King of Beers
Brewer Takes Leap of Faith to Do What He Loves
By Daniel Barnes
Just like superheroes, beermakers and brewery owners all have their origin stories. There are the passionate homebrewers turned professionals; there are the beer industry lifers; and there are those who turn to craft beer as a career second act. While that last description certainly fits King Cong Brewing Co. owner and brewer Cong Nguyen, he is also undoubtedly one of the few dental school dropouts in the craft beer scene.
Nguyen comes from a high-achieving family of Vietnamese immigrants. His brother is a dentist in the area and his family owns Long Sandwich on Stockton Boulevard. “The original plan was for me to try to get into dental school, and then follow my brother’s path,” says Nguyen, who opened King Cong on Del Paso Boulevard in December 2017. “Unfortunately, I felt like when I tried as hard as I could, I just wasn’t good enough.”
After getting his undergraduate degree from the University of the Pacific, Nguyen worked to raise his grade-point average while applying to 15 dental schools a year. Nguyen was rejected by every one of the schools, and he gave up on dentistry after a couple years. “I felt like I had failed in life,” he says. “Being raised by immigrant parents, there’s expectations, and you feel like you’ve failed yourself, you’ve failed your family.”
That all changed when Nguyen took a “leap of faith” and enrolled in the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis. He was never a huge beer drinker, but he was intrigued by the business opportunities in the beer world, and the repetition and attention to detail required to excel as a beermaker appealed to his perfectionist nature. “I felt like brewing fit my personality so perfectly,” he says. “I found out that immediately when I started brewing, that it felt so natural.”
Suddenly, Nguyen became immersed in his brewing education, spending many late nights perfecting his craft after working during the day at his brother’s dental office. “It became kind of obsessive, and I kept working on it,” he says. “Even my brother told me that when he saw me join the program, there was something different, the fact that I was so into what I was doing.”
The more that Nguyen brewed, the more it seemed feasible that he could open his own business after graduating from the UC Davis program. He originally planned to open a tiny tasting room with beer brewed on a pilot system, but the project kept growing until it became King Cong Brewing Co. Nguyen spent four years developing the brewery and tasting room in a former glass repair shop owned by his brother.
While Nguyen navigated a long and difficult permitting and construction process, he kept perfecting his recipes. “He’s dedicated to quality,” says John Anaya, a classmate of Nguyen’s at UC Davis and the quality control and packaging manager at Heretic Brewing Company in Fairfield. “I believe that Cong is not one who is going to compromise the quality of the beer, and I believe that’s what is going to set him apart.”
Some craft breweries cater almost exclusively to “beer people,” but Nguyen wanted his first King Cong beers to be low-alcohol and accessible to everyone. “For the inaugural line, I wanted to make something that was clean, sessionable, easy-drinking, but still had a lot of the flavor profiles that you taste with these heavier beers.”
King Cong opened with three beers on tap, and Nguyen has been slowly expanding his tap list ever since, working in a milk stout and double IPA, and harboring plans to add a blonde, hazy IPA and brown porter. In addition to the beers, King Cong also offers house-made pizza with Nguyen’s brews baked into the crust. “Right now, we are using the Inaugural Pale Ale for the dough because it had a nice citrus smell,” he says.
The surrounding neighborhood has been aching for a business such as King Cong, a place where families, friends and couples can gather for a drink or a game of cornhole. The brewery is visible from the monkey-themed bar area, which has a relaxed yet stylish vibe, and there is a beer garden in the back. “Every single person that lives around this area is so thankful that they have something that they can walk to,” he says. “I just hope more people come and invest in this area.”
Nguyen eventually wants to expand his food program, although that would mean expanding his tiny kitchen. For now, Nguyen is content to continue perfecting his beers, and working every day at his dream job. “It makes things that much more enjoyable, and you find that sense of peace within yourself,” he says. “When you love what you do, you don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Daniel Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.