If you want to borrow a country music cliché, you could say that Gravely’s brewer Cory Buenning was craft beer before craft beer was cool.
He started homebrewing in the early 1990s while studying at University of Colorado Boulder, at a time when homebrewing had only been legalized for anything over 5% alcohol for a little over a decade (thank you, Jimmy Carter), and brewers around the country were catching the fever.
“I walked by a homebrew store and thought, ‘Homebrew? You can make beer at home?’ ” Buenning recalls. So, he bought a beginner’s kit and started making beer with occasional batches made with malt extracts, then full-grain brewers and buying a dedicated refrigerator for the beers he would make.
Then he got a job at the homebrew store. “I was spending my entire paycheck on ingredients.”
Fast-forward to 2019, and he’s the head brewer and co-owner of Gravely Brewing Co., far removed from his beer beginnings. He’s won 11 international awards at the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival, including a silver last year at the World Cup for Gravely’s signature pilsner, Sprockets.
But his beer history actually goes back even farther than his college days. Most brewers have a back story, and Buenning’s is that he grew up in Milwaukee, an American epicenter for big brewing, in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“There were still three large breweries located in Milwaukee,” he says, “including Pabst, back when they still had a brewery.”
Extended family from South Dakota, all beer lovers, would come to visit, and beer was a natural part of exploring the city.
“You take them to the zoo, you take them to a Brewers game and you tour the breweries,” Buenning recalls. “I went a dozen times to Pabst and Miller. I always credit – or blame – my parents” for a love of beer and brewing.
After college, Buenning walked away with a degree in biology, but soon realized he would be spending way more time in libraries rather than out in the field. That didn’t appeal to him, in part because he was spending so much time homebrewing.
Then a friend told him about a job opening at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs, about an hour’s drive from Boulder. He applied and got a job working on the bottling line, spending a month there before getting moved into the brewhouse. He spent two years as an assistant brewer before his boss told him about a brewing job open at Snake River Brewing in Jackson, Wyoming.
He went to check out the brewery and the city. He was hooked.
“I said, ‘This place is so cool,’ ” he says. “There were bald eagles flying around. My boss didn’t want to get rid of me, but he knew how much I love snowboarding and skiing and fly-fishing.”
Jackson was the place for all that and more. And he stayed at Snake River for 17 years, the last 10 of those as head brewer. He loved the city. Still does. But his wife Kelly’s sister, Holly, was dating a guy named Nathaniel Gravely. Like Buenning, Gravely wanted to open a brewery, one with a music theme in Louisville.
“He liked the beer I was brewing and he tried to get me involved,” Buenning says of Gravely, now his brother-in-law. “I didn’t want to leave Jackson.”
But he did want to help, so he started working on getting hop contracts for what would become Gravely Brewing. Starting a new thing was a different experience than working with existing recipes and brewing concepts, and the lure of doing it his own was strong. That and Kelly didn’t like the almost nonstop snow in Jackson.
With the combination of his wife wanting to leave and him being excited about the opportunity to start a brewery from scratch and Gravely’s persuasiveness, he had to say yes.
Now, Buenning and his wife have an 18-month-old son, Fritz. In Buenning’s spare time, he still enjoys the outdoors, but he also spends time growing hot peppers and making hot sauce and dried flake blends, in part because Kelly loves spicy food.
And after a quarter of a century of professional brewing, he still loves what he’s doing, in part because it’s a job that can change every day. He’s particularly fascinated with brewing lager beers, and lagers and pilsners are a mainstay at Gravely as a result. Even with the knowledge he’s gained, brewing continues to be a job Buenning learns about and grows in.
“It’s like golf,” he says. “You can never play the perfect round. There were always three or four shots you could have made better. It’s the same with brewing. That’s the problem with bowling. You can bowl a perfect game and say, ‘That’s it.’
“So, it’s just fun. I always want to keep learning There’s so much information out there. I’ve been brewing over 25 years and I still learn something new weekly, if not daily.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on local brewers.