Like a lot of twenty-somethings, Rudy the rhino moved to Denver for the culture and the atmosphere, and like other recent arrivals, he quickly fell in love with the craft-beer scene.
In particular, Rudy, who has lived at the Denver Zoo since 2016, likes to push empty beer kegs around his pen. And he’s not alone. Zookeepers let several of their “more destructive animals,” including elephants, cape buffalo and hyenas, play with kegs because it gives them the ability to diversify their experience or imitate natural behaviors. In addition, the kegs are “much longer lasting” than plastic, the zoo points out, and more recyclable.
The kegs were donated to the Denver Zoo by Odell Brewing, which made a beer called Rudy’s Wit in 2018 to help raise money and awareness for eastern African black rhinos, a critically endangered species. The effort kicked off a partnership between the zoo and some of Colorado's craft breweries that is unusual among large venues and organizations that typically default to offering only “domestic” beer brands.
In early August, Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont surprised the zoo — which is struggling financially because of coronavirus-related attendance restrictions — by creating Oskar the Lion, a limited-edition beer named after a new lion cub, whom the zoo happened to name after the brewery; $1 from each four-pack of the sour golden ale (brewed with guava and tangerine) goes toward the zoo's conservations measures.
And this week, Great Divide Brewing is hosting its second annual Zoo Week at both of its taprooms and has re-released Zooski Lager in redesigned sixteen-ounce cans. Zoo Week runs through August 29, and you'll find zoo-themed cans, along with beer on tap and glassware. Some proceeds will go to the zoo, which is also serving the beer.
"While we’re not the only beer served at the zoo, we definitely have the strongest partnership out of any brewery," says Great Divide spokesman Matt Sandy. "We’re both longtime Denver institutions with a focus on the community. ... We now do several fundraisers each year to raise awareness and funds for the zoo."
Beyond that, the Denver Zoo’s food and beverage vendor created the brewery-of-the-month program to highlight a different local brewery’s beer each month. The warm-weather program began in 2018 but was put on hold this year when the pandemic began — but it's likely to return. Participating breweries have included Odell, Great Divide, Resolute Brewing, Platt Park Brewing, Ratio Beerworks, Spice Trade Brewing, New Belgium Brewing, Rockyard Brewing, Odyssey Beerwerks, Stem Ciders and Breckenridge Brewery.
“We started to see a shift in our demographic, with many more young families and young adults visiting the zoo, so it was important for us to form an interest around the community we were representing and serving,” explains spokesman Jake Kubie. The zoo is all about kids and families, but "we love working with local companies that can attract an audience that we might not get to reach as much, like young adults."
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"I was kind of surprised when I started working at Great Divide to find out that the Denver Zoo is one of our largest accounts," says Great Divide's Sandy. "Not having a kid at the time and frequenting the zoo rarely, I had no idea the pleasures of strolling through the beautiful setting with a cold beer in hand. Now that I have a kid, we’ve been three or four times, and I’ve added to those beer totals every visit."
Kubie says the local beer program is mutually beneficial because the partnership is a way for smaller breweries that don't have "mega marketing dollars to give back" and have some fun. About 80 percent of the zoo's beer selections are local craft beers, while the other 20 percent are domestics, mostly Coors products, he adds.
On September 12, the Denver Zoo will host a fundraiser called Flock Party. The socially distanced affair will feature a variety of local food and beverages, and it replaces some other events that the zoo typically holds, including Brew at the Zoo and Do at the Zoo, which also highlight craft beer.