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CHEERS TO SCIENCE!

Local brewer supports paleontology research.

WRITTEN BY NATASHA BOURLIN

Ichthydig7 fav
The Great Basin Brewing Co.’s “Icky” beer truck is loaded with ichthyosaur fossils
for transport to Los Angeles in 2015. Photo by Tom Young

At first, the highway patrol officer didn’t believe it. It looked as if the large truck he’d pulled over — emblazoned with the Ichthyosaur “Icky” India Pale Ale label and the logo for Great Basin Brewing Co. — was transporting the beer over state lines. But, in fact, the cargo wasn’t a nicely aged brew; it was ancient history.

When stopped that August day in 2015, Tom Young, owner of Reno-Sparks’ own Great Basin Brewing Co., explained that he was on his way to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, with fossils of a new species of giant ichthyosaur found in Central Nevada. Fortunately, the officer, a fan of Young’s products, eventually let him continue the journey.

This important mission was one of several contributions Young and his company have made to paleontology.

Icky Martin Sander Man lying next to fossil in Central Nevada fav (crop out shadow of photog in foreground if you can)A member of the German paleontology field crew lies next to an ichthyosaur fossil,
demonstrating the creature’s immense size. Photo by P. Martin Sander

Getting icky

Young’s partnership with a team of paleontologists began simply: over beer. In 2011, a German team from the Division of Paleontology at the Steinmann Institute at the University of Bonn was conducting an ichthyosaur excavation in the mountains of Central Nevada. A member of the team picked up a six-pack of Great Basin’s Icky IPA as a coincidental way to quench the team’s thirst. The team’s leader, professor P. Martin Sander, was so impressed with the beer and its name that he and the crew sought out the brewery and met Young, who actually holds a graduate degree in geology. Thus began an unusual and ever-evolving partnership.

It was 1991 when Sander first began digging for fossils in Nevada, where he soon made an unprecedented discovery: the remains of a giant, 240-million-year-old ichthyosaur. Conditions and geology in Nevada, which was once beneath the ocean, are conducive to preserving these enormous, extinct creatures considered the first marine predators. Sander calls them “the T. Rex of the seas.”

But they aren’t easy to excavate, much less transport. Costly heavy equipment and helicopters often are needed. And the monstrous discovery made in 2011 included a skull that alone measures roughly 6 feet 5 inches long. By law, once discovered on federal lands, fossils belong to the public and must be turned over to a federal repository, which takes stewardship of them. Los Angeles was home to the closest and best repository. So Young offered his beer truck for delivery.

In addition to helping this way, Sander believes Young’s beer also supports research by piquing interest in the expedition.

“It’s a nice public-private collaboration,” Young says. “It proves you can make a difference.”

In the early ’90s, Young believed the small batch of Great Basin’s first brewmaster’s special could be revolutionary, like Sander’s discovery of Nevada ichthyosaur fossils, so he named the beer for the extinct creature. Its name was shortened to Icky for Young’s “paleontologically challenged consumers,” he says.

Mission accomplished. Since then, more than 6 million bottles have been produced to date, plus all that’s consumed at the brewery’s three locations. Now, Young has the opportunity to embark on another mission: to give back to the creature that has given his business so much. In addition to transportation, Young conducts fundraising events and provides cash donations to foster ongoing ichthyosaur research.

Who knew drinking good beer could help further science?

Freelance writer Natasha Bourlin always wanted to be a paleontologist as a child, and now she believes she’s doing her part by, instead, drinking Icky. 

From left, Jan Solberg, Brenda Horton, Susan Hamarlund, and Sue Higgins of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Fleet Reserve Association serve muffins to veterans at Carson City’s Veterans Memorial Hall

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