A Tribute to Our Heroes: Center of the Universe Brewing’s Chris Ray
April 5, 2022
In this latest episode of our video series, “A Tribute to Our Heroes,” we talk with former Major League Baseball pitcher-turned-craft brewer Chris Ray, who co-founded what became known as the Hops for Heroes campaign and the recipe for Homefront IPA when he was with the Seattle Mariners.
Chris talks about his transition from pitching to brewing, his passion for giving back to local charities and supporting the military-connected community, and why he thinks military veterans are drawn to the craft beer industry.
View his video interview below and check out all the breweries participating in this year’s Hops for Heroes campaign at soldiersangels.org/hopsforheroes.
Video Interview with Chris Ray
Q. Let’s start with why we’re talking today. Soldiers’ Angels recently launched its annual Hops for Heroes program, which invites craft breweries of all sizes to brew a collaborative beer and donate the proceeds to fund the organization’s relief efforts. Not only is Center of the Universe one of the breweries to sign on each year, but you actually started the whole effort when you were a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. Can you tell us how this all began?
Chris: Sure! So my brother and I have been home brewers for forever. That’s typically how folks who own a brewery start out. And at the time, I was playing in Seattle, we were working on our business plan, because my arm was coming to the end of its time on the mound. My brother was an engineer by trade, and he was tired of being kind of cooped up and wanted to do something else. I’ve always wanted to do something to support our military. My best friend – still my best friend – he was in the military. [As a pitcher you’re] worrying about how you’re going to get somebody out or if you’re going to win a game, while your buddy is serving overseas and worrying about staying alive and protecting his fellow team over there. It made me realize that I needed to do something more. I needed to do my part.
Since I wasn’t active in the military, I wanted to help those folks that did take that leap and are out there protecting us. And so I reached out to Fremont Brewing Company, which is a brewery right outside of Seattle. It’s a big, big brewery now. Really great beer, really great people. I reached out and said, “Hey, listen, this is what I’m thinking about doing. Let’s brew a beer together. And since there’s a big military presence in the Seattle area, let’s do something and donate some of the proceeds to help them out.” And [Fremont Brewing] immediately came back [and said] this sounds great, but, we want to donate all the proceeds – 100 percent, which was great! You know, I wasn’t going to ask him that. So that’s how the program began.
The beer debuted at the Seattle stadium, and it was a huge hit. The Mariners were kind enough to donate hundreds of tickets to servicemen and women to be able to attend the event. It was great and it was the first time that I actually got to do something on a professional level in brewing and, at the same time, to fulfill what I’ve been racking my brain and trying to figure out on how to support our military.
Q. That’s awesome. Not everyone’s first professional beer is served at a baseball stadium.
Chris: That’s right. It was unique. It was a lot of fun. And really, Seattle being a huge beer town, it wasn’t that big of an ask, you know, they’re already supporting a lot of craft breweries. But because of the success, we decided that we were going to try to grow it. So our brewery, Center of the Universe, opened up a year later, in 2012. And we reached out to a lot of breweries [to repeat the fundraising campaign] and people just sort of started coming on board. Now, basically every dollar that comes in whether we sell it here at the brewery or to our distributor, every penny, we turn right back around and donate it to Soldiers’ Angels.
Q. So how did you learn about Soldiers’ Angels and why did you decide to partner with them on what became the Hops for Heroes program.
Chris: Soldiers’ Angels was actually introduced to us by my brother’s (co-founder of Center of the Universe) wife who was working with Soldiers’ Angels on the social media side and brought them to our attention. And we checked them out and had some conversations, and they really checked all the boxes, in terms of everything that they do, not only to support troops that are currently serving elsewhere but also helping out their families. And [being away from your family is] one thing that’s got to be the hardest. I know it [was hard] when I was playing and having a young family was being away for so long, and just worrying about not only your safety where you are, but also your family back at home. And [Soldiers’ Angels] is an organization that takes care of that for you if something comes up. That’s something that really kind of spoke to me and now we’ve been with Soldiers’ Angels for years now.
Q. I’ve personally come across a number of military veterans who have transitioned to the craft beer industry. Have you experienced that? And why do you think veterans are drawn to craft brewing?
Chris: I’m drawn to it personally, because it’s beer. It’s fun, you know, you’re making stuff with your hands. It is a hands-on process. It’s not the easiest job in the world to be a brewer, especially at a small craft brewery. We don’t run our brew houses from an office. They’re not automated. And so I think it’s that kind of the hard work [that veterans are drawn to]. There’s definitely a big camaraderie that goes on on the production side. We have a military veteran, that’s one of our brewers here, too, and there’s more and more folks are entering this industry from previously being in the military. I think it’s that you’re working hard, you play hard. And really, you have a really unique team dynamic in the back, everyone kind of works together. Because no matter what, that beer that comes out of that tank, or that beer that goes into that can, is a culmination of every single person back there touching it. And so having that trust between each other and, and really taking pride in what you’re doing and what you’re producing. And I think that’s something that, you know, military veterans really enjoy.
Q. So what are your plans for releasing Homefront IPA this year?
Chris: So typically, we would do it around Memorial Day. But this year, we’re pushing it out and we’re going to do a big event for the Fourth of July. And so we’re going to have live music all Fourth of July weekend. And then we’re not only [hosting] military folks – we’re also inviting some first responders out, and kind of making it a day just to celebrate all those men and women who sacrifice for us, whether it’s in the military or first responders, and just make it just a fun, family friendly day for everybody. You know, it’s how we got started in the industry. And so, on our Homefront IPA release days, it’s all about the community and the people that we’re supporting.
From all of us here at Soldiers’ Angels, we want to thank Chris, Center of the Universe, and all the breweries participating in Hops for Heroes this year. For more information, visit soldiersangels.org/hopsforheroes and be sure to check out Center of the Universe Brewing Company if you’re ever in the Richmond, Virginia, area.
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