Birds and beer are hardly strange bedfellows in this town. For starters, there’s Birds n’ Beers — a monthly lecture-style series at the Rio Salado Audubon Center. Also, the Western Rivers Brewers’ Council, the bird-friendly beer garden at Arizona Wilderness DTPHX, and multitudes of collaborative brews between friends to the birds — including the new U-9 Lager from Wren House Brewing Co.
Released November 17, the beer is named after one bodacious burrowing owl named U-9.
U-9 allowed himself to be caught in Casa Grande and taken to the Wild at Heart wildlife rescue center in Cave Creek. The crew there expected him to injured, but nothing was wrong, and he was released in Maricopa near the University of Arizona Maricopa Agricultural Center. Though free, he's tagged by a band on his leg with a distinct letter and number combo (U and 9). Later, he mated with an unnamed wild owl. It was she who was being observed by students. But U-9 kept stealing the show.
“We really wanted to highlight an individual bird that had an interesting story,” says Cathy Wise, community science manager with Audubon Southwest, which collaborated with Wren House on the beer. “He’s kind of a character; there’s no other owl like U-9.”
Wise says U-9 would stand tall under circling raptors above and refuse to get out of the way of student's cameras. He’d also drink from a steep canal trench — the only burrowing owl brave enough to do this. And he’s been back to Wild at Heart twice with injuries (and released again).
“He's also the king of burrow decoration,” says Steven Prager, outreach biologist with Audubon Southwest and middle man for projects like this and local breweries. Wise agrees. “You don't really have to guess which burrow is his.”
Wise says it’s typical for male burrowing owls to decorate their burrow entrance with found objects and animal dung. “We've seen some pretty creative things, but nothing like this,” she says. “He has brought toys and a lot of dung, and then there's the corn.”
When it comes to exterior design, U-9 is most famous for the pile of decorative, multi-colored corn he seems to be compiling cob by cob. No one's really sure where he's getting it.
U-9 is also just plain adorable. “He has a really cute look,” Wise says. “I don't know how to describe it. He's just kind of round.” Puffed up, Prager adds.
For all these reasons and more, the decision was made to name an entire line of beer was named after U-9.
But the brew is also part of an awareness campaign called Downtown Owls. Audubon Southwest is partnering with Wild at Heart to rehome burrowing owls. Audubon hosts workdays in the field (like, literally), digging homes for burrowing owls coming from Wild at Heart. The project has grown to include more than 3,000 volunteers and has either indirectly or directly been a part of rehoming about 500 owls. And as additional support, the Migratory Bird Treaty has been recently restrengthened.
Still, the project needs help. One problem: People don’t seem to know what burrowing owls are. But they do like beer, which can help get the word out.
Prager says presenting the project to Preston Thoeny, Wren House’s owner, was an easy pitch. Wren House has done similar beer projects, like the Arizona-wide collaboration for Rain Crow IPA. After hearing from Prager and Wise, Thoeny says the team got to work designing a beer for outdoor volunteering.
“We wanted a beer that could be enjoyed while out in the field helping build habitats for the animals,” Thoeny says in an email. “On top of that, we made sure that our ingredients were representative of the project's ethos."
The brew uses grain from nearby farms and maltsters — Sinagua Malt and Grain R&D — in order to keep things local and environmentally conscious. Wren House didn't exactly design the beer after this particular burrowing owl, more for the project itself. But still, there’s something about U-9.
“U-9 is a favorite of the folks at Audubon and Wild at Heart, and when we got to meet him, we understood why,” Thoeny says. “U-9 is a punky little guy, who has been through a lot, but still has tons of spirit and character. His whole vibe is the perfect metaphor for the species.”
The 16-ounce can has a short story about Arizona burrowing owls and a link to a sign-up form to volunteer. The artwork was crafted by Lauren Thoeny, Wren House’s designer, who worked with Audubon Southwest and Wild at Heart to create the label to tell the first part of the story.
Yes, U-9 Lager is part one of two. This fall’s lager will be followed by a spring pilsner named for U-9’s new mate.
"This can is really the first part of the story, the rescue and getting owls out of harm's way,” says Wise. “The spring can is going to be a lighter, brighter look with the mate and their young to kind of show that this does work.”
But, as for now, how's U-9's lager doing?
"People genuinely like the beer for the reasons we had hoped: drinkability (after all, it is a lager), a great message, and a great back-story,” Thoeny says. “We hope that people use this message to find motivation to help Audubon and Wild at Heart with not only burrowing owl projects, but with all of their great work for Arizona.”
To order yourself some U-9 Lager ($14 for four, 16-ounce cans), visit the Wren House website.
To volunteer to help burrowing owls, visit the Audubon Southwest website.
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