Tom Gray is the head brewer at Black Box Brewing Co., a small production brewery in Westlake on the west side of Cleveland. Black Box makes not only the Black Box brands, but also does the Crooked River and Cleveland’s Own brands. And if you think you recall Gray’s name from another brewery, you’d be right. He’s worked at Boulder Beer in Boulder, Colo., Crooked River in Cleveland, Rock Bottom Brewery in Cleveland, Blue Coyote Brewing in Lansing, Mich., Wallaby’s in Cleveland and Ohio Brewing in Akron.
Question: Why did you become a brewer?
Answer: My first job in the beer industry was in 1994 working for Boulder Beer in Boulder, Colo. I had just moved to Boulder from Breckenridge and needed a job to pay the bills and split the rent with my three roommates. A friend of mine had a job working on the very old, inefficient, and at times, hazardous (bottles exploded in the filler regularly) bottling line there and said he would find out if they were hiring.
Luckily, they were. Once I saw the stainless steel tanks, heard the clanging bottles on the conveyers, and smelled the smells of beer production, I knew I was in the right place. Funny thing is, my trip to Colorado was supposed to be for only one semester to work on a ski resort while taking a break from my classes at Cleveland State. That semester-long break ended up lasting about two and a half years.
The great thing about brewing is that it’s equal parts art and science. Not only is it fascinating and very rewarding to create a beer you're proud of, but the workday is never boring. THAT is why I became a brewer. Well, that, and the fact that I get to crank my music really loud and wear a T-shirt and jeans to work every day. That part doesn’t suck either, I suppose.
Q: Black Box Brewing generally flies under the radar in the Cleveland brewing scene. Why do you think that is?
A: Not for much longer I hope! I would have to say that the reason that Black Box has been lesser known over the past few years is because of one very busy man, Jerome Welliver. He owns a really nice homebrewing and wine making supply store called J.W. Dover in Westlake that keeps him very busy. For a while, he was doing the brewing for Black Box and running the store at the same time and it’s just way too much work for one man.
Now that I'm in the brewery, he's able to manage the brand and his store and we can make more beer and get it out to the retailers. These aren't just Black Box beers either. We've been contract brewing as well for Crooked River, Cleveland's Own, and have some new contracts on the horizon.
Q: With so many breweries planning on opening in Ohio this year, what advice can you give future brewers?
A: Make good beer; don't just throw a recipe together and slap a label on it. Do some research and put some thought into each batch. Also, if you are opening a brewpub, make sure your bartenders and servers are trained well when it comes to describing beer. Having a knowledgeable staff speaks volumes for an establishment and keeps customers coming back.
Q: What’s your best-selling beer and why do you think it’s so popular?
A: Currently, our best seller for Black Box is our 2012 IPA. It comes in at 7.0% abv and 79 IBUs. It's a newer recipe of ours and has been doing quite well for us. It's available on draft in a number of accounts in the Cleveland area and is being distributed by R.L. Lipton. Look for bottles soon as well. The carriers and labels are being printed now and they're going to look great (in a doomsday sort of way). Please buy it when you see it. I really think you'll like it.
Q: Which beer – any beer in the world – do you wish that you created/invented/brewed and why?
A: For personal nostalgia reasons, I would have to say Avalanche by Breckenridge Brewery. In 1993, I was 21 and had just moved to Breck. I walked into the brewpub there (my first brewpub visit ever) and ordered one. It was the greatest beer I had ever had. The fact that I was staring at some incredible mountains while drinking it was sensory overload for some kid from Ohio. Life changer for sure.