Who’d have thought a former professional baseball player and his engineering-nerd brother could move to little ole Ashland and make a success of a craft brewery?
Florida natives Chris Ray and Phil Ray, two of Style
's 2015 Top 40 Under 40, moved to Virginia, thanks in part to the new-at-the-time Virginia law that allows breweries to serve beer on site. They opened Center of the Universe Brewing Co. in Hanover County, where Chris’s wife, Alice, is from.
Although the Rays had home-brewed, they didn’t trust their amateur experience to transfer to large-scale brewing, so they brought in an experienced production brewer. Mike Killelea came from Richmond’s Legend Brewing Co. as the Ashland operation's first head brewer. Phil also brought an accomplished social media marketer to the game — his wife, Ashley. After all, even the best business benefits from a good storyteller.
A beer that has been on the roster since the first day, Ray-Ray’s Pale Ale, reminds customers who the owners are while telling their tale pictorially. Another first-day tap, the Richard, was really a brewing mistake, but one that turned out so well that it makes an annual reappearance on anniversaries, including this one.
Pocahoptas IPA, which has also been part of the lineup since the beginning, is among Richmond’s best-selling beers. The brew team includes approachable crowd-pleasing beers such as Slingshot Kölsch and geek-pleasing beers like Shut Up, an imperial stout aged in bourbon and red wine barrels, as well as Chic Saison, a French farmhouse saison brewed with Asian mangosteens that won silver for the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup.
Beer-loving Richmond baseball fans can also be grateful. The Rays kicked off a collaboration with the Richmond Flying Squirrels in the form of Chin Music, an easy-drinking, crisp, amber lager. The beer is available year-round, but you can also find it on tap at the Diamond, joined by a variety of other craft beers.
Community-minded spirit has infused the brewery, known as COTU, five years of business, starting most notably with Homefront IPA, a nationally brewed collaboration beer that supports Soldiers’ Angels
Other charitable contributions — $21,578 this past year— went to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to support children with cancer, Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art, the Richmond Fisher House Foundation and CJ’s Thumbs Up Foundation.
El Duderino has swaggered into the annals of the brewery's history, too. Besides being a bold stout with shades of White Russian cocktails inspired by “The Big Lebowski,” the Dude has persuaded hundreds of adults to wander Carytown in bathrobes, to contribute a total of thousands of dollars to the Byrd Theatre Foundation and to yell their favorite movie lines to a packed audience.
Having home-brew roots themselves, the Rays are also happy to support the local home-brew community. One way they’ve accomplished this is through the annual Wort Share Competition: Home-brewers take home a measure of the same brewery wort and finish the brewing process at home, adding hops and other ingredients. The winning beer is brewed on the big system and becomes the year’s RVAle beer. Macon Mint Milkshake, the 2017 winner, is a chocolate peppermint milk stout that will make appearances around downtown Ashland for the Dec. 9 Jolly Jaunt.
In early 2017, the Rays held a grand opening for a second brewery, Origin Beer Lab, in downtown Ashland. The small brewery and tasting room operates as a pilot system for the larger operation. The brewing system is in proportion to the large-scale system, so any worthy Origin beer can be scaled up for more production.
In the five years since opening, the brewery also has added a comfortable beer-garden patio, expanded its brewing system, redecorated and enlarged the tasting room, added arcade games and expanded distribution. This year saw its beer in Roanoke, and 2018 will see the brewery’s products in the Washington market.
Upgrades on the way include a canning line modification to accommodate both 12- and 16-ounce cans, and a new silo. Monthly seasonals will soon be packaged in 16-ounce 4-packs rather than 750-milliliter bottles. And March will see the brewery’s first new year-round beer in four years, Chameleon IPA, changing up regularly in ingredients and in label color.
Last weekend, the brewery threw a birthday party for itself. “We tapped old brews, new brews, and saw lots of friendly faces throughout the weekend!” says Ashley Ray. “It was pretty awesome.”
CORRECTION: This article originally said that Hops for Heroes benefits the Wounded Warrior Project. Instead, it benefits Soldiers' Angels.