Frank Keesling thought he was in trouble nine years ago when he got a call from the Wynkoop Brewing Company asking why there were so many gorillas sitting at the bar. Although the question sounded like the punchline to a joke, it actually came as more of a relief to Keesling, who had organized the Gorilla Run 5K, a race designed to raise money for the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, an organization that his mother, Ruth, founded in Denver in the 1980s.
"Mile marker number one was at 18th and Wynkoop, where the brewery is, and we had lost about thirty percent of our participants there," Keesling says; it turns out the gorillas -- or rather racers dressed in full gorilla suits -- were making pit stops for beer. "I had been wondering where they went. I thought I had lost them."
The result of that conversation was that the race moved from Elitch Gardens, where it had been for two years, to the Wynkoop, where it stayed for eight, becoming one of Denver's most recognizable -- and Guinness Book of World Records setting -- events, and the basis for two Wynkoop beers, Silverback Smoked Porter and Silverback Pale Ale, which was one of the first beers the brewery decided to can back in 2010.
But that relationship ended last year for a variety of reasons, Keesling says, and was done by mutual agreement. The Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, which owns the trademark to the Silverback Pale Ale name, has since licensed it to another brewery, and the race will be held in City Park on Sunday, far from the magnetic pull of cold Wynkoop beers.
Lee Driscoll, who runs Breckenridge-Wynkoop, says he'd never planned to hold on to the beer forever. "When we started with them, we were just beginning to can beer... at the time, we thought we would be caretakers of the name and help raise money for the foundation." And that's just what they did. In eight years, the Wynkoop donated $200,000 in profits from the Silverback beers and related souvenirs to the fund.
"It was a major philanthropic effort on our part, and I'm very proud of that legacy," Driscoll says.
Eventually, Silverback became one of the Wynkoop's two top-selling craft beers, but since the brewery didn't own the rights to the name and didn't have a financial stake in the beer itself, Driscoll says it made more sense to start canning a pale ale of its own, something it did earlier this year with Mile High Pale Ale.
The MGCF has since signed a twelve-year licensing agreement with Rockyard Brewing in Castle Rock, which changed the recipe slightly -- toning down the hoppiness at Keesling's request -- and now sells the beer in bottles up and down the Front Range. "There was no burning of bridges or anything like that between Wynkoop and us," Keesling says.
In addition to Rockyard, the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund licenses or plans to license the Silverback name to other breweries, including one in Texas, one in Ohio and one in Uganda. Eventually it hopes to distribute nationwide, something that the Wynkoop, which has a limited capacity, wouldn't have been able to do.
The MGCF, which raises money to protect the endangered Mountain Gorillas of Africa, was founded in 1983 after Keesling's mother, Ruth, met famed gorilla conservationist Dian Fossey. When Fossey was killed in 1985, Ruth Keesling decided to step up her fundraising and educational efforts.
In 2004, Frank held the first 5K Gorilla Run. First-time participants are required to rent a gorilla suit for $99 and race in it; the rate is discounted for return runners. By 2011, the event had attracted the attention of the Guinness Book of World Records, and last year, the Denver run (there are also runs in other cities, like Austin, Cincinnati, San Francisco and London) set a world record for the most people dressed like gorillas at 1,161.
But during last year's run, Keesling realized that it might be easier to hold the event somewhere that didn't require closing off streets and rerouting cars and buses, especially now that the renovations at Union Station are finished.
"I thought the run might need a breath of fresh air," he says, adding that the Denver Zoo had been asking to partner with the run for several years.
So, the 11th annual Gorilla Run will take place at 11 a.m. on Sunday, November 2, in City Park. Go to denvergorillarun.com for more information.
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