Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting, and craft beer is for bringing people together. So, what is a coalition like the Western Rivers Brewers’ Council to do in a year like 2020 when keeping folks apart became the top priority? Read on to learn how member breweries rose above this year’s challenges to connect people to conservation opportunities and protect rivers and birds across the southwest.
Protecting Rivers through Policy:
When the Western Rivers Brewers’ Council (WRBC) launched in 2017, the top priority was pushing the Arizona legislature to support the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) - landmark, multistate legislation aimed at helping the west avoid catastrophic shortages on the Colorado River. Three years later and a year and a half after the passage of the DCP, the WRBC continues to advocate for policy that protects Arizona’s rivers and water.
In February, we didn’t yet know what was ahead of us and were forging ahead with a session’s worth of legislative priorities. As we do every year, we gathered at the state capitol with a coalition of partners including birders, hunters, anglers, and brewers represented by Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company. On our list of legislation to support was House Bill 2675. If passed, this bill would have encouraged the thoughtful and effective use of water by farmers and other surface water users, leaving more water flowing in rivers because of the provision that water saved under a water conservation plan would not be subject to the “use it or lose it” doctrine, which leads to water users forfeiting their water rights as a result of non-use. To support WRBC members like Sinagua Malt, who by switching to barley from more water intensive crops is protecting flow in the Verde River, the WRBC stood strongly behind this bill with twelve members including the Arizona Craft Brewers’ Guild signing onto a letter of support. Unfortunately, when the legislature stalled in March in response to Covid 19, so did this legislation. There is still great momentum behind this proposal in 2021 and we look forward to pushing it forward in the next legislative session.
Celebrating Victories for our Flagship Bird:
Reliant on healthy cottonwood/willow forests throughout much of its range and known to vocalize in anticipation of summer monsoon storms, the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo is emblematic of western rivers. Listed as a threatened species in 2014, cuckoos are at risk of disappearing from our rivers due to dams, diversions, a warming climate, and an increased demand for water. In short, the story of the cuckoo is the story of water management in the west. It’s for this reason (and because it looks great on a can), that we chose this species as the flagship bird of the WRBC.
In 2017, a petition was filed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the cuckoo’s threatened status. In 2018, Borderlands, Crooked Tooth, and Wren House brewing companies brewed the first batch of Rain Crow IPA, a brew that helped us keep this imperiled species in the public eye. While the pandemic prevented us from brewing a third batch this year, it didn’t prevent the US Fish and Wildlife Service from ruling against the delisting proposal, affirming continued protection for the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
We missed Rain Crow IPA this year, but expect to see it back on tap in the summer of 2021.
Bringing Birds to the Brewery:
The WRBC is known for its collaborative brewing projects that tell stories critical to the protection of birds and their habitats. The first brew, Hummingbird Springs Tart Saison, came from Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company in 2017. In 2018, Arizona Wilderness released the second batch of Hummingbird Springs and, as they had just opened their new beer garden and taproom in Downtown Phoenix, we hatched a plan for the spring of 2019 – Arizona’s first bird-friendly beer garden. The plan was to install an urban demonstration garden designed exclusively for hummingbirds and other pollinators that, by including only native Arizona plants, would be uniquely Arizona. We set the date for March of 2020, which as anyone reading this knows, proved problematic.
Come March, it was clear that gathering volunteers to install the garden was not a possibility. We were ready to call it off indefinitely, but Arizona Wilderness wouldn’t take no for an answer. Instead of cancelling the installation outright, the Wilderness team helped us reduce risk by recruiting a team of volunteers that were already interacting regularly and used to following Covid 19 protocols – the Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company staff! In October, a team of 25 installed nearly 100 native plants at the downtown beer garden. To give visitors the opportunity to create their own bird-friendly garden at home, they also added permanent signage directing folks to Audubon’s Plants for Birds program.
Expect Hummingbird Springs Tart Saison to return in the spring of 2021 and, when it’s safe, a native plant sale in the Downtown Phoenix bird-friendly beer garden.
Brewing for Burrowing Owls:
Another flagship species for Audubon Southwest is the Burrowing Owl. Tiny, gregarious, and the only raptor in the world to live and nest underground, these owls and their expressive golden eyes have motivated thousands of people to take conservation action. It may not be obvious to those who don’t know the story of these owls, but they also fit right in with our work to protect western rivers. As we've lost grasslands and other open habitats in the west, Burrowing Owls have become increasingly dependent on habitat adjacent agricultural fields where prey abounds and wide open views let them keep their eyes on potential predators. The fate of Burrowing Owls and the fate of Arizona's agriculture are closely tied. So, as is true for all of Arizona's birds, protecting Burrowing Owls means ensuring clean, reliable water into the future.
Audubon Southwest, in collaboration with Wild at Heart, work to protect this species by engaging volunteers in building artificial burrows for displaced burrowing owls and assisting with the relocation of owls that find themselves without a home. Being so dependent on volunteers, this work was hit hard by Covid 19 pandemic. Wild at Heart found themselves with over 150 homeless owls in their aviaries and we were limited to tiny, socially distant work projects.
To the rescue came Wren House Brewing Company and one of our most charismatic relocated owls, U9. In November, in anticipation of a small workday in partnership with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Wren House released U9 Lager. This brew used U9’s story to draw attention to the plight of the Burrowing Owl and, with a link on the can, connected people to the opportunity to help. Later that month, a small-but-mighty team of socially distanced volunteers installed 48 new burrows at the Powers Butte Wildlife Area west of Phoenix. In the spring, we’ll be working with Wren House to release the second installment of the U9 story and put the newly installed burrows to use – stay tuned!
Expanding our Flock:
Good work attracts good company, so it’s no surprise that despite the year’s challenges, the Western Rivers Brewers’ Council grew this year. Joining us going forward are Desert Monks Brewing Company from Gilbert, Arizona, Upslope Brewing Company from Boulder, Colorado, and Simple Machine Brewing Company from Phoenix, Arizona. In addition, in light of the recent merge of our Arizona and New Mexico offices into Audubon Southwest, we’re now actively recruiting in New Mexico.
We are grateful to each of our Western Rivers Brewers’ Council members, as none of this work would be possible without them. By helping us tell stories, connect new audiences to birds and conservation, and take direct policy action, the WRBC is a valuable partner in our mission to protect birds and they places they live. As Wren House Brewing Company’s head brewer Preston Thoeny put it “The ethos of craft beer is community”.
To stay up to speed on what’s brewing in 2021, check out the Western Rivers Brewers’ Council homepage and follow our member breweries.