Over the past three years, Cory King’s Side Project Brewing has gone from labor of love to the #3 rated brewery in the world on the social beer-sharing app Untappd—a meteoric rise for the once homebrewer whose limited production, hands-on method, and refusal to brew popular styles such IPA are unusual . . . to say the least. What’s in the 6-pack of his choice? Read on to find out.
King’s microbiology undergrad helped prepare him to be a brewer, and his MBA helped prepare him to run a brewery, but Side Project Owner/Brewer Cory King credits his palate to a history of geeking out about beer.
“Before I was a brewer, I was a beer geek, and I embrace that term,” says King. “I traded, figured things out, and learned more about different beers. And I think that’s one of the saving graces for me as a brewer—knowing where we stack up quality-wise.”
It’s precisely that act—searching out and sampling the best that other brewers have to offer—that has helped King refine his palate and develop his own point of view as a brewer. Today, he doesn’t just accept trading of the beers he brews; he encourages it.
“I still tell people, ‘Trade Side Project beer. Trade it away, and I’ll love it. Don’t resell it, but I love you guys trading it.’ ”
For someone who makes some of the most in-demand stouts, saisons, and wild ales in the country, King’s personal taste in beer is remarkably accessible, and chances are, you won’t have to trade away your cellar for most of the go-to beers in his 6-pack.
Allagash Brewing Company (Portland, Maine)
We don’t get Allagash White in Missouri, but every time I see it, I pick some up. Witbiers and whites are one of my favorite styles—the low bitterness, the soft mouthfeel, the fruitiness, the esters. I could just drink a ton of it any time. I absolutely love witbiers, and unfortunately, I don’t have access to [locally made] good ones here in Missouri, so when I do have a great one, it’s even more memorable.
White is fantastically balanced. The amount of coriander, orange peel, and wheat character is seamlessly integrated, which makes it incredibly easy to drink and refreshing—exactly what that style is supposed to be. Other producers’ wits sometimes become too yeast-forward, with too much orange peel or too much coriander—and not about the whole package. But the balance in Allagash White makes it very traditional, very Old World tasting, which makes it even more inviting.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company (Paso Robles, California)
As I’m getting older, I’m getting more and more into session beers. I want to drink a beer that’s enjoyable and easy and purposeful. And Pivo Pils—there’s a reason that beer, the first year it was released and the following two years after that—won gold at GABF. From the get go.
It’s because of the execution of it, and of course, it’s a Firestone Walker beer, so who would have expected less? It’s a little hops-forward for the style, which makes the beer unique but also exciting. I always find Pilsners exciting, but especially that one. It’s their take on a classic style, but they make it their own without forgetting the tradition of what a Pilsner truly is.
Some brewers today try to push the limits and make “hoppy Pilsners” that are basically just India pale lagers. But Firestone Walker has maintained the style with their take—dry hopping with German hops. It’s so aromatic and a lovely little beer. It’s one of the few beers I drink a lot of because I’m an adventurous drinker and am always jumping around.
Another reason I like Pivo is, as with any lager, the technical prowess it takes to brew Pilsner well (and well for years) is incredibly challenging. Any brewer can look at that beer, or any well-made Pilsner, and be almost jealous of how well they can perform on that beer. That appreciation makes the beer even tastier. As a brewer myself, I couldn’t make that damn beer. There’s a little bit of jealousy, but at the same time, it’s rewarding to drink that beer and see how nicely they’ve done.
Pilsner is starting to catch on—more brewers I talk to want to do one—and the quality of Pilsners coming out from new brewers is high. I think brewers know that other brewers respect Pilsners so much, that if they’re going to make it, they’re going to make it for themselves and for other brewers. The general public will probably not be overly excited about your Pilsner, but it’s the kind of beer you brew to show off at festivals to other brewers. The festival-goers aren’t lining up for your Pilsner no matter what, but brewers are putting so much heart and soul into it that it’s great to see the quality.
Recently, at the Shelton Brothers festival in Louisville, Kentucky, I had a chance to walk around and spent the entire time just searching out Pilsners. It’s cool to see the change—I used to be that guy looking for all the barrel-aged stouts or all the sour beers, but now I just want to drink Pilsners!
Bourbon Barrel Champion Ground
Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery (Athens, Ohio)
Being a lover of stouts, especially barrel-aged versions and those that use adjuncts in an appropriate and thoughtful manner, I have to include Bourbon Barrel Champion Ground. It’s an awesome barrel-aged imperial coffee stout. I’ve had the chance to have it a few times recently, thanks to [Jackie O’s Brewmaster] Brad Clark, and it’s one of my favorite Jackie O’s beers.
As people know from our production, I love to make barrel-aged stouts, and I love drinking barrel-aged stouts (in small amounts), and coffee barrel-aged stouts have always been one of my favorites.
Brad’s use of coffee, his use of barrels, his intensity of the stout—it’s amazing how well he’s pulled those monster components together into one coherent beer.
That’s one of the challenges of a brewer who barrel ages—trying to make sure everything’s in sync. Everyone makes a barrel-aged stout now, and they’re often disjointed, but Bourbon Barrel Champion Ground takes those three very big flavors and pulls it all together. I think Brad uses Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which is a coffee I’ve never worked with. Unfortunately, I don’t drink a lot of coffee—I’m a decaf drinker. I love coffee itself, but I can’t drink caffeine—it makes me too jittery, too anxious, almost nauseous. (And there aren’t a lot of Jamaican Blue Mountain decafs out there.) So my only caffeine intake is usually coffee stouts. My wife, Karen, is the coffee aficionado in our family.
But back to the beer itself—the barrel, the booze, and the coffee work so well together. Brad makes more approachable stouts—they’re slightly smaller than Side Project stuff—and that makes them so drinkable and crazy. Last time I had it, I thought, “Damn, I could put down this whole bottle by myself.” That’s an accomplishment for a barrel-aged stout. Often, they’re so big that that’s not their purpose, and so for me to have that reaction, it had to be super well-done.
On the other side of that, he makes a ton of barrel-aged stout. That, too, is always eye-opening—how much they do, how well it’s executed, and how available it is.
Hill Farmstead Brewery (Greensboro Bend, Vermont)
Recently, I have (kind of) rediscovered my love for hops. I’m a product of the early craft-beer movement—caramel malt, excessively hoppy, West Coast stuff was the reason I didn’t like IPAs. So this New World, softer palate, lower bitterness, higher dry-hopping style beer is something I can enjoy.
Edward is by far my favorite hoppy beer. Shaun [Hill] doesn’t need any more praise, but there is something to be said for how absolutely fantastic his hoppy beers are.
I haven’t drunk hoppy beers in several years because they weren’t my style, but when we were up there at his festival, all I could drink was Edward. Edward is more about old-school American hops—it’s not the new Citra, Galaxy, Nelson, crazy stuff. But his execution with Centennial, Chinook, Warrior, and Simcoe (as I remember it)—these super-classic hops I homebrewed with—is so flavorful. The mouthfeel is crazy soft and inviting. Bitterness is not a flavor component we’re meant to like because it’s usually from dangerous foods—we’re born with a hatred of bitterness. I’ve never understood these highly bitter IPAs. So obviously, whether it’s his water or dry hopping or yeast—whatever he’s doing—the mouthfeel is super rich and makes the beer taste fruitier. I think that people overuse the word “juicy”; I think it is more about the true hops flavors more than anything else. Edward is considered a pale ale, not even an IPA, and people balk at the APA category these days. But not that beer. I really, really love that beer. Shawn makes some of the best hoppy beers that I’ve ever had.
Recently, I’ve started to get back into New England−style IPAs, but most tend to be sloppy in execution (in my opinion). People might call his beers New England style IPAs because they’re slightly hazy, but he just makes great “IPA.” The New England style is super turbid—I keep asking, “Can it not just be a little hazy?” But if you’re going to do New England−style now, it has to be opaque. I understand that people love those things, but it’s not my style. Edward is a fantastic beer, with just the right amount of haze for my taste.
Trappistes Rochefort 10
Brasserie de Rochefort (Rochefort, Belgium)
It’s an oldie but goodie, but I love Rochefort 10. Going back to the fact that I’m not a big hops fan, I love malt—hence my stout production and my sours (they aren’t very malty, but they’re also not hoppy).
The first beers I loved were never bitter, and they were always stouts. Then I started getting into the classic Trappist ales, and Rochefort 10 has been a favorite ever since.
The malt, the chocolate, the higher carbonation, the consistency—I absolutely love it. It’s weird that, for a 10.2 percent beer, you could sit down and drink it with lunch and probably order another one. There aren’t many 10 percent beers that easy to consume. I don’t know whether it’s the balance between the malt and the higher carbonation levels, or maybe that they’ve been brewing these beers forever and they’re just lovely, but I love, love Rochefort 10.
It’s a truly classic beer and nothing like it is ever really replicated in the states. Once again, some of these classic styles are not as exciting to people, and so there is no substitution for that. If someone local were making it the exact same or better, I’d drink it because you know it’s going to be fresh, but Rochefort 10 always holds up well with chocolate and more tobacco notes as it ages. That yeast strain is so unique.
I know lots of folks talk about Westvleteren XII, but Rochefort 10 is my favorite by far.
Russian River Brewing Company (Santa Rosa, California)
Sanctification was eye-opening because Brettanomyces was always interesting to me. The first time I had this beer, it was the fruity Brett and some acidity and a whole new look at Brett for me. I love Orval, but the Brett in Orval delivers a spicy phenolic.
People will often say a beer doesn’t have enough Brett character if they don’t taste spicy and phenolic, but they’re starting to come around to understand that it doesn’t mean spicy phenolics, horse blanket, or Band-Aid—it can mean fruit, citrus, and all these other wonderful things. Sanctification was the first revelation for me that had me asking, “This is a Brett beer? I can’t figure this out. This is crazy.”
So this was the start of some of my love for Brett but also my continuing education in Brett and my continuing love of the different ways Brett can showcase itself.
Obviously, with the Side Project beers, I focus more on fruit and acidity and all those wonderful characteristics that Brett can provide, and Sanctification was the first beer for me on that one.
I love that beer and have a ton of it that I’ve aged over the years, and whenever I drink one, I’m always reminded of when I drank it for the first time.