The Gray Brewing Co. might have named its beers Phoenix when they debuted in 1994 were it not for the rich brewing tradition already associated with the Gray name. Like the mythical beast that rose from the ashes, the brewery was built from the ground up after an arson fire swept through the family’s soda bottling plant in 1992.
The Gray family had been operating a soda company in Janesville, Wis., since 1856, so there was no question that they would rebuild. The question instead was what shape the company would take. Before Prohibition it made beer as well as soda, but increasing anti-alcohol sentiment led to the decision to give up brewing in 1912. This judgment proved wise, because the soda business kept the company alive, while small breweries continued to feel the effects of Prohibition for 50 years after the law was repealed.
After the fire — for which no one was ever charged — the Grays decided to return to beer. “I was homebrewing at the time and was interested in brewing,” says Fred Gray, the fifth generation to work at the company that J.C. Gray founded in 1856. “We were originally a small brewery with a soda plant. I thought it was time to start over where we really began.”
Fred persuaded his father, Robert, to add brewing equipment when the soda bottling plant was rebuilt. They already knew how to run a beverage business, from bottling to distribution to dealing with bureaucracy, and they applied that knowledge toward beer. Robert, the president, had years of experience working with soda distributors and salesmen as well as expertise in bottling and production. Fred, who started in sales for the company, became vice president, and his brother, Tim, has since joined the brewery as director of sales. Counting them, the brewery employs 12 full time.
Construction on the warehouse-style brewery was completed in late 1993, and by January 1994 the first batch of Gray’s beer was ready for sale. The brewery sold 1,800 barrels that year and took home two gold medals from the 1994 Great American Beer Festival. Despite the national attention the awards drew, the Grays decided to focus on building a strong Wisconsin base. Business more than doubled to 4,800 barrels in 1995 and grew past 7,000 in 1996. Virtually all of that beer was sold in Wisconsin, where consumers are both loyal to local products and receptive to new things.
Gray’s Honey Ale, one of the first commercially brewed honey beers, is available on draft at more than 80 spots in Dane County alone. The county is home to the University of Wisconsin and the state capital, Madison, which Fred Gray describes as “an island of its own.” Madison is also the best market for two other successful microbreweries, Capital Brewing Co. and New Glarus Brewing Co.
The Honey Ale is made from four kinds of malt, four types of hops, and locally produced honey. It accounts for about 35 percent of total sales, and the brewery goes through about seven 55-gallon drums of honey a month. “The Honey is the toughest beer to brew because it’s so thin,” Fred Gray says. It is 4.9 percent alcohol by volume.
Gray’s Honey Ale was one of the two GABF gold medal winners. The second winner was Gray’s Oatmeal Stout, which is made with five types of malt, American-grown German hops, and about 15 percent oats. The beer is finished with Cascade hops, which are balanced with plenty of roasted barley. Oatmeal Stout is a full-flavored beer with 5.6 percent alcohol by volume that has continued to win awards, among them a bronze at the 1996 World Beer Cup competition.
Other year-round beers are Gray’s Pale Ale and Gray’s Black and Tan. The Pale Ale is made with four malts and three hops, including a solid dose of Cascade hops, and has an alcohol by volume content of 5.7 percent. The Black and Tan is a mixture of a pale ale and stout that are different from Gray’s Pale Ale and Oatmeal Stout. “The stout is a little more of a bitter stout. I think it complements the tan part nicely,” Fred Gray says. “One day we brew the tan, then when it’s at high krausen we blend the black into it.” It measures 5.1 percent alcohol by volume.
Seasonal offerings include Irish Ale, the Bavarian-style Wisconsin Weiss, Autumn Ale, and Winter Porter. All the beers except the weiss are made with a proprietary British yeast. Gray’s acquired the yeast from a brewer and had it cultured at the University of Wisconsin. Only a few brewers in the United States have access to this yeast.
The brewery uses Janesville water but sterilizes and rebuilds it for
brewing purposes. “The municipal water source is not always 100 percent consistent,” Fred Gray says. In fact Janesville has more than one source for water, and the brewery can never be sure which one is in use. “Our concern for our water stems from our soda days. It’s 90 percent of everything we do,” he says.
Gray’s prides itself on producing a consistent product, which is primarily a result of blending. Head brewer Greg Hammond brews 25-barrel batches and transfers them to 100-barrel fermenters. “You can blend four batches at once, which really helps our consistency,” Fred Gray says. The brewery also has its own lab and lab technician, Assistant Brewer Michael Cain.
A tour of the brewery begins in a small tasting room/gift shop that’s decorated with photographs, bottles, trays, and other memorabilia from the company’s earliest days as a brewery and soda maker. From there visitors travel to a compact brewing room, then into a massive all-purpose room that contains the fermenters, holding tanks, and kegging and packaging equipment. In the back room is storage and cooler space.
The brewing equipment comes from several manufacturers, and the mash/lauter tun is a converted dairy tank. “You can call (a manufacturer), but I think it’s a lot more fun to go to a farm auction and say, ‘I’ve got a buddy who can weld. Hey, we can make that into a lauter tun,’” Fred Gray says.
Gray’s has two four-arm keg fillers, and each arm is capable of filling 60 kegs a minute. The fillers were originally made for Anheuser-Busch, but A-B never used them. Gray’s bought them from another Wisconsin brewery. A-B has since tried to buy them back. The bottling line dates to 1962 and can fill 150 bottles a minute.
Gray’s still makes four kinds of soda that are available throughout the state of Wisconsin and in northern Illinois. Fred oversees the soda operation — which uses different equipment than the brewing side — and supervises the blending himself. The recipes aren’t even written down.
“My dad and I are the only ones who know them,” he told a group touring the brewery.
“Does that mean you can never travel together?” one tour member asked, jokingly.
“We do everything together,” Fred responded.
Perhaps that’s why the company has survived nearly 150 years as a family operation. “My dad never pushed me into the business,” Fred Gray said. “I did other things and then came back into the business.” However, he looks forward to the day his son, now one year old, becomes the sixth generation involved. “I’m more hyper on that than (my dad) was,” Fred said. “I’m a big fan of Wisconsin breweries and brewing history...As my dad says, we’re not necessarily the owners but the caretakers.”
Gray’s completed an expansion in November, adding 9,000 square feet of cooler and storage space as well as fermenters and packaging equipment. The expansion boosted capacity to more than 15,000 barrels per year. With the increase Gray’s has begun to expand its distribution area. The beers are available throughout Wisconsin, in the Rockford, Ill., area and, since February, in the Chicago area.
“We’re taking very small steps,” Fred Gray says. “There was a demand for the product (in Chicago) and a distributor called us quite a while ago, but part of the romance of these products is the fact that people need to find them.”
Gray Brewing Co. is located at 2424 West Court St. (State Route 11), Janesville, Wis. 53545. For information call (608) 752-3552. Tours are held the first and third Saturdays of each month at 1:30 p.m.; a donation is requested.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.