Local brewery bulks up, looks north

Center of the Universe Brewing Co. co-founders Chris Ray, left, and Phil Ray. (Photo by Lee Graves)

Center of the Universe Brewing Co. co-founders Chris Ray, left, and Phil Ray. (Photo by Lee Graves)

An Ashland beer maker is expanding its orbit.

Center of the Universe Brewing Co. has a growth plan in the works that will increase its capacity, add its own canning line, expand its distribution to Northern Virginia and renovate its brewery on Air Park Road.

The four-year-old brewery, founded by brothers Chris and Phil Ray, has ordered two new 60-barrel fermentation tanks and one new 60-barrel bright tank that are expected to arrive in May. That will help increase its volume to 7,000 barrels of beer in 2016 – up from about 5,000 barrels in 2015.

The company has also ordered a rotary canning line from Illinois-based Palmer Canning that is expected to arrive in April. It has outsourced that service to a mobile canning company since 2013.

“We’ve reached the volume that owning our own canning line is a lot more economical,” Chris Ray said, adding that the new canning line will be able to package 45 cans of beer per minute. “We can do much smaller runs. We can can on demand.”

COTUs brewery was formerly a newspaper production facility.

COTUs brewery was formerly a newspaper production facility.

The increase in production will come in handy in the spring, when COTU plans to expand its distribution to Northern Virginia. The company expanded its distribution last year to Hampton Roads, where it has hired a full-time sales rep. Chris Ray said expanding to a new market each year is part of COTU’s business plan.

“We like to enter a new market with plenty of focus on that market,” he said. “Northern Virginia is the next logical step.”

Chris said COTU is close to finalizing who its distributor will be for Northern Virginia. Its beers are distributed in Richmond by locally based Brown Distributing.

He said plans call for offering COTU’s Pocahoptas IPA, Ray Ray’s pale ale and Main Street Virginia ale in the new market. COTU has already received requests from Northern Virginia restaurants and the company will focus on spreading around its tap handles before getting on store shelves. He said grocers prefer to work with beer brands that already have a presence in a given area before putting new products on shelves.

“It’s crowded everywhere right now,” he said. “You really have to push to make yourself stand out amongst the crowd.”

COTU is also changing the look of its 12,000-square-foot home base at 11293 Air Park Road in Ashland. It has enlisted architect Todd Dykshorn of ADO to redesign its tasting room and private events space. Plans call for a floor-to-ceiling remodeling, and expanding the tasting room by about 1,000 square feet. After the renovations, COTU’s production will be visible from its tasting room. A contractor for the job has yet to be selected.

“It will be completely unrecognizable,” Ray said.

Between the new equipment and renovation, COTU is investing more than $500,000 in itself. The investment is being financed by Union Bank & Trust.

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