What do birds, beers, water security, and sports have in common? Superb Owls, of course.
On the Thursday before a certain large football sporting event in Phoenix, Arizona, beer and bird enthusiasts gathered at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Nature Center for the launch of Superb Owl, an owl-themed beer from Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company. The launch, which also marks Audubon Southwest’s first Birds n’ Beer event since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, brought together a diverse crowd of people who are passionate about the ways in which birds, beer, science, and water conservation all overlap.
So what’s the story behind Superb Owl, and what role do beer lovers have in helping conserve natural resources?
A few months ago, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company, a member of the Western Rivers Brewers’ Council that works with Audubon Southwest on water conservation issues in the state, decided to brew the beer to celebrate both the camaraderie of sports fandom and the surprisingly diverse natural history of Arizona. In all their beers, the brewmasters focus on locally sourced ingredients that help support farmers, including using a special type of barley malt grown elsewhere in Arizona that requires less water to grow than traditional cultivars.
“We partnered with the Nature Conservancy and local farmers to produce a new type of barley malt called 'Sinagua' up in the Verde Valley,” says Zach Fowle, marketing director for Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company. “Sinagua Malt works with farmers to switch from high water-use crops like corn and alfalfa to barley, which uses less water during high need times like the summer. This preserves millions of gallons of water for Arizona’s waterways.” According to Fowle, Sinagua Malt began production in 2019, and over the last four years farmers planting that barley have saved more than 500 million gallons of water for the state of Arizona.
The Superb Owl beer, according to Ashley Benson, head brewer at Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company, is a Mexican-style Vienna lager made with locally grown Arizona limes and Hallertau-Mittelfrüh hops. “We wanted something that was easy-drinking and really refreshing,” says Benson.
When asked why they wanted to go with an owl-themed beer, Benson says that the name Superb Owl struck them as quite funny and surprising, and that “as a conservation-based brewery that has collaborated with Audubon Southwest in the past, it just made a lot of sense” for them to make it. Fowle emphasized the surprising biodiversity of local owls. “I don’t think people realize how many owl species make their home in Arizona.”
To finally choose which owl was the most superb from Arizona’s 13 resident species, Arizona Wilderness Brewing ran a bracket competition voted on by members of the public.
“I was pulling for the Barn Owl,” says Fowle, “but unfortunately it got knocked out in round two. The final three are the Great Horned Owl, the Burrowing Owl, and the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. And of those, I think the Great Horned is the quintessential owl.”
“When I was voting, I went with whatever owl in that round was the cutest,” adds Benson.
In the end, only one truly Superb Owl remained: the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl!
Earlier in the day, Audubon Policy Director for Audubon Southwest Haley Paul had helped organize an advocacy day at the Arizona state capitol with local chapter members, local brewers, and local angling groups, to talk to lawmakers about the importance of water management in the state. “If we don’t have water, we have nothing,” Paul says. “Our communities need water security. Birds need water security. And our flowing rivers and habitat need water security.”
As the Birds n’ Beer event came to a close after many Superb Owl samplings, a superb talk by owl biologist Amanda Moors about another Arizona resident, the Mexican Spotted Owl, and a live owl demonstration by Liberty Wildlife, Paul reflected on how people with different interests and passions can come together to support a mutually important cause.
“Events like Birds n’ Beer bring people together from all walks of life and expose people to the fact that they have a voice,” says Paul. “They have an ability to change what’s going on, and they can get involved. And that’s what's great about Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company. Not only did they lend their voice at our Advocacy Day earlier today at the capitol talking with legislators, but they also partner with us on events like Birds N’ Beer where we can talk about these issues to a wider audience.”