Just in time for fall, Center of the Universe Brewing Company will feature a camp-themed outdoor space complete with gas fire pits, storytellers, and three new beers.
While the weather grows chillier and public safety measures continue to be observed, many small businesses are trying to offer new, creative, and safe services for their communities. In Ashland, Center of the Universe Brewing Company has taken the idea for a camp-themed outdoor space and run with it — transforming their outdoor beer garden into a socially-distanced campground with fire pits, camping chairs, lanterns, a covered stage, and plenty of brews to go around.
The revamped space, called Camp COTU, opened October 9. Chris Ray — who founded the brewery with his brother Phil in 2011 — emphasized their priorities and their hopes for the campground hangout.
“We just want to create not only a safe atmosphere but something that’s comfortable, something that’s relaxing,” Ray said. “So much of what we do day-to-day as we’re trying to navigate this pandemic is stressful … this is a place where we have plenty of space for you and you can just come, sit by the fire, relax, and enjoy some beers.”
Although they had the idea to do a camping-inspired experience for a while, the timing and demands of running a small business in the midst of the pandemic forced the team to think on their feet and commit to the project. Camp COTU features activities inspired by the camping experience and drawing on nostalgia for childhood trips into the wilderness. Guests can hear stories, do crafts, sing songs, or enjoy some classic campfire eats, all while spaced out and warm by the fire.
Among Camp COTU’s roster of activities are a rotating series of storytellers and performers. Ghost stories, historical reenactments, bluegrass jam sessions, and traditional campfire tales are all on the table.
“We started looking at what we could do that would be fun, different, and engaging that would allow us to operate in a safe manner,” Ray said. “We decided on storytelling, because who doesn’t like to tell campfire stories?”
Through partnerships with local groups like the Virginia Storytelling Alliance, The Whistle Stop Theatre Company, Red Vein Army and more, Camp COTU plans on hosting all kinds of entertainment as well as providing a level of interactivity for visitors with sanitized instruments and noisemakers.
Traditional camp food will also be offered at Camp COTU via the Freekin’ Rican, which will serve up chili, hot dogs, baked beans, trail mix, and other campfire staples. The campground theme even extends to two new drinks guests can try — three, if you count the one that combines the best of both brews.
“We wanted to have a beer that went along with camping, and I mean, the s’more is the quintessential desert for camping,” Ray said.
The team took to Origin Beer Lab to adapt their whip series to fit the theme, and came out with a marshmallow and graham cracker as well as a double chocolate flavor.
“We thought it would be fun, since when you make s’mores you have to assemble them,” said Ray. “We wanted to have two different beers where … if you want to make the s’more then you can combine them together to make that flavor.”
Going all in on the campground theme was necessary, according to Ray. When the pandemic hit, the craft brewing industry certainly was not spared.
“Our industry as a whole is pretty innovative … we’re fortunate we’ve got a great creative team,” Ray said. “We approached this and jumped in. You can call something Camp COTU or have a campground theme, but unless you deep dive into it and really start touching on items people can feel and experience themselves, it’s not going to work.”
With the team behind the theme, riffing on campground aesthetics became a cohesive project to last through the winter months. Ray’s plan is to keep the fires going until they aren’t necessary anymore.
“If you’re sitting around the fire, you’re much more willing to withstand some coldness to enjoy a beer outside of your house,” Ray said. “You can bundle up and get close.”
Coziness and comfort are main priorities for Camp COTU, along with following public health measures. Ray emphasized the importance of safety in how they designed the space.
“Our philosophy is if the person who is the most nervous about COVID-19 at the brewery is comfortable, then everybody is going to be comfortable,” Ray said.
With all guidelines in place and the campground open, guests can escape to Camp COTU for a gripping story, classic eats, and quality beers.
“This is all supposed to take your mind off of what’s going on and transport you into a different place,” Ray said. “Even if it’s just for the night.”
All photos by Swish & Click Photography, courtesy Center Of The Universe Brewing