Silverback beer sold at Summit ski resorts benefits mountain gorillas |

Silverback beer sold at Summit ski resorts benefits mountain gorillas

Heather Jarvis
The mountain gorilla is the only great ape primate posting positive numbers within its population in the world, but despite their growth, is still listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Courtesy Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund |

Where to find Silverback

9280, Summit House and Mountain House at Keystone Resort

Copper Mountain at the Incline Bar and Grill

Beaver Creek at Saddleridge

Lake Dillon Liquors

Frisco Liquors

“When you look into the eyes of a mountain gorilla, you are forever changed,” said Frank Keesling, speaking about the primates that have been a part of his life since he was a teen. He is the president of the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, a nonprofit based in Denver, but his family’s history with the animal goes all the way back to 1983, when his parents met primatologist Dian Fossey. One of the more well-known primatologists in history, along with Jane Goodall and Birutè Galdikas, Fossey did extensive studies of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Now, Keesling is working to get the word out at Summit County ski resorts: Drink a beer, help a mountain gorilla. In a partnership with Rockyard Brewing Company in Castle Rock, 50 percent of proceeds from the Silverback pale ale — named after the adult male gorilla — goes back to the nonprofit. Recently added to the Vail Resorts’ purchasing system, the beer will be sold at Keystone Resort this winter season. At Copper Mountain Resort, the beer is sold at Incline Bar & Grill.


When Ruth Keesling met Fossey in ’83, the pair began discussing the possibility of bringing wildlife veterinarians to Africa to analyze troubles with the mountain gorilla. The Keesling family had a background in veterinary medicine for companion animals through the Morris Animal Foundation, a funding organization for animal health research in the United States. At the time, wildlife veterinarian medicine didn’t exist in the gorilla’s native habitat.

Fossey’s work had received international attention and her story was adapted to the big screen in the 1988 film, “Gorillas in the Mist,” in which she was played by Sigourney Weaver. With vets set to head to Rwanda in early 1986, Fossey was murdered on Dec. 26, 1985. Not to be deterred, soon after Ruth set up the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project, putting vets on the ground and also giving assistance to gorillas caught in traps and snares that the locals set up to catch deer and other food sources.

“The mountain gorilla is not considered a food source, but they would set (traps) in their habitat, and the gorilla would unfortunately get caught in it,” Frank said. “That program has proven to be extremely beneficial in today’s environment. In 1985 there were only 248 mountain gorillas left, today we are posting over 880.”

The mountain gorilla is the only great ape primate posting positive numbers within its population in the world, but despite their growth, is still listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Mountain gorillas are native to the mountains of Africa, specifically in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Sharing 98.6 percent of our DNA, they are one of the closest relatives to humans.

“Watching their daily activities, what they do and how they act … it’s everything we do,” Frank said. “If we are to have that window into our past, the mountain gorilla is probably the closest thing that allows that to happen.”

In 1996, the Keeslings started a wildlife veterinary education program called Wildlife Animal Resources Management at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. At the university, there was a program for veterinary medicine, but primarily for companion animals and livestock. The new department helped build a curriculum and hire professors so local Ugandan, Rwandan, Tanzanian, Kenyan and Congolese could be educated in wildlife management or continue on to earn wildlife veterinarian degrees. The long-term vision was to make the project self-sustainable locally, so U.S. vets could be removed and replaced with local veterinarians.

The program outgrew itself, and a new vision was created in the Ruth Keesling Wildlife Health and Research Center, a 10,000-square-foot complex completed just a couple of years ago. It is the largest of its kind on the continent of Africa for wildlife disease surveillance and veterinary education. In the center, there are 18 research laboratories, a lecture hall and another building for post-grad and grant research office space. The lower level of the center is a biohazard lab used to study diseases, such as West Nile Virus, Avian Flu and H1N1, with the hopes to come out with vaccines to eradicate the disease in wildlife before it spreads to humans.


The idea for Silverback was created in Denver because of a relationship with Wynkoop Brewing Co. Frank met John Hickenlooper, one of the founders of Wynkoop and now Colorado’s governor, at a fundraising event called the Denver Gorilla Run. The event is a 5K fun run/walk done in gorilla suits, and Hickenlooper was a judge when the organization hosted a Guinness Book of World Records attempt for the most people dressed as gorillas. It currently holds that record at 1,061. Silverback was also the first beer tapped in the governor’s mansion when Hickenlooper installed his three-tap beer system.

“They wanted to partner with us and help support the nonprofit through beer sales,” Frank said.

The brewery created the first beer, Silverback Smoked Porter, in 2007, and donated 50 percent of profits back to Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund. In 2010, Wynkoop brewed the pale ale. Two and a half years ago, production moved to Rockyard Brewing in Castle Rock. The porter is no longer available and the pale ale recipe was tweaked a little, but the proceeds to the nonprofit remain the same.

When the formula was being developed, Frank said they wanted to have a link that took the beer back to Africa, and found an African spice called Grains of Paradise.

“I did some more research, and found out that the lowland gorillas eat this particular plant in their daily diets,” he said. “Research has proven and shown that the medicinal properties within this plant is an anti-inflammatory agent within the gorilla combating heart disease.”

Frank reached out to his contacts at the Denver Zoo, and after sharing the research, the zoo is now growing the plant and adding it to its gorilla’s daily diets. With 77 percent of captive gorillas having some form of heart disease, Frank said he hopes to eventually add a project that helps bring more of the processed Grains of Paradise back to the U.S. to be included in the captive gorilla diets.

Sometime this winter, Frank plans to organize a day out on the slopes in support of Silverback. Like the Denver Gorilla Run, he wants to get participants out on the hill in full gorilla suits, ending their ski day at a bar with a Silverback beer.

“We want to start a conversation that brings attention to the beer as well as the animal,” he said. “We have mountain lions, mountain goats and mountain sheep — in a fun way, we could have mountain gorillas.”

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