The Craft Breweries Serving Their Communities with Volunteering Projects | Wine Enthusiast
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The Craft Breweries Serving Their Communities with Volunteering Projects

In September 2020, Cathy Wise wanted to recruit volunteers to build homes for burrowing owls, a species threatened by urban development in Phoenix, Arizona. And so, the community science manager for Southwest Audubon Society worked with Preston Thoeny, head brewer at Wren House Brewing Company, to produce a beer named after a local burrowing owl known as U-9.

“Wren House was closed, but people could order online and pick up the beer,” says Wise. “We thought, let’s put a bitly [shortened URL] on the can, and tell the story of U-9 to have people sign up for when we start going again.”

Slightly bigger than a tallboy, burrowing owls live in underground burrows that are increasingly threatened as cities expand. The Audubon Society’s project rehomes the owls to artificial burrows at safe sites.

In March 2021, four months after releasing the U-9 lager, Wren House released Blondie IPA, named for another of the Audubon Society’s burrowing owls, who was recognizable by her unusual light coloring. Blondie also featured a bitly to the same sign-up page. 

Between the two beers, Southwest Audubon gained 113 project volunteers, Wise says, many of whom had never stepped foot in an Audubon center. “They don’t know us, but they love the owls. They want to help and there’s an authentic need, and people respond to that.”

A pair of burrowing owls perch outside of their underground shelter at the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area near downtown Phoenix
A pair of burrowing owls perch outside their underground shelter / Nick Cote and National Audubon Society

Other organizations have had similar success by partnering with local craft breweries. Last summer, the 40-year-old Land Conservancy of New Jersey held guided happy-hour hikes in two of its preserves followed by a stop at a local brewery in hopes of drawing new volunteers. 

“Our intention from the beginning was to attract a younger crowd, and, yes, it’s working,” says Kate Munning, communications manager for the conservancy.

Hikes through its 198-acre Nancy Conger West Book Preserve in West Milford ended at Ramstein High Point Brewing in Butler. Hikes at the 405-acre South Branch Preserve in Mount Olive Township ended at Man Skirt Brewing in Hackettstown.

Almost 50 people attended the four hikes, and nine became members, Munning says. Though it remains to be seen how many will return this spring for volunteer projects like plantings and invasive-plant removal, the conservancy plans to run five hikes this summer. 

“The walks are pretty informal, and everybody’s kind of comfortable by the end,” says Linda Gloshinski, a hike leader and preservation specialist with the conservancy. “At the brewery, it’s even more relaxed, and you have more meaningful conversations. It ends up building relationships.”

Volunteers Pick Up for a Pint at Jackalope Brewery
Pick Up for a Pint volunteers at Jackalope Brewery / Jason Bihler Photography

The conversation might revolve around volunteer projects, membership and the nonprofit’s work saving land from development. “At the end of the day, you get a couple of volunteers, and somebody who signs up for our newsletter or follows us on Instagram,” says Gloshinski. “It’s all good.”

Gloshinski sees a shared sense of community among craft beer drinkers and outdoor volunteers. “There’s a type of person who likes to give back by shopping local, drinking local, then also going for a hike locally and supporting that local organization,” she says. “It all comes back to that kind of localness.”

Steve Wright, president and head of operations of Jackalope Brewing Company in Nashville, Tennessee, is similarly focused on his community. On the third Sunday of every month, he provides trash grabbers, gloves and bags to about a dozen volunteers who clean up the city’s Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood. Forty-five minutes later, they return to the brewery, separate recyclables from the trash, and then collect tokens for a free pint of Jackalope beer.

“Most people stay and have their pint immediately,” says Wright. “But some will save their token and come back later.”

U9 Beer cans with Burrowing-owl design
U-9 beer cans / Photo by Steven Prager

Since 2018, Wright has run this Pick-Up for a Pint project with a nonprofit neighbor, Turnip Green Creative Reuse. He says it makes sense that a brewery is at the center of a litter pickup.

“We’re connected with our local economies and neighborhoods,” he says. “Breweries and taprooms are meant to be places to gather, so everything that we’re doing is meant to bring people together. And, a lot of times, breweries are located in neighborhoods that need a bit of clean up.”

Wright posts the upcoming events on neighborhood social media pages. “We’re not pushing sales, but the idea to come join us for a cleanup,” he says. “In that regard, we earn the trust of the neighborhood.”

In January, Pick-Up for a Pint went statewide when Wright teamed up with more than 20 brewers from the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild to draft 200 volunteers across the state to pick up trash on a Saturday, he says. Eighteen volunteers showed up at Jackalope alone.

“When I joined the board of the guild [in January], we had an opportunity to make a bigger impact and involve other breweries,” he says. “It was the first of what we hope will be many.”

Wright sees the brewers as giving residents the ability to enhance their neighborhoods, which is something many of them already want to do. “We’re tapping into that desire to give back to your community,” he says. “We’re just giving them the opportunity.”

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