A Zoo Brew Chronicle

In the distance, a lone banjo laments an old song. Remembering old days buried deep within fading memories, a fiddle shades the air a somber grey. The past is mourned as the music yearns to step back into yesteryear. Coalescing into a single voice that broods over each and every syllable uttered into the song, the two instruments encumber this funeral procession’s movements until it stands still while the music continues to conjure up ghosts from the past. The fiddle cries, and the banjo’s strings shake and reverberate in place. A break. Silence. A screaming voice somewhere out in the distance lights up the dusty gloom with the clashing of basses, mandolins, and guitars. Unearthed are the old memories, and once again does the old song dance in true merriment to its unforgotten, inextricable rhythm.

Courtesy Marsh Wheeling String Band

Last weekend, Oglebay’s 2017 “Zoo Brew” showcased local breweries, restaurants, musicians, and wildlife to hundreds of patrons spanning across generations. The event mixed the old with the new. Headlining the festivities, Marsh Wheeling String Band performed old folk classics, such as “House of the Rising Sun,” along with covers of contemporary popular songs. With the strumming of guitars and picking of banjos in the background, the masses of patrons enjoyed 70 craft beers from all over the state of West Virginia including Wheeling’s Brew Keepers and Wheeling Brewing Company, Parkersburg Brewing Company, and Big Timber Brewing Company from Elkins. Local restaurants partnered up together in pairing their signature dishes with the craft breweries. The Alpha and Cilantro worked side by side in serving delicious shrimp skewers in a bourbon glaze and scallops. The Good Zoo’s “Animal Ambassadors” emerged from their habitats accompanied by their keepers, and joined in on the happenings. The Good Zoo’s event offered more than a simple plug for local business promotion. It celebrated the area’s unique heritage while creating a space for the young and the new to grow and flourish.

I entered the event with my longtime friend and photographer, Josh Stewart, in nostalgia. Remembering my childhood during those cool Halloween nights where we children begged our parents to travel through the daunting wooden, fog filled tunnels on the Zoo’s train all the while clutching our ready to explode bags of candy, I fondly christened the event “Brew at the Zoo” quietly to myself. We hiccuped our way down the array of local breweries sampling everything that the state of West Virginia had to offer while conversing with the brewers themselves. The selection of breweries presented a complex taste of the area ranging from old time tested companies to the recently new. The Parkersburg Brewing Company claims its roots stem from a German immigrant by the name of Marcus Rapp who brought his culture’s brewing techniques over into what became known as Parkersburg Brewing Company. Today, Dan Curtis and Justin Logue continue Rapp’s German style brewing in a modernized and expanded location on 707 Market Street. Sidling down a ways, we stumbled upon Brew Keepers. Still fairly new, this company dedicates itself to brewing pristine selections of beer. Josh Fulton, one of the brewery’s founders, approaches brewing as a true artistic craft. With watchful, unflinching eyes, he explained to me that they “draft” new beers in production; much like how a writer painstakingly drafts pages of a novel. They began as a group of friends collaborating at home until they got the knack for mastering the process. Their beers will go through multiple stages of tastings and revisions to ensure their standard of quality and uniqueness. I tried one of their honey-infused stouts and commented on how much I loved its aftertaste of coffee. After a subtle smile broke across his face, I soon realized that I don’t know anything about beer. The stout is infused with honey, and apparently honey gives off notes of chocolate, which can be easily mistaken for coffee. This beer by far was my personal favorite. Meanwhile, both the band and the festivities were in full swing. I reacquainted myself with many old faces, and had the pleasure of meeting a few new. Then a train whistle hearkened the arrival of my childhood. With beers in place of those exploding bags of candy, we forced our bodies into the impossibly tight confines of the train’s seats, and for the first time in twelve years, we were off.

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As the evening began to cool down, our train arrived. Again walking through the crowds, I met Dr. Carter Kenamond. A radiologist by profession, he plays the banjo in the Marsh Wheeling String Band. It is a six piece band consisting of the banjo, guitar, bass, vocals, mandolin, and the fiddle that primarily performs folk and bluegrass across many different venues in the Wheeling area. We kicked off our conversation by talking about the song “House of the Rising Sun,” which they just performed. Made famous by The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun” is one of America’s oldest folk songs dating back at least a hundred years. Through the years, it has been constantly reimagined across different genres. Originally a folk song, it was performed by Scotch and Irish immigrants with the instruments, like the banjo, from their home countries. American folk music was created by this intermixing between cultures, instruments, and stories. Dr. Kenamond began playing this music with friends in his later years because folk is the most conducive to sitting around strumming to old stories for a long while. Folk and bluegrass is the music of these rolling hills that we call home.

The evening quickly turned into night, and the luminescent fireflies dotted the sky. As the crowds of people began to shuffle out, I met Maisy the Opossum, escorted by her keeper Kristen Sikorsky. Kristen studies biology at West Liberty University. Specializing in Environmental stewardship, she is passionate about public policy that emphasizes the preservation and conservation of the environment within the challenges that an ever-encroaching urban population creates. She distinguished her views as realistic where the natural environment is conserved to its full extent within the reality of urban growth and our inherent need for resources. I asked her she saw the event’s mix of local businesses, people, and music working together with the Good Zoo’s mission. Unwavering, she replied, “The zoo is just as a part of the community. It brings people together, and I love doing it.” Institutions like the Good Zoo are essential in preserving this area’s biodiversity. Kristen informed me that, behind the Smokey Mountains, the region of Appalachia is the largest diversity hot-spot  in the United States. The Appalachian Mountains are among the oldest mountain regions in the world, and its unique weather patterns of large rainfall and high humidity create a strange temperate rain-forest where unique, indigenous animal species live. Conservation efforts here are especially essential because constant farming, fracking, strip mining, and local water supplies threaten these unique, natural treasures.

Kristen said it best when she emphasized community. From this area’s ancient roots to its people restoring and reinventing their ancestors’ recipes for a good time, Oglebay’s Zoo Brew celebrates the Ohio Valley’s unique flavor through its music, art, people, food, and wildlife.

Photos by Brian Thomas