Life Lessons: Jerry Gnagy, Bluegrass Brewing Brewmaster

Written by Matt Frassica for The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY

Jerry Gnagy has been brewing his own beer since he was in high school. That’s one way to get invited to parties, but now as the brewmaster for the Bluegrass Brewing Co., Gnagy caters to craft beer aficionados across the city. In the seven years since he started working in the St. Matthews brew pub, BBC has vastly expanded its offerings. He offered some reflections on a life lived in close proximity to hops and yeast.

When you start home brewing, you usually fall into recipes. I got to a point where I didn’t care for any of those, and I decided I’m just going to make what I like. There’s some trial and error throughout that. I think that’s when you really start turning the corner as a home brewer, when you start understanding your ingredients and you can start replicating things.

When I came to BBC, it was in a time of transition. I can give you all the recipes you want; if you can’t execute them and you can’t do them with the proper procedures, it’s not going to work out at all. When I came there were four beers on tap. We have 13 or 14 now. We’ve almost doubled production here in the last seven years.

I’ve never been somebody’s boss, and I’m very particular about how I want things done. It was hard for me to adjust to training and managing another person. I really became a better manager in the last two years, but it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I want them to be able to work through problems, but try not to get so far that they hurt either themselves or the product.

As we’ve grown, having other people around me has allowed me to do some stuff outside of this place — going to festivals, competitions, the craft brewers’ conference and networking with people. The thing I really love is brewing, but the more accomplished you get, the less you brew.

In the Louisville area, even 10 years ago, where would you go to get something as simple as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? Now it’s available everywhere. More good beer is available to more people. The specialty beer bars have to work hard to get something that other people don’t have.

The basic ingredients, grain and hops, are not that difficult to work with. But when you start trying to include other things, like chili peppers, there’s a lot of experimentation. The thing I’ve learned from watching cooking shows is that the best chefs don’t put everything in. They find the best ingredients, and the simplicity and the attention to detail in the process makes a great dish.

Everybody was making black beers in the last couple of years — that’s easy, just throw black malt in any recipe you have. Well, if everyone’s going that way, I want to go the opposite way, so I figured we’d try to make a dark beer light. That’s much harder. That concept, from start to finish, took six months.

Even two beers will give me a headache in the morning. So I have to plan it out all month — I’m going out this night and I’m going to have two beers and they’re going to be really good.

People in Louisville don’t know how good they’ve got it with the brewers here. We’re really at one of the forefronts in America, we just don’t know it.