Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local brewers.
The first time Jerry Gnagy ever tasted beer, he was at a family get-together and his dad offered him a sip of his Bud Light. Gnagy was about 5.
“It was like,” Gnagy says, and mimics taking a small sip. He then adds, “And then it was,” followed by mimicking gulping an entire beer. That’s how it goes for a lot of beer lovers — love at first sip.
But Gnagy, a co-founder and head brewer at Against the Grain Brewery, didn’t necessarily foresee making beer a career. He attended Fort Hayes State University in his home state of Kansas, earned a bachelor’s degree, and his first few jobs were in sales and marketing.
One memorable gig was in Detroit, working for the Pistons. He recalls handing out T-shirts to the crowd and being part of promotions such as a biggest afro contests and free tacos for ticket-holders when the team scored 100 points or more, which would get the fans on their feet chanting “Tacos! Tacos!” It didn’t happen often.
“It was, like, the worst year for the Pistons,” says Gnagy, 43. “I thought, ‘Boy, I really picked the worst time to come here.’”
But it was while in Detroit that he felt the pull toward brewing. He’d been a home brewer since about 1990, in part because living in western Kansas, he and his friends didn’t have access to a lot of variety when it came to beer.
He and his friends were looking through a Field and Stream magazine one day and saw a home-brew kit advertised for sale, so they pooled their money and bought it.
The first craft beer he fell in love with was New Belgium’s Fat Tire, which he and his friends, living not far from the Colorado brewery, would bootleg to Kansas, where it wasn’t available. When they turned 21, the love of finding new beer — and making it — took hold.
“I was always into that process and fermentation and what made beer beer,” Gnagy says. “I always wanted to know how things are made. It was as exciting for me to know how to make beer as it was to drink beer.”
So, still working for the struggling Pistons, Gnagy sought out a brewing job, and he landed at a place called Big Rock Chop House & Brewery, where he worked in the brewhouse part-time and also managed the restaurant portion of the business.
Shortly thereafter, he took yet another part-time job working in another brewery, cleaning kegs. There were times he would get home from work at 3 a.m. and have to be at the other job by 9 a.m.
“I was, like, ‘I can’t wait to go in,’” he says. “I knew I was in the right job.”
Around 2002, he went back to Kansas, taking a his first head brewing job at 23rd Street Brewing in Lawrence. He loved the work, but given it was a college town, there were a lot of light beer drinkers. Because the brewery catered to that audience, Gnagy felt as though he was competing against himself at times. It was the job he wanted, but not the situation.
And then he heard about a head brewing job in Louisville, at Bluegrass Brewing Company, the original brewery in St. Matthews that closed early last year. That job is how he would start the process of opening Against the Grain.
His first assistant brewer was Cameron Finnis, who would go on to brew at Cumberland Brews and is now at Falls City Brewing Co. The next assistant he hired was Sam Cruz, an Against the Grain co-founder, and yet another co-founder, Adam Watson, was soon hired as part-time keg washer. Andrew Ott came to work at BBC as a server, and he wound up being the fourth Against the Grain founder.
That was seven years ago, and now Against the Grain is a thriving brewpub and production brewer, with a facility in the Portland neighborhood as well as downtown. The brewery’s products are distributed all over the world, and a satellite brewery opened this year in Japan.
These days, he does far more managing than he does brewing, “for better or worse,” he says, adding he feels “I’m a better brewer than I am a manager.”
But he manages production at the main brewery in Portland and also manages the sales team.
“I always told people who get into this industry, ‘You find something you’re good at and then they don’t let you do it anymore,’” he says. “You get too good for the job you’re good at.”
He hints that a focus shift is on the horizon at Against the Grain that will see the brewery’s attention more intently focused on Kentucky and surrounding states rather than around the world.
Meanwhile, the brewery owner, husband and father of three now finds himself in territory like his dad knew nearly 40 years ago. His 10-year-old son, Riley, came into the Against the Grain pub and had his first tasting flight — sort of.
“My son sat here and tried all the beers and didn’t like any of them,” Gnagy says with a smile. “And that’s good.”