Thursday, August 30, 2012

Interview with Sam of Against the Grain

 My interview with Sam Cruz of Against the Grain

In my last blog post I shared my interview with Paul of Apocalypse Brew Works. This week, I would like to share my interview with Sam Cruz - one of the founders of Against the Grain (aka AtG) of Louisville, KY. 

Against the Grain is a brewery that was founded by four friends who met at the Bluegrass Brewing Company. Against the Grain actually created a video to explain the 'completely true and epic origin of Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville, KY, chronicling the rise of "The Four." In other words, how Against the Grain came to be.

This is Sam

The member of the four that I was able to meet and speak with is Sam Cruz. Sam is a fellow who has a strong passion for the beer Against the Grain is brewing and the beer industry he is a part of. In this interview Sam shares how he got his start in the beer industry, his connection to and love for Chicago, and his excitement for the future of Against the Grain and the beer scene in Louisville.

Did you homebrew before you became a professional brewer?
I am a home brewer.  I have been home brewing since about 17 years old.

If so, for how long were you homebrewing before you made the jump to the professional ranks?
I took a job as the keg washer for Bluegrass Brewing Company in 2005.

Did someone introduce you to homebrewing or did you come upon it on your own?
I'll attribute my first exposure to  home brewing to a good friend and neighbor of mine growing up.  Brandt was about 8 years older than I and I idolized him.  So one day I dropped by to say hello and saw him brewing.  When I questioned him about what he was doing, he explained he had bought a kit to brew up beers that were unavailable in the market.  Of course, my being 17 and unaware of the range of styles of beer, was more interested making alcohol.  :)  So with a great idea to skirt the law and make my own beer for I and my friends, embarked on the journey of making beer.  Little did I know, I would fall in love with the art and science associated with it.

Is there a beer style that you enjoy brewing more than others?
Ive always enjoyed brewing with non-traditional ingredients.  So I'm not really hung up on any particular style.  Really, I enjoy the challenge of creating a procedure for a brew or perfecting something already in use.  Hence the love of nontraditional ingredients.

Do you recall the first beer that you had that made you go ''wow that is good!!'?
My first 'good' beer was probably Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  On the first sip, I knew I was in love.  Sweet/Bitter crisp and balanced (although at the time, I'm sure I thought it was the hoppiest beer ever).

The Against the Grain sampler tray enjoyed during my visit

Before you considered becoming a brewer, what did you do for a living?

Sweet Irony....I was a counselor for adolescents in addiction recovery.  I know....weird.  I have always been interested the processes the brain goes through in addiction and recovery.  In addition, I feel like I have a keen sense of the importance of promoting responsibility when dealing with any alcohol.  We have been given a gift to create and enjoy alcohol, and it should not be taken for granted. 

How long have you been brewing professionally?

I have been in the commercial brewery profession at some capacity for about 11 years.  

During our conversation, a few weeks back, you mentioned that you had spent some time in Chicago and that you went to Siebel. Are you originally from Chicago? 
I am not, but I love the Windy City!  Its magical to me.  There is so much diversity of culture and art.  Not only that, the food and beverage industry there is really on the edge of innovation.  You have amazing eateries, ranging from amazing hot dog joints (Hot Dougs), to beer centric restaurants (The Publican)...that's not even touching on the great brewpubs that have popped up recently.  Revolution and Haymarket are an inspiration to all of us in the brewery biz right not...good stuff there.  And I'd be foolish for not mentioning the food centric beers that Jared Rouben is brewing over at Goose Island.  He's the real deal.  I'm a big fan of things going on in Chicago.  You have some amazing people up there!

Do you recommend aspiring professional brewers consider going to Siebel?

I'd definitely recommend any aspiring brewer to attend Siebel!  I was fortunate to win a scholarship awarded by AB Vickers to cover the cost of the Concise Course offered by Siebel.  While only a short course, I believe it was what I needed to get propelled forward to take a serious brewer position, as well as the amazing opportunity to network with some of the worlds best minds in the business.  

What do you think is more important for an aspiring professional brewer - a brewing school certificate/diploma or experience in a brewery?
They both share a great deal of importance in proceeding in this biz.  The information you receive in a school environment definitely allows the aspiring brewer to focus on the tasks that are most important.  But there is no replacement for the value of 'digging out'.  If you're mentored by a good brewer, it can be a priceless education.  Lastly, there is no substitute for a good work ethic.  Brewing is hard work.  Its often hot, dirty, and frustrating.  If you don't have the guts to stay until the job is done, you don't belong in this business.

Another thing that was mentioned during our conversation was that Against the Grain is expanding. Would you mind sharing a little bit about your expansion project and when it will be completed?
We are currently expanding our storage capacity.  We have added a 600 square foot cooler for packaged product storage and are looking into adding some tank storage soon.  We have also created a space to quadruple our current barrel aging storage area.  We will use the barrel aging storage area to focus on some unique and innovative bourbon barrel aged beers, as well as expanding our current wild and soured beer program.  This expansion will allow us to produce a larger volume of beer for distribution.  We will remain draft only for the time being, but have our sights set on some very limited big bottle releases in the future.

This is what you see when you face the bar at AtG

When I visited Against the Grain, I was told that you were one of its four founders. How did you meet the other three founders, and do you all brew or do you each have different roles at Against the Grain?
Its a long story.  My partners and I were all employed at Bluegrass Brewing Company at one time or another.  Both Jerry and I were the Brewmasters of our respective breweries in the group.  Adam was our assistant (understatement, he was also finishing law school and taking the bar). Andrew was in the front of the house.  We were all friends and had always talked about what we believed would be the perfect fit for a new brewery/brewpub in the Louisville market.  Well, without spending a ton of time on the details, one day the question came up to all of us...."have you all ever considered doing this as partners?"  After some lengthy discussions over many pints of beer, here we are!
Our roles at AtG are all very different at this point, we have allowed ourselves to settle into duties that we are naturally talented at and will often defer to each other when it makes sense.  That is the beauty of the AtG partnership, I am confident in saying that I can trust my partners to handle their area of expertise, as they are the best.
I no longer concentrate on day to day brewery operations.  I will often assist in concept beers or assist in scheduling of different beers.  But for the most part that is managed by our official Brewmaster (and partner) Jerry Gnagy.  I am currently sharing the responsibility of managing the restaurant portion of the business, as well as handling all things marketing and sales for AtG beers.  Adam, has one foot in the brewery and the other firmly planted in the accounting and finance management of AtG.  He is also the president of Kentucky's first brewers guild (the KGB-Kentucky Guild of Brewers).  Andrew, would be considered the general manager of AtG and is responsible for management of operations of the restaurant/employees/ and optimization.
There is some overlap on these duties, but for the most part we have delineated positions. 

What are your thoughts on the Louisville beer community? By 'community' I mean other breweries, homebrewers, and beer fans.
We are in a very exciting time here in Louisville in terms of craft beer!  Within the last year, there have been 4 breweries open, and it is my understanding that there will be several more in the coming year.  Most would think that competition is scary, but I don't really see it that way.  With a fledgling market like Louisville, it is really promising to see other business persons willing to take a chance on this.  It means, I and my partners are seeing what everyone else is seeing.... a massive increase in interest for good beer!  Not to mention you get more folks to work with locally.  
In addition to new breweries, we also have some of the best beer bars.  I reference the Holy Grale, The Louisville Beerstore, The NachBar, Sergios World Beers, RichOs Public House... I could go on and on.  

How does Louisville compare to other beer loving cities that you have visited?
Louisville has a lot to offer any beer loving visitor.  In comparison to cities the same size, I'd say we are on par.  We have a unique offering of Bourbon and good food though, that I would say sets Louisville a bit higher than others.  I love it here, and I'm glad I am able to make beer here.  
If I had one complaint, it would be that the folks of Louisville don't yet realize how good they actually do have it.  There are some amazing things happening here.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of the job would have to be everything!  I love this business!  As I mentioned before, brewing is a difficult task.  But what in life, that's good, is easy?! Ill gladly take it all!  Where ever some thing goes wrong or there is a customer complaint, etc....there are always 20 other situations where things worked exactly as planned and 50 people are happy with the beers we serve.  The beer biz is the shizz!

This is one of the first perspectives of the inside of AtG you see when you enter

What do you enjoy the most about the craft beer industry and its fans?

I enjoy the the people involved in this business mostly because of the jovial nature of what we are producing.  I mean, its beer... its here for us to enjoy.  So good times usually follow that.  As to the people involved in the beer biz, most are great folks who enjoy being happy.  So its often a lot of fun to work with others.

Do you have any advice for homebrewers looking to improve their skills?

The best advice I could give is to read everything you can.  Then try to consistently produce something.  While we don't do that, we focus on consistently producing a quality product.  If you can get to where you can reproduce the same beer consistently and that beer is good....its likely you will consistently produce good beer...and that is what its all about.

Do you have any advice for the homebrewer that is considering becoming a professional brewer?
Before you enroll in school, get some books suggested by the BJCP or Cicerone programs and read up....then go volunteer at any food service production facility.  If the work is daunting and not your bag... I wouldn't mess with being a brewer.  There are a million other spots in the craft beer industry that may suit you (don't discount a love for drinking good beer... we all need a keen palate for sensory and sales).
But if you do dig the hard work and challenges that come with being a 'maker' then, dig in somewhere.  Work your way to the top or out to another challenge.  Sacrifice and move for the job.  The best brewers are the folks who don't give up, ever.

Are there any upcoming Against the Grain beer releases that you can tell us about?
As I mentioned a bit earlier.  We are expanding our barrel aging and sour programs dramatically.  Keep an eye out for those, I know you wont be disappointed ;).

Many thanks to Sam Cruz of Against the Grain for taking the time to answer my questions. The next time you are in the Louisville, KY area, do yourself a favor and stop in at Against the Grain. You will not be disappointed!

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