Brewer Chat: Sam Cruz of Against the Grain

LOUISVILLE, KY

On a recent trip down to Louisville for music festival-ing, I threw a line out at Against the Grain to potentially chat 'beer stuff.' Considering this was a total stranger asking to talk to the owner/brewer on one of their busiest weekends of the year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back, "Come'on by, ask for Sam." So, I obliged. And when I showed up for a nice patio lunch at the brewery – amidst setup for a big event they were hosting that evening – Sam stepped over, introduced himself, and sat down to chat. The gesture was so nonchalant, you'd think he does it with every guest to the brewpub.

From there, we briefly chatted about the space, Against the Grain's unique attributes, and the lease to a new production facility that he'd signed just hours before. I was excited to follow up and pick his brain further about what it takes for a brewery to standout in the land of Bourbon.

Give us a little background about your brewing career and how you ended up starting ATG.

About 18 years ago I was fortunate – honestly blessed – to have happened on to my neighbor, who was homebrewing in his garage. Of course, like any other teenager, I was infatuated with beer. So, when the concept of brewing on my own was presented to me, it was like I'd been touched by God! I said to myself, 'you mean I don't have to ask anyone's older brother to buy me beer?' So you can imagine my delight. My next course of action was to inform the parents I was brewing, and off I went. Fast forward five years, and an uncountable number of batches of homemade malt liquor, and I'd finished school – at Indiana University. I was working a soul-draining job in social services here in Kentucky. I'm still home brewing at the time, and I start to get an idea of what brewing is really about. The idea that I can make whatever beer I want – there're no limits to the quality of beer I can produce or that no ingredient is off the table. It's at this point that brewing really got serious for me. I started brewing clones. I really started to experiment with non-traditional ingredients, and really hone my wort production skills.

Then the ideas started churning?...

It was at this point that I'd reached my tipping point with my 'real job' and decided that I wanted to make a change in careers. That said, on one fateful day, I walked in to the local brewery here in Louisville – I should say the local brewery, as there really wasn't much to choose from. I asked the brewmaster at the time, Jerry Gnagy, if he needed any help. Much to my surprise, he answered 'yes' and I was soon the keg washer at Bluegrass Brewing Co. brewpubs. Fast forward a year and a half, and he was looking for a full-time assistant. As I was already employed there and showed some aptitude for the profession, I was the obvious choice – and gained an opportunity to further hone my skills in the craft brewing industry. Then about a year into working as the night time assistant, I was the lucky recipient of a scholarship to the Siebel Institute in Chicago. This was probably the point in my budding career as a brewer that things accelerated pretty quickly. After completing the Concise Course at Siebel, I returned to Bluegrass with a deeper understanding of all things brewing, as well as a large number of contacts in the craft brewing industry.  The combination of a legitimate education certificate, a boost in confidence, and the amazing practical experience and training I was receiving from my then-mentor-now-biz-partner, Jerry, put me in a position to move my career along much further.

So time goes by as Jerry and I are the primary brewers at Bluegrass, and we really hit a stride with production. Insomuch as we started to feel the binds of employment and all the pains of brewing the same beers over and over. The mundane life of a brewer bound to a regular pub lineup – and some weird shit our employer would do – propelled us forward to considering the idea of 'Against The Grain' as a reality.  Let me divulge just a bit of the weird shit we endured and how instrumental it was to Against the Grain being born. Let's start with the words: “Sunday, Cheesy Sunday.” Yep. You're saying, 'what the hell?'  Us too.  So this event concept came along and we were asked to do something inspired by it. The event called for the brewery to make a beer, or pair a beer, with Wisconsin-inspired cheese curds. What does that have to do with anything, you ask?  Were the Packers on TV, you ask? Nope. No Packers, no Wisconsin in Kentucky – the place was called Bluegrass Brewing Co. So as flabbergasted as you are, imagine our chagrin.

Sounds...odd. It gets worse?

Next: a pirate hooker known as 'Roxanne'!  After one of his many vacations to the 'Redneck Riviera', the fearless (and frankly witless) leader there at BBC came back with a ceramic statue of a Pirate woman dressed like she was going trick or treating at the Cubby Bear in Chicago...yeah, tits out. He so very proudly displayed it in the dining room of the pub where our liquid dreams were poured, and honestly it was heart-breaking. To think that all the hard work and determination we had put into the beers was being represented by a pirate whore statue located in a place called 'Bluegrass Brewing Co.' – it was all I could handle. But, I digress....

Anyways, after a number of occurrences like that, I felt like it was time to figure something out. I brought this up to Jerry and he agreed it was time to start thinking about the future. By chance, a fella named Adam Watson asked to join the team at Bluegrass. It ended up being a perfect thing. As fate would have it, Adam was also looking at the possibility of opening his own brewery. So when we all started discussing our life goals, it all collided. We asked Adam if he would like to be apart of the team and we were near complete.  We had built a team of brewers that could handle all things beer. Adam was an attorney also, so it made writing things down really a cinch. But we lacked one final component. Our final business partner, Andrew, came along in the form of a server, working at Bluegrass. He happened to ask if we all ever considered opening our own place and we very quietly said 'yes.'  To our dismay, our plan for the pub side of Against the Grain was not all that good. And Andrew knew how to fix it. So after a number of meetings and advice, we realized that Andrew was the final piece of the puzzle. It was at this point that Against the Grain really took flight. We started looking for property, got fired from Bluegrass, and found the space. So we opened in October 2011 and have been running at a thoroughbred clip since.

We believe a commitment to process, ingredients, and quality needn’t come with an exclusivity. We believe all brewers should devote themselves to this idea that one must make the best beer possible at all costs.
Illustration by Robby Davis has become an identifiable common thread for ATG.

Illustration by Robby Davis has become an identifiable common thread for ATG.

What's in a name: Against the Grain?

Our mantra has been that we want to move mainstream craft beer drinkers – holy shit...that's a thing! – to question themselves about what they want out of beer. Are they interested in the status quo standards for styles? Are they interested in a new gamut of flavor possibilities for beers? Are they interested in the culinary implications that beer can have? Do they want beers that exceed standard quality guidelines? Essentially we wanted to push the bounds of flavor and experience with our coveted liquid of love.

ATG definitely has a very unique and identifiable illustration style, and that’s led to your branding. What’s the story there?

Let's just keep it real here: we are kind of weird guys. Truth be told, I'm not sure any of us have been a model for 'socially acceptable.' After knowing my business partners as long as I have, I feel like we all have a little bit of weirdo in us. We're confident in who we are, we are definitely self-entertained, and most importantly we are in this to have a good time. So it's that character that has manifested in our branding. Now all of this is possible with an unspoken member of our team. Our chosen artist, Robby Davis, is everything we are, but he works a day job. Robby is able to identify with our thoughts and manifest them in a picture that couldn't be closer to what we envision. 

Part of your brand has been that you guys also don’t seem to shy away from the 'shocking.' Some of this is evident in the names for your beers (Citra Wet Ass Down, Show Us your Tetts...)

I wouldnt say 'shocking.' I think a better way to put it is 'raw', 'uncut', 'simple.' Let's face it...we make beer.  We make very very good beer. We know that. But what's astounding is that we realize anyone can make this beer. As long as they are willing to focus on what matters. The pictures are an extension of our adolescent senses of humor. But the combination of the name, label art concept, and quality of the liquid in the bottle is our statement. We believe a commitment to process, ingredients, and quality needn't come with an exclusivity. We believe all brewers should devote themselves to this idea that one must make the best beer possible at all costs. So, to take ourselves so seriously that we can't have fun and make amazing beer is not our game. We hope that this attitude translates to our customers and is infectious. Everyone deserves excellent beer!

Being in Kentucky, where Bourbon is king, what kind if inspiration or influence have you taken from the spirit industry?

We definitely find quite a bit of inspiration from Bourbon. The obvious influence shows in Bourbon-flavored beers. But there is definitely more to it than that. We really started to realize how to use all the unique and interesting nuances associated with barrel-aging. In addtion to that, we have had such a close relationship with distillers and blenders, that we have been able to pinpoint certain attributes we like about beers aged in whiskey barrels; as well as what type of char we like in the barrel. It's fun. 

Do you have any partnerships with local distilleries for barrel-aging?

Yes. And I cant say any more than that.

You’ve got a unique location, being in a minor league baseball stadium. What are the pros and cons of this space?

Pros: people, people, people. They = $$$. Cons: we have had to train the people to like craft beers, and specifically the types of beer we make. We do have an offseason, so all of the good customers try to steer clear of here during ball season. Oh, and overhead is astronomical.

With your new production facility opening in the near future, will you continue that partnership? 

Yes. Fresh beer to the East Coast. It doesn't make sense not to keep things going. Our goal is to get our vision of what beer should be to consumers. [That brewery] Pub Dog, is a big part of ensuring that. 

Due to your quick growth you’d been contract-brewing to meet demand. How do you monitor quality and brand reputation using a contract brewer hundreds of miles away in Maryland?

We get lab reports on every batch, as well as an actual sample of each batch before it goes. But more than that, we feel it's necessary to stay pretty connected to the team out there. So, periodically we hop on a plane and check-in to brew for a day, or package, or whatever they have on the schedule. Ultimately, we chose them because they exemplify our attitude towards quality and process. So the trust is there. 

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Can you talk to us a little about the recent expansion? By the numbers, and what this means for ATG…

Our projection for year one is to increase production by 400% So we will increase both draft production and bottle/can production up to around 6,500 barrels in 2015. Initially, our primary markets will see a significant spike in draft availability. We will follow this with a bottle/can push – some brands are bound for can, some will stay bottle. This will happen very methodically over the course of 2015. We'll also increase our barrel-aging significantly, as we have more room to store barrels for conditioning. So look for more Bo & Luke, Kentucky Ryed Chiquen, and Mac Fanny Baw. Not only this, but with building the new place, we also free up some room here at homebase (ATG at Slugger Field) for an expansion of our All Funked Up series of beers. That's really exciting as we have spent quite a bit of time developing processes for production of wild and sour beers. So look for that series to develop and grow, too...

How would you say the Louisville/Kentucky craft scene compares to others in the Midwest such as Chicago or West Michigan?

We are definitely little brother here. But give us time. Chicago has a boatload more people than we have, as well as a world class transportation hub. This allows for ideas to spread faster and trends to catch sooner. But we are coming along. One thing is for certain, as the beer culture establishes here in Louisville, it's establishing in a very solid and long-term manner. 

In a crowded marketplace, what’s the most unique aspect of Against the Grain?

Our commitment to quality and innovation. Our limits are derived from our own inability to accept that there are no boundaries. This is also true with beer. It can always be better, more interesting, more stable, etc. There're no limits.

Briefly describe your beer lineup, and which have been most widely-accepted?

We operate on the concept of brewing to general categories that service a broad spectrum of beer drinkers. These categories are: Session, Hop, Whim, Malt, Smoke, Dark. The beers we make all fit in these categories, to offer our customer an opportunity to experience the amazingly diverse world of beer. Whim: the brewmaster's whim – it keeps him interested. Smoke: we like smoked beer...period. It's for us.

Any favorite styles to brew?

Pilsner: simple delicate, precise. Impy Stout: mind-numbing work, thick, alcoholic, rich and excessive. I love it.

You’re also no stranger to unique ingredients. What’s something new that you would be most excited to brew with?

Tea. We are starting to experiment with tea now. Also, smoking grain with different herbs for unique aromas and flavors. It's been pretty amazing.

What would be your #1 homebrew tip?

Make wort like a motherfucker! Make it, dump it, make it again. Then ferment like your caring for a new born. Those temps and environment are the key to success...slack on that, and your beer is likely garbage.

You guys do plenty of collaboration. You’ve even gotten familiar with the guys at Local Option up here in Chicago. Any other exciting collaborations on deck?

Of course! But...can't talk about it.

If you were to have any beer in the world in your pint right now, what would it be?

Pilsner Urquell, there. Fresh...amazing!

When you’re not drinking Against The Grain beers, what’s in your glass?

High Life. Or, anything gifted to me. Right now I'm dipping into a gift box from our Danish friends from Amager Bryghus. We sent barrels, then they made barrel-aged beer...and I got a case of it. 'Whalezbro.'

As mentioned, ya just expanded. What’s next for Against the Grain?

Keep making beer. Amazing beer. Keep having fun, keep learning, and...keep making beer. I see no end yet.

Our limits are derived from our own inability to accept that there are no boundaries. This is also true with beer. It can always be better, more interesting, more stable...
 

Cheers to Sam & the guys on their recent (in progress) expansion. And thanks to him for taking the time, in person and as a follow-up, for me to pick his brain. ATG definitely has a handle on the unique and 'fun' side of the industry – and I'm always excited to see their beers pop up around these parts further north. Stay up to speed on Against the Grain's growth on Facebook and Twitter.

Photography provided by Against the Grain.