2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Brewers Sam Cruz and Jerry Gnagy of Against the Grain Brewery

2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Brewers Sam Cruz and Jerry Gnagy of Against the Grain Brewery
February 2014

Sam Cruz nor Jerry Gnagy fretted over paltry details like legality before getting into making beer, which is no doubt why Gnagy and Cruz individually pursued the art of brewing well before turning 21. Inevitably, both Cruz and Gnagy ran into a few awkward hiccups early on, but both discovered a deep-seated passion for brewing.

Indiana native Cruz attended Indiana University, majoring in political science. After graduating, Cruz took a job in social services that felt “official” but didn’t satisfy his inner hop-monster. Gnagy also graduated from college, leaving Fort Hays State in Hays, Kansas, and eventually making his way to Kentucky. An impassioned and already boundary-breaking brewer, Gnagy began his brewing career with Bluegrass Brewing Co., where he spent close to nine years. He took the brewery from a mere four to 14 different brews. Cruz, meanwhile, abandoned one career path for another, choosing instead to work his way up the brewery ranks.

But as fate would have it, Gnagy and Cruz crossed paths, and Against the Grain was born. Louisville’s first brewer-owned operation, Against the Grain is where Cruz and Gnagy (along with business partners Andrew Ott and Adam Watson) let their imaginations go wild—no beer, once finished, is ever recreated. Instead, they brew an endless variety of beers under larger categories like Hops, Smoke, and even Whim, helping to spur one of the South’s most creative, exciting moments and movements in beer. 

Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Brewers Sam Cruz and Jerry Gnagy of Against the Grain Brewery – Lousiville, KY

Caroline Hatchett: What is your favorite brewing tool?
Sam Cruz: Grain bill. I love the complexity that can be achieved through alterations in the grain bill for a beer. Using different malts in beer is akin to the way different paints are used for making a picture. Different mixes and techniques yield so many different results.

Jerry Gnagy: Wood.  I think the addition of barrel ageing, wood aging, or wood smoked malt can elevate a normal beer to the extraordinary.

CH: What’s the most important brewing rule?
SC: The beer must be a pleasant experience all the way through the glass and into the next. I love beers that leave me wanting more.

JG: If you can make a beer that when you drink a whole glass you still want more, that is a quality beer.

CH: What do you drink on your night off? 
SC: Usually our beer. The original reason for ever making my own beer was that I wanted to have the beer that I wanted, when I wanted it. So even now, it’s still driving me.

JG: Robotussin and Monster energy drinks... or any nice pilsner works for me.

CH: All-time favorite beer name you've come up with?
SC: I’m a big fan of Who Schvarted? It’s schwartzbier we made a while back. But there is one name we haven’t used yet that I’m so excited to use at some point: Vidal Saison, with the tag line, “If you don’t drink good, we don’t drink good!” Adam [Watson, our business partner,] always poo-poos this one. I think it’s amazing! 

JG: Pepperation H. It was a cherry-wood smoked amber with habañeros and aged with hickory wood.

CH: Where do you most want to go for culinary travel? Why?
SC: I don’t really have a specific place for culinary travel. But when I do travel, I’m always seeking out the best of what an area has to offer.  I’m a closet foodie, with super high expectations of everywhere I go.  We are so spoiled here, in Louisville, with great places to eat and I’m always looking for a place to compare to home.   

JG: I have to say Germany.  It is obviously where most modern day brewing and beer as we know it evolved from.  Seeing the cities and regions where present day styles are named for (Dortmund, Munich, Kolsch), and understanding why that is what they drink, that’s pretty interesting.

CH: What’s your favorite brewing resource?
SC: It’s been a while since I have needed to reference for brewing, as my role here at against the grain has led me away from the act of brewing all the time.  But when I did, I often referred back to a book from my homebrew days—Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels.

JG: Master Brewers Association of America (MBAA) website with searchable database from all of their past technical presentations is a great resource.  They are usually by larger production brewers and plant managers that detail the "why" we do some of the things we do.  Being sound on fundamental technical aspects of brewing is the best way to develop the plan to move onto more experimental beer and brewing formulations.

CH: What is your favorite beer that you have ever made?
SC: Probably Sam & Adams Bustin' Lager, which was a collaborative effort with our other business partner, and our head brewer, Adam Watson.  It was a big 8%abv lager that was hopped up like an IPA.  A skull crusher, but very drinkable.

JG: I would have to say the Swafelbier.  It was a Belgian style table beer, about 3.5% alcohol that was drinkable and complex.  If I had to pick one beer to have for the rest of my life, it would be that one.