Ahead of its 10th anniversary, one of the area’s pioneering breweries has become its own landlord.
Center of the Universe Brewing Co. recently bought its building at 11293 Air Park Road in Hanover from its longtime landlord for $1.4 million, county records show.
Chris Ray opened the brewery with his brother Phil in 2012 just as the local craft beer boom was getting ready to take off. In the years since, COTU has built up not only a local following in Ashland but also an extensive distribution business that sees its beers shipped all over the state from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads.
COTU closed on the 12,100-square-foot building and the 1.35 acres it sits on Dec. 15. The county most recently assessed the parcel at $1.17 million, and Thalhimer’s Evan Magrill represented COTU in the deal.
Chris Ray said a few improvements such as a new roof and upgraded parking lot are in order.
“It’s nice to be able to have the flexibility to make improvements or move things around without knowing that you’re sinking capital into a property you don’t own,” Ray said. “Us owning the property gives us not only some motivation but it also makes more sense financially to do these upgrades.”
Dale Foley, who also owns crane and rig company Foley Material Handling, was the seller. Ray said he and Foley always had an amicable relationship and even worked together in the days leading up to the sale.
“A few days before closing (Foley) and one of his crew members came over here and helped us stand up a new brite tank we just got,” Ray said.
In addition to the renovations, Ray said COTU is also getting ready to add a new beer to its year-round lineup: a German-style lager called Brewski. After experimenting with recipes at COTU’s satellite taproom Origin Beer Lab, Ray said they’ll begin brewing and selling Brewski in April 2022.
“It’s a Dortmunder. The style came about when (German brewers) were looking to brew an easy-drinking beer for the labor force in Germany. That’s kind of the marketing and premise behind it. It’s just a beer for when you need a beer,” Ray said, describing it as a lighter version of COTU’s Oktoberfest beer.
From Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Richmond Lager to Stone Brewing Co.’s Buenaveza Mexican lager, breweries both local and national have found success offering easier-drinking lagers. Ray said he thinks it’s just part of the cyclical nature of consumer demands.
“I think people are getting some IPA fatigue,” Ray said. “Obviously, that category still is a powerhouse in the craft beer world. But we’re starting to see folks that maybe will have one (IPA), then they’ll go to something lighter and easier drinking.”
Ray said distribution sales account for about 70 percent of COTU’s revenue, with the remainder being on-premise sales.
“We’re pretty close to our (pre-COVID) numbers,” Ray said. “On the distribution side, our grocery placements and off-premise sales are still kind of our backbone right now as restaurants are still trying to recover.”
COTU heads into its 10th year in business with at least two permanent changes born of the pandemic, the first being Ray’s brother Phil exiting the business, and the other is eliminating tips, making its employees all paid hourly and setting up an emergency payroll nest egg.
Removing the COTU staff’s dependency on tips has given them and the business more stability in the face of shutdowns even as short as snow days, Ray said.
“We’ve just been building up a relief (fund) where if something does happen where we have to close down, the staff doesn’t have to worry about wondering how they’re going to get paid. They’re going to get paid,” Ray said, noting that they’ve got about two months’ worth of payroll reserves put away.
“Income insurance is something everybody should have. You shouldn’t have to wonder week-to-week how much money you’re going to take home.”