Many baseballs fans grow up idolizing players, daydreaming of becoming one of the select few who are gifted enough to play the game professionally. Don’t tell this to any little leaguer– but the amount of people who see that dreamed fulfilled is marginal; since in 1876 there have been less than 18,500 individuals who have taken the field for an MLB team. Most of us come to the realization that our future with baseball is destined for the couch rather than the clubhouse – and we turn to other interest and talents to pursue and dream about. For the craft beer lover – owning and operating a brewery is the dream.
Chris Ray is a man who was able to realize both fantasies; first by spending six seasons in Major League Baseball (mostly with the Orioles), and then by teaming up with his brother, Phil Ray, to open Center of the Universe (COTU) Brewing in Ashland, Virginia. I had the pleasure of speaking to Chris about his journey through the MLB, his love of beer, and making transition from ballplayer to home brewer to business owner.
B&O: During your big league career you played for Baltimore, San Francisco, Texas, and Seattle. Did you get to take in the beer scene in those cities? Which city, in your opinion, boasts the best beer?
CR: I would say San Francisco and Seattle were definitely the two best craft beer towns at that time; the East Coast was still lagging well behind the West Coast. My stint in San Francisco is what kind of pushed me over the edge to commit to it. I was already a homebrewer, but [up to that point] I hadn’t seen the giant array of what is out there – and seeing it first hand made me think that the East Coast would get there eventually. As far as the best one? That has to be Seattle. I lived downtown in San Francisco and remember 21st Amendment well, but I don’t remember there being many breweries [downtown] – obviously the enormous rent in that area was a factor. Seattle just has a lot of breweries everywhere.
B&O: Yeah, definitely – I know that first hand. I lived in that area for a couple of years and it was amazing to see all the breweries.
CR: The coolest thing for me – I was actually going to a rehab facility, not for alcohol [laughs] but for an injury. It was outside of the city and I had stopped at a gas station on the way – it had four cooler doors stocked with craft beer; which was amazing because at the time the little gas station by my home here in Ashland had like Sam Adams…and that was as crazy as it got, which also got me excited for the future in the East Coast.
B&O: I have some baseball related questions, and then we’ll get back into the beer stuff – if that’s okay?
B&O: Spending the majority of your career with the Orioles you became pretty familiar with the NY Yankees – a team that most of us Mets fans hate. What’s more intimidating, in your professional experience, tapping into a new batch for the very first time or facing A-Rod with men on base?
CR: I didn’t enjoy facing the Yankees when I was with Baltimore; I think my stats go on to prove that they gave me quite a hard time when I was with the O’s – so I’ll take tapping a new beer any day over facing those guys [laughs].
B&O: Were they the toughest hitters you ever faced – I’m looking at Jeter, A-Rod, Damon…
CR: It was not enjoyable. It was one of those line-ups where they had seven guys who could hurt you at any time. Other teams would have three of them in the middle that you kind of want to stay away from – but with the Yankees, you didn’t take a sigh of relief if you were getting put in the game in any situation because you’d be facing a guy that could hurt you.
Here’s Chris Ray in a relief appearance with the Orioles
B&O: In your post-playing career – is it safe to assume you root for the Orioles?
CR: Yes. I’m an Orioles fan for sure.
B&O: So when it comes down to the World Series and you have an AL team and an NL Team – do you root for the AL, or do you root against the league other than the Orioles?
CR: I definitely don’t have an American League/National League bias – when it comes down to two teams, that I don’t have ties to, it’s usually whether or not I know some guys playing and I root for them.
B&O: Did you have any rooting interest in Mets vs. Royals?
CR: You know – I kind of wanted the Mets to win because it had been so long [since they were in the playoffs]. I knew some guys on the Royals, but they weren’t on the active roster at the time – [laughing] so I don’t feel so bad saying that. I just like seeing good games when it comes down to it; there is just something about that playoff atmosphere that, even just watching it on television, gets your blood flowing. I was just rooting for good games… Ultimately I would’ve liked to see the Mets pull it off, but I’d say the same thing about the Cubs – it would be cool to see them win.
B&O: Right, that’s fair. As a pitcher – do you have any extra appreciation for what the Mets have in their starting rotation?
CR: Yeah. Their young flame throwers are pretty amazing and fun to watch. I get into the pitching, so I like those games that are two-to-one, one-to-nothing… which is less common for fans today who like those eight-to-seven type of games. The Mets staff is fun, they’re a good time.
B&O: So you obviously have beer acumen and an appreciation for good beer – was that unusual compared to your teammates?
CR: [Laughing] Oh yeah, definitely. One of the coolest things that I remember from my playing days was bringing my home brewing kit to Texas with me. I brewed for the guys on the team and I would bring beer into the clubhouse and introduce people to different types of beer. About two months into the season when we would go out to dinner, instead of the regular domestic lager, some of the guys would start ordering different things on the menu – even if they didn’t know what they were or what they style was – but just because they were suddenly interested. It was awesome to see that and to be a part of that.
B&O: That’s fantastic – to share your love for something and see people adopt it right away. Was that reassuring?
CR: Yes. A lot of those guys, being professional athletes, are set in their ways. You have a routine – just to interrupt that and change their drinking habits spoke to me, that it can be done. That no matter what a person does or what profession they are in, you can convert them from domestic lager.
B&O: I don’t want to get you in trouble with this next one – but you are talking about players slamming back domestic lagers; did any of your teammates take on the Wade Boggs challenge?
CR: [Laughing] No… That’s a funny show, did you see that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? They might have done it on their own, [laughs] not knowing what the challenge was, but no one ever intentionally went after it.
B&O: What was the transition like from playing baseball as a profession for nearly a decade to getting into the brewery business? Can you walk us through that?
CR: Sure. I started home brewing back in 2008. A friend of mine whom I played baseball with was doing it back at home, and he showed me how to do it. Our first batch of beer was a pumpkin beer and I just put way too much ginger in it; but it wasn’t so bad that it discouraged me from brewing again. I just got hooked. I got my brother involved – he was living in Tampa and he fell in love with it. During the season we would send beers back and forth to each other through the mail. When I got traded to San Francisco back in 2010, we had always joked about opening up a brewery – who doesn’t who homebrews, right? But when saw the scene in San Fran we immediately started working on a business plan, putting things together to see if it could make sense. When I was up in Seattle I was able to partner with Fremont Brewing to establish Hops for Heroes which was a program that brews Homefront IPA which comes out around Memorial Day every year – with 100% of the proceeds benefiting a military charity we pick each year.
B&O: That’s a great transition to my next question – Homefront IPA is a delicious beer with baseball in its roots (aged on Louisville Slugger maple bats) and a fantastic cause. What was your role in the brewing process?
CR: It was great for me because it was the first time I got to help with something that wasn’t just five gallons. It was pretty awesome. We collaborated on the recipe – Fremont was established so they steered for us a little bit, but combined two recipes together to make this beer. I was looking for something to tie it back to baseball because I was playing for the Mariners at the time and figured it would generate a bit more interest. I was sitting near my locker and remember looking next to me and seeing a ton of baseball bats sitting there and I thought: “Hey, it would be cool if I could reach out to Louisville Slugger and tie it in that way”. I showed up at Fremont Brewery at 7am and was graciously given the job of ‘graining out’ which was a lot of fun. It was an experience I’ll never forget. It’s like being a kid again, to see those giant shiny vessels. As a homebrewer you get used to five gallon pots, so to see monster fermenters was just something else. I went from grain to liquid on that beer – it was exciting. I enjoyed every bit of it. I didn’t enjoy almost getting thrown out of the game that night! [laughing] I remember being a little bit tired and not too happy with the umpires.
Here’s a great video on what ‘graning out’ entails at Fremont Brewery:
B&O: I’m sure it was worth it. That collaboration has expanded quite a bit – there are several breweries currently offering Homefront IPA. We’re not aware of any other craft brew that’s produced by more than 2-3 breweries concurrently. Did you anticipate the collaboration reaching the heights it has?
CR: Not when we originally did it. When we originally did it we just thought we’d put it out there for fun. We did debut the beer at Safeco. I ended up pitching two innings of that game, and that was actually the last game I pitched in the big leagues.
B&O: That’s a little bittersweet.
CR: It was cool, it’s a great story. The transition was made for me [laughs]
B&O: It’s definitely emblematic of your transition. It really is a great story – and your beers can still be found at ballpark’s today. Our website’s founder had the pleasure of enjoying both your Chin Music Amber Lager and the sights and sounds of a Richmond Squirrels game. Can you tell us more about how this collaboration came about? Any thoughts on why COTU is one of the few breweries to (officially) collaborate with a minor league team?
CR: When we first opened up the brewery here in Ashland we brought the GM of the Squirrels out to our location. He was expanding his tap list for the 2013 season to include some local beers. He wanted to visit them and try them – [laughing] though I think he just wanted to drink beer more than anything else. Obviously with my background, and what he does for a living, we hit it off. The craft beers at the stadium, including our beer – Ray Ray’s Pale Ale – did well and exceeded their expectations. Early in the season I was putting a bug in his ear that the Squirrels should have their own beer. As the season progressed, I kept chatting with him about it, and he started warming up to the idea. After the final sales numbers from the 2013 season, he was on board. We all got together and started talking about names. We ended up having a contest for the name, and we each picked a few of our favorites, and left it up to the voters. As far as the style of [Chin Music] we definitely wanted it to be a bit more approachable, but also have that craft appeal. We stuck with a lager, but put something together that was bit darker, with deeper flavors, but still approachable for people who are used to traditional domestic.
B&O: Any additional baseball collaborations in the future for COTU?
CR: I don’t know. Obviously we’d love to work with the Orioles or any of their affiliates as we expand into that area. We’ve already started that process, and one of the clubs has reached out to us – not on collaboration, but interest in our beer. That’s an area I’m looking forward to getting into, and I think our brand would really resonate there – since I played there for so long and since we have an approachable beer style. I think we’d be successful in transitioning people to craft beer. Whether or not we do a collaboration with one of the teams is to be determined.
B&O: One last question on the subject of collaboration – many breweries are happy to judge home brew recipes for potential production on a larger scale, but clearly COTU’s Wort Share goes a step further with home brewing engagement. Was the idea for Wort share influenced by providing an opportunity to all interested home brewers to make their own collaborations with COTU, regardless of winning or losing? Have the logistics of doling out gallons upon gallons of wort been challenging over the past 2 events?
CR: Wort Share is something [my brother] Phil came up with. We were home brewers first, so – as I mentioned earlier – I’ll never forget when I was able to step into a brewery and actually do something on that equipment. We wanted to allow people the same opportunity because we remembered being obsessed with beer and the desire to brew on a big system. The first year, in terms of doling out the wort, was a disaster [laughs]. It was tough. People were bringing in carboys and all different shaped containers and objects and we lost a ton of beer. We ended up leaving about three people empty handed. That was tough. But last year we corrected it and charged everyone for a $7 bucket. We typically sell out within thirty minutes. I wish we could do more, but with the size system we currently have sixty to seventy people is all we can do. But it is a lot fun. We love seeing what people can do with the different beer styles, [laughing] though it’s not always pleasant judging those beers. There are a number of beers that come out really good, so it is a tough decision. Second place is nice and all, but I’m sure people want to brew on the system. We also bottle the winning beer and put the brewer’s name on it and the recipe as well, in case other people want to try to brew it at home. We don’t hide those recipes away; we didn’t come up with them so we try to share them with anyone who wants to use them.
B&O: Have you learned any tricks from the homebrewers that you may have incorporated into something else, or have you reached brewmaster status?
CR: Well, I’m not a brewmaster, that’s for sure. I actually don’t do the brewing on the big system, I’ll do pallet batches every once in a while. Some of the things, which haven’t been adapted by them per se, are interesting to see. It is always cool when someone uses an experimental hop in the beer, especially if it changes the base, because we get an idea of that hop’s profile. So we do get a bit of data collection off of it – but not much. We don’t do this to profit off of it; it’s for fun, and hopefully we make someone’s day, week, or year by letting them run their beer through the our system.
B&O: Is it safe to say that tasting the beer is rewarding enough – where you guys benefit?
CR: [laughing] Well, benefit or not benefit, depending on which one is on trial.
B&O: We’d certainly agree that baseball and beer are the perfect combination. What are your current favorites when watching a ballgame?
CR: That’s a tough question. Outside of our lineup, I’m kinda a hophead myself. I enjoy whenever Stone Brewing has a new beer coming out. I’m from Tampa originally so I love getting my hands on different Cigar City beers. I cut my teeth with IPAs like Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, so that makes its rotation in there. If I’m planning on sitting down for a beer session, I typically hit up my local bottle shop and mix six. It’s nice to change it up, and do a little bit of R&D in the process.
B&O: Awesome, Chris – Thank you!