Shaking Up Beer at Against the Grain Brewery
The head office at Against the Grain’s production brewery in Portland would make a construction trailer seem luxurious by comparison. The floor is bare chipboard and the ceiling… well, there isn’t one proper — just the underside of the building’s roof held aloft by wood trusses.
Its ersatz boardroom table is a ’50s-era behemoth capable of hosting a frontier family and a half-dozen unannounced guests. Constructed to fallout shelter sturdiness, a sensible man would surely chop it up before moving it again. Equally perplexing is the array of 10 lawn chairs surrounding it; a mixed-matched set whose members surely predate the births of ATG’s four 30-something partners: Sam Cruz, Jerry Gnagy, Andrew Ott and Adam Watson.
According to Gnagy, the ATG C-suite has but one luxury.
“We get two-ply toilet paper up here; the guys downstairs in the brewery get single-ply,” he says, struggling to veil his smile. “Now that I mention it, I’d better get busy separating some more rolls. They might be getting low.”
Though likely not by design, the room’s Spartan conditions are symbolic of its owners and their business culture: purposefully and shamelessly unpretentious. Their funerals might mark the first time any of us sees them wearing a jacket and tie, though mourners will surely expect T-shirts and ball caps.
They’re serious about little other than the 300 (and counting) beers they’ve made since founding the business at Slugger Field five years ago.
Gnagy and Cruz say that breaking away from brewing roles at Bluegrass Brewing Co. to launch ATG with Ott and Watson was a move to bring color to the grey craft brewing scene in Louisville.
“That’s what the whole name is about — Against the Grain — we questioned the status quo,” Gnagy says. He says the handful of local breweries in existence then “wanted to have their five regulars — thought they had to have them — to keep people happy, but that wasn’t true. Ours was the first brewery locally to break out of that.” I sat recently with Gnagy and Cruz to discuss their brewery’s impact on the city, how they’ve kept four partners on the same page and why ATG’s culture is anchored in ribald humor.
Edible Louisville® & the Bluegrass: Do you believe Against the Grain changed the state of craft beer in Louisville?
Sam Cruz: One-hundred thousand percent. There was a beer culture in town, but as brewers, it wasn’t as progressive as we wanted it to be.
Jerry Gnagy: After we opened, we started to see other breweries arranging their beer menus just like we did: by flavor, not region. It was confirmation that we were right, that this was the way to go.
Edible: Is such imitation annoying or flattering?
Gnagy: Anything that that we do that somebody else copies is flattery. But if they do what we do better than us, they’re jerks.
Edible: Does it bother you to see such rising sales numbers for bland beers and hard seltzer?
Cruz: We’ve just set out to make things that we enjoy drinking. That’s no knock against hard seltzer.
Gnagy: It’s recognizing what hard seltzer sales are saying about drinkers.
Cruz: That they want lower-calorie alternatives and that they want to spend less money on alcohol.
Gnagy: Our tastes are changing, too. (Looking at Cruz, he asks, “When’s the last time you drank a 10% ABV beer? It’s been a while for me.”)
Edible: The brand is celebrated for its frat boy irreverence in the art hanging in the brewpub and images printed on ATG beer cans and bottles. Why that bent?
Cruz: One of our commonalities is our sense of humor. When decided how the brand was going to look and feel, we didn’t want it to be too serious, so we characterized the brand with a cartoon. And when all of us saw Robby Davis’s art, we said, “That’s our guy.” He’s been with us since day one.
Edible: It seems like most of your beers’ names come from puns or straight-up jokes.
Gnagy: We laugh our way through this. And meetings.
Cruz: Meetings always end on jokes.
Gnagy: They used to end with physical contact, but since the #metoo movement, there have been changes.
Edible: The same four partners at the beginning are still here. Has that been challenging?
Gnagy: Yes. It’s like being married to three dudes.
Cruz: We’re still here because we’ve learned to defer to the person who is best equipped to handle each unique situation. It’s been stress-relieving to have that mind-set.
Gnagy: We’ve never taken ourselves seriously. We’ve only taken the beer seriously.
Edible: Against the Grain’s culture is visible in its employees—many of whom have worked there for years. Talk about that.
Cruz: That culture is important to us. In the service industry, which attracts a lot of overworked, underpaid people with a propensity toward sadness, we can’t have that or our business goes to hell. So we’ve created an environment where people can be happy and feel safe in their job and in who they are.
Edible: So, turnover is actually low?
Gnagy: It is, especially at the brewery! You can’t get rid of these guys! I wish somebody would just quit so we could bring someone in at a lower pay rate. All they do is stay and do a great job!
Cruz: It seems we attract people that create that quirky culture. I mean, a guy like (production brewer) Pete Fingerson… you have to hire a guy with that name! We like to say, “He’s not just hands on, he’s Fingers on.”
Edible: You wanted to open another operation in Swiss Hall in Schnitzelburg, but it didn’t work out. Are you still looking for other opportunities?
Cruz: We’re always eyeing opportunities. I don’t think you’re a good entrepreneur if you aren’t.
Gnagy: In hindsight, we should have grabbed some that we didn’t, and passed on some we shouldn’t have grabbed.
Cruz: We’d love more Against the Grain brewpubs or a tap house. I love the idea of tap houses.
Gnagy: I don’t want to run another 200-seat place, but I really like the simplicity of Third Turn Brewing in Oldham County.
Cruz: Swiss Hall would have been our Third Turn Oldham, but it wasn’t in the cards.
Gnagy: Next, we’ll get into large purchases of lottery tickets. Maybe unmanned slot machines placed on the outside of our building.
Edible: Talk about retail sales. I see more ATG beer around the state; you’re in 43 U.S. states and several foreign countries.
Cruz: Retail sales are doing well for us. We have approval for three of our brands in 30 Kroger stores, and approval for Thornton’s Louisville division, and Circle K.
Gnagy: This is the most exciting thing to me, that we’re now in places like convenience stores. We don’t just want to be relegated to a boutique or mom-and-pop liquor store. We want to be where anyone has access to our beers.