the dog’s loss, Core saw a fitting mascot for his emerging brewery. The company’s logo was created with a silhouette of Barney below the word “Core.”
After starting the company, Core hit the road to solicit investors across the state. He met with hundreds of them – and was told no again, and again, and again.
“I don’t know how many times I was told it’s not going to work – there’s too many breweries, it’s too much money, your valuation doesn’t make sense,” Core said. “Banks wouldn’t even sniff me.”
But Core was resilient – he always had been. Growing up on the north side of Fort Smith as the youngest of three brothers created a tenacity in him that he’s carried with him all his life, and he had grown up facing the same sort of challenges.
When his junior high football coach laughed at him when he said he’d like to play wide receiver for the Northside Grizzlies, Core spent the following spring and summer determined to prove him wrong, running up and down stairs and practicing catching footballs.
In Core’s sophomore year of high school, he started for the Grizzlies football team at wideout.
Now, facing a similar challenge with higher stakes, Core felt the same frustration he did as a junior high student.
“I really don’t like being told what to do,” Core said. “If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. And I think that mindset is representative of Fort Smith’s blue-collar nature. We don’t back down from challenges, and we don’t like being bullied.”
Core kept meeting with investors. Each time an investor said no, he learned from it, remembering their apprehensions and anticipating them when he met with future investors.
“I got to where I could answer the investors’ questions before they even asked them,” Core said. “And once they had all their concerns addressed, it came down to, ‘Do you think I’m the guy to get this done or not?’”
Some investors believed he was, enough to purchase the necessary equipment and begin brewing on a larger scale. There were growing pains for the brewery – he recalled when a contaminated yeast spoiled $50,000 worth of beer – but Core worked diligently to grow it, prioritizing quality beer over flashy marketing.
The brewery expanded into a 5,000 square-foot facility, then 20,000 square feet that Core initially rented but was able to purchase in 2014. The complex, located in Springdale, became the official headquarters of the brewery.
“I really don’t like being told what to do. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. And I think that mindset is representative of Fort Smith’s blue-collar nature. We don’t back down from challenges, and we don’t like being bullied.”
“I felt like there was tremendous momentum behind the company, and we finally had room to grow,” he said.
He also fostered a business culture that encourages empathy among the company’s many moving parts, remembering a lesson from his mother, Jacquie, to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. No matter what job employees are hired to do, they start out in packaging or bartending at the facility’s bar.
“I don’t care if you had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, you’re starting either in packaging or as a bartender,” Core said. “That way, when someone is having an issue in a different area, they’ll know what it’s like to work over there and understand the challenges they’re facing.”
“We don’t have ceilings in the company,” Core continued. “If you provide value, we’re gonna keep pushing you up the ladder.”
Core Brewing Co. emerged from the Great Recession as one of the top breweries in northwest Arkansas, both in quality and quantity of beer produced, but the company’s growth is far from over. In addition to its regional expansion, the company has also purchased property in downtown Fort Smith to open a distillery and cooperage as part of the revival of the city’s downtown area.
“It’s going to be a world-class facility,” he said. “We want people to come here and take tours and eat food and enjoy themselves. It’s going to be a cool place to get dropped off and hang out. It’ll be like Disneyland for adults.”
Core is also working with UAFS to conceptualize a potential academic program in brewing at the university.
“That professor’s conversation with me when I was a student sums up why I love UAFS,” Core said. “They teach kids how to get jobs, and they do that by showing how to apply the lessons students are taught in the classroom. They’re not saying, ‘You need to learn calculus so you can get a good grade.’ They’re showing people what they can do with those skills, and I’m a staunch supporter of the applied sciences.”
The new Fort Smith distillery marks a homecoming for Core, even as he has carried the city with him throughout his career.
“I’m a romantic about Fort Smith,” he said. “The people are ethical, kind and hardworking. They understand that if you want something, you have to work for it – life isn’t going to hand you things. My wife and I are proud to be from Fort Smith, and we’re excited to see and be a part of the city’s growth moving forward.”