This article first appeared on AmericanCraftBeer.com on July 15, 2014.
Over the past year, I have met and chatted with Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse (AtG) co-owner Sam Cruz a couple of times in my hometown of Chicago, and each time he left me all worked up over checking out his brewpub down in Louisville. The handful of beers of his that I had tried during this time only further fueled my impatience. During a Fourth of July holiday trip, I finally got my wish, and Cruz was gracious enough to meet up, give the lowdown on his business and lead me on a private tour of the space.
After several years brewing for Bluegrass Brewing Company in Louisville, Cruz and a couple of his co-workers decided to explore the possibility of starting their own brewery in early 2011. While grabbing a beer at a floundering brewpub that had the fortune of residing in a space adjacent to Louisville Slugger Field, they made the owner an offer for his brew system. The owner did them one better and came back with an offer for the lease on his whole space. With an opportunity that was almost too good to be true, the gang accepted and opened AtG a mere few months later.
With Louisville Slugger Field, home to the Cincinnati Reds’ AAA minor league affiliate, sharing the same walls as the brewpub and attractions such as the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory within blocks, AtG adopted a built-in advantage of heavy foot traffic, especially during the baseball season. A massive patio filled with mouth-watering glasses of beer and intoxicating smells of smoked barbecue beckons passersby to stop in before or after games.
Once you step inside the doors, your eyes immediately are drawn to the Victorian-styled, three-story brewhouse rising up behind the bar. It begins with a cooler on the first floor; a set of stairs lead to the fermentation room on the second level; and a daunting climb straight up a steel, fixed dock ladder takes you to the copper-clad, 15bbl brewing system at the top. The bar is long and inviting, while the restaurant’s roominess stretches out not only in width but in height to the wood beam ceiling that extends to the neighboring ballpark concourse. Sunlight beams through arched windows amid a mix of brick, mortar and steel beams to create a cozy atmosphere reminiscent of a day at the ’ol ballgame.
AtG’s taplist follows a simple set of guidelines that make it simple for guests—from novice to expert—to order their beer. A set of six categories (Hop, Smoke, Dark, Malt, Session and Whim) each have a beer associated with them at all times, while also coinciding with the characters you’ll find on their labels and other artwork. It’s when AtG bottles its beers that the styles tend to go off the beaten path (much like their label art and names). There probably isn’t an ingredient or style that AtG brewers haven’t run through the brewhouse, and Cruz takes great pride in his brewery’s ability to grow its business while maintaining an edgy, try-anything-once approach.
On my backstage tour through the brewery, I was introduced not only to AtG’s barrel-aging room and stainless steel sour fermenters but its homemade malt smoker, which was converted from an electric food warmer. A couple of wood foudres soon will be brought in to further the sour program.
Chances are you’ve seen AtG beers on your local shelves or on tap as they distribute to 38 states. They’re also big fans of collaborating with other like-minded breweries (Mikkeller, Local Option, 18th Street, Stillwater and Blue Stallion to name a few).
I don’t know about you, but when I see or hear the word “smokehouse,” my mouth instantly begins to water, an imaginary aroma goes from my brain to my nose and images of freshly charred cuts of brisket, pork and chicken dance in my head. AtG delivers on all sensory levels with its extensive menu, including standouts such as baby back ribs, pulled pork sandwich, smokehouse hash, beer can chicken and pork schnitzel sandwich. Personally, I’d skip the ballpark food and eat here before and after the game.
In just a few short years, Cruz and his partners have watched their business formula, which includes ever-expanding programs for barrel aging and sours, take AtG to heights they never could have imagined. Despite taking over the restaurant space next door for additional storage, the brewery’s capacity needs have continued to grow. With an eye toward increasing production for distribution, AtG will be firing up a kettle this December in a new 25,000-square-foot facility only 15 blocks from the brewpub. With a 30-barrel system, the brewery will reach 10,000 barrels in a year with the ability to upgrade to 60,000. The original “showpiece” brewhouse will continue operating, creating distinctive beers for the brewpub’s six beloved characters.