Against the Grain wins gold in first try at GABF

Oct 17, 2018 at 10:03 am
Against the Grain

Against the Grain Brewery has won its first-ever gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, the world’s largest commercial beer competition.

Perhaps even more astounding — it was also the first time AtG actually entered a beer into the competition since the brewery opened seven years ago. First time in, win a gold? Not bad.

So, why did AtG wait so long before entering the national Brewers Association’s prestigious competition last month?

“We just decided it was time, really,” brewery co-owner Sam Cruz said. “And we were really proud of that beer, so we decided to give it a try.”

The winning beer he was referring to is a 70K aged in amburana barrels, entered in the Wood and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout beer-style category. 70K, as most know, is a double or imperial batch of the brewery’s popular 35K milk stout, aged in bourbon barrels.

70K is rich, silky and delicious in its own right, but the variant that won at the 32nd GABF in Denver got a special boost in those amburana barrels. There’s a great backstory at work there that helps make the gold medal narrative that much cooler.

Against the Grain, at this point, is the only American brewery using amburana for aging, and for a reason. Cruz said AtG co-owner Jerry Gnagy had gone to a conference in Brazil a couple of years ago as a speaker. During the trip, he was hosted by another brewery, the owner of which introduced Gnagy to some of the culture, food and drink. Along the way, Gnagy tried some cachaça, a Brazilian rum which traditionally is aged on amburana, a type of wood only found in parts of South America, including Brazil.

“Obviously,” Cruz said, “we’re in the alcohol business, so we drink.”

Makes perfect sense.

And the flavors in the cachaça intrigued Gnagy enough that he couldn’t forget about them. But amburana, which is plentiful there, does not grow in America, so it’s normally not even available in the United States.

“It’s essentially like their oak tree there,” Cruz said.

Thing is, to take the wood out of the country and back to America would require Brazilian approval as an agricultural product. So, when a friend took a trip there not long after Gnagy’s visit, Against the Grain asked for him to smuggle out some chunks of the wood.

Beer espionage.

“We got a suitcase full of it to work with, and we did a first round of beers,” Cruz said. “It was just a small amount, so it was nothing to get crazy about.”

70K
70K

But so intrigued were they by the flavors the amburana imparts on beer -— a blend of cinnamon, vanilla and sometime cherry that they took a barrel-maker to Brazil to see about acquiring barrels made with the wood, Cruz said. It worked, and the barrels were approved and shipped to Louisville. Just add 70K, and you’ve got yourself a gold medal at the biggest beer competition in existence.

“Since then, we’ve used it pretty much on things we think make sense,” Cruz said. “It’s a really interesting profile; I suspect other people will be looking for it now.”

The good news is that a limited amount of 70K Amburana will be available for sale. Cruz said Against the Grain has “a secret stash,” and the plan right now is to release it in bombers on Black Friday, which this year is Nov. 23. In other words, the lines will be long at Target and at Against the Grain, right?

“We hope so,” Cruz said.

Other beers Against the Grain has aged with amburana include a 2017 variant of Bo & Luke, the highly-popular imperial stout; My Way or the Way Way, a doppelbock collaboration with a Brazilian brewery, and London Balling, a British barleywine.

As for winning the medal, Cruz said, “It’s really nice,” particularly for a first attempt.

In a press release about the news, he was more eloquent, saying, “It’s an honor to win such a prestigious award for beer in the U.S., let alone bringing attention to beer made in Kentucky. We have amazing beer and breweries in Kentucky. It’s an honor to be a steward and representation of that for Kentucky.”

For the record, 2018 GABF competition winners were selected by an international panel of 293 expert judges. This year there were 8,496 entries from 2,404 U.S. breweries, plus 101 Pro-Am and 49 Collaboration entries. Against the Grain, which entered five beers in the competition, was the only Kentucky brewery to win a medal.