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    This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Photo by Chris Witzke

    “You gotta hear the story of how Robby came to be with us,” says Sam Cruz, one of Against the Grain Brewery’s four owners. About seven years ago, Robby Davis was selling his art, much of it oddball character illustrations, at the UnFair, the art show at the Magnolia Bar that coincides with the St. James Court Art Show. “And I said, ‘Oh, my God, this stuff’s awesome. I would love to have all of this,’” Cruz, 36, tells me on a recent morning at the brewery, located in the Slugger Field building. “So I said to him, ‘You know, I will have a brewery one day, and I would love it if you would do the labels for my beer bottles.” Two-and-a-half years later, in 2011, Davis got a text from Cruz saying the brewery was happening and asking him if he’ll help them develop their brand.

    Davis and Cruz share a crossing-the-line sense of humor, which translates onto the brewery’s beer labels and other art. They assigned a character to each of Against the Grain’s six beer styles — hop, smoke, dark, malt, session and “whim.” “Smoke” is a gangly balding guy with a pocket full of cigarettes and dark sunglasses. “Dark” is a chubby guy in camo with a skeleton head and a handgun. Each character changes personalities and settings depending on the specific beer. “I think it’s very clear that we’re irreverent and enjoy life,” Cruz says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

    Now in its fifth year, the brewery has made hundreds of different beers. “I would say, in the United States, we’re in the top five for the number of brands we’re producing,” Cruz says. The brewery currently makes 6,600 barrels a year (a brewer’s barrel is two kegs). About 60 percent of that is packaged in either cans (142,000 a month), at the production facility in the Portland neighborhood that opened in January, or bottles (200 cases a month), at the Slugger Field facility. The beer ships throughout the U.S. and Western Europe and, recently, to Poland and Russia.

    Every time the owners decide to package a new beer — so far, they’ve done 15 — Davis makes a new label. The owners always come up with a name first, often a play on words (Rico Sauvin, Kentucky Ryed Chiquen, Erogenous Rhone) before giving Davis other notes (ingredients, style, the story behind the name). “A lot of times, they’ll say, ‘Just do something really weird,’” Davis says. The 32-year-old says he always liked to doodle and draw. In sixth grade, Davis and his friends would doodle Garfield, Bobby’s World, super heroes — stuff from the mid-’90s. At the end of the year his teacher laminated the drawings and gave the kids a binder of their doodles. “I still have it,” Davis says. Now he works full-time as an interactive designer at the web and mobile-app development company Forest Giant, so he has to find time on the weekends to do work for the brewery. He usually works early in the morning, when he can block out a four- or eight-hour time chunk, and he has to have a clean, clutter-free house to be able to work. Music is usually on, often the Delta blues played on the radio show American Roots. He’ll start out sketching on paper with pencil, then he’ll do a more refined version with a light pad and tracing paper, and he’ll do a final version in ink. He’ll send it to Cruz, who rarely asks for changes. “We don’t censor ourselves at all,” Cruz says. Davis finishes the label and adds color on the computer. The labels are then printed on cans in Virginia and on bottles in Ohio before the containers come back to Louisville.

    Last spring, the brewery made the list of the top 100 in the world, as determined by reviewers on ratebeer.com, a beer-enthusiast website. “It’s not bad out of 14,000 breweries,” Cruz says. “How it looks is gonna sell it. We have a very good reputation, but I think if we had ugly labels, we wouldn’t have the reputation, even though our beer is phenomenal.”

    This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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