JURASSIC GEIST, or: “Hey, Look at That, There’s a 150 Million-Year-Old Dinosaur Skeleton in the Brewery.”
The crates started arriving the first week of May. Everyone at the brewery knew it was coming, but there was still a palpable air of anticipation and excitement hanging in the building. A giant yellow barrier with the words JURASSIC GEIST printed largely across it was erected a couple weeks before in the taproom, shielding the mysterious activity going on behind it. Unfamiliar people began showing up, nonchalantly grabbing big, oddly-shaped rocks out of the plain wooden crates and placing them on a large welded steel frame that resembled a sculpture, while brewery employees paused on their way through the taproom to watch the construction of a strange serpentine object in the morning light. Eventually the massive formation began to take on a familiar shape— recognizable from television, movies, National Geographic magazine, and the occasional visit to a large museum, but rarely in day-to-day life, and never during a visit to a brewery.
By now it isn’t a surprise: the strange rocks in the crate were the individual bones that comprise a 50-foot-long, 150-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton that is currently hanging out in the taproom. Which is pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it. If the 6 to 12 year old version of you doesn’t geek out at least a little bit at the thought of being within sneezing distance of a giant dinosaur skeleton, and the the fully adult version of you isn’t excited about the skeleton being located in a giant beer factory, then we just don’t know what. The story of how the skeleton ended up here in the brewery spans nearly two decades, involves a lot of storied personalities, thorough planning and organization, abundant Jurassic Park puns, and of course, beer.
The specimen is Galeamopus pabsti, a variety of herbivorous sauropod dinosaur, similar to a Diplodocus. It was discovered 18 years ago and excavated by Dr. Glenn Storrs, the Associate Vice President for Science and Research, Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC), and the Withrow Farny Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology. It was cleaned, collated and stored by Glenn and the diligent paleontology team at CMC. The out-of-towners that assembled the Galeamopus in the taproom are the “Skeleton Crew” from Research Casting International, an organization experienced in traveling the world in order to transport and assemble giant, ancient, and rare items, such as dinosaur skeletons, beached whales, or even molds of entire cliff faces (yeah, bonkers, for sure).
Glenn Storrs, the Associate Vice President for Science and Research, CMC; Withrow Farney Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology; Triumph Bonneville rider.
In 2000, Glenn, whose expertise is in fossil vertebrates (such as dinosaurs), was working in Montana. A local rancher discovered some bone poking out of a hillside close to the Wyoming border and alerted Glenn. Glenn enlisted a colleague, and they started to unearth the find. It became evident pretty quickly that there was a lot of dinosaur in that there hill, so the project was assigned to Glenn’s team, who possessed the support staff, tools, and equipment required to dig that sucker up.
The skeleton, which is 85 percent complete, was an isolated carcass from the Jurassic period, and had washed up onto a sandbar. It was discovered in isolation, mostly articulated, and thus contains a lot of important anatomical information as well as clues about the life and habits of the animal. Along the tail of this particular skeleton, for instance, a few of the vertebrae are smashed, indicating that it took a bite during a battle. "This is a very rare dinosaur,” Glenn explains. “There are only a couple of skeletons of the species known, and this is among the best of them."
Although this particular specimen is relatively small for a Sauropod (they could grow up to more than 100 ft. long), transporting and assembling it was still a major engineering project. It is the largest skeleton that Glenn and his team have ever unearthed, and took about four years to dig up. Since excavation, it has been stored here in Cincinnati in the museum’s lab at the Geier Center, not far from the brewery, which imbues the whole project with extra Cincy street cred. It took seven years after the excavation to remove the rock matrix from the fossilized bones— a process that involves utilizing a variety of tools and techniques, and lots and lots of careful attention to detail. Some of the tools resemble the intimidating gadgets one may encounter in a dentist’s office (a childhood reminiscence that is a bit less fun and romantic for many of us than dinosaurs). Pneumatic tools are used as well, such as micro-sandblasters, and pneumatic engraving tools. Everyday bristle brushes come out for the final cleaning and presentation.
A visit to the Geier Collections and Research Center was like walking into a modern day Wunderkabinett: chest upon chest of shelves slide out to reveal fossil specimens and geologic curiosities catalogued and arranged in tableaus straight out of an Albertus Seba plate. Laboratory personnel assiduously brushed ancient bone fragments clean under large illuminated magnifying glasses and pieced together skeletons of extinct species like they were working antediluvian jigsaw puzzles. Not to say the place was unpleasant or stuffy—the stone sleuths were happy to take a break from their work to chat, a cheap paleontology punchline found easy purchase in the lab, and everyone was very excited to receive the mixed cases of fresh beer we brought with us. There were conversation starters in every nook of the place, and it was easy to glean more info about dinosaurs and geological time perspective in half an hour of casual banter with Glenn and the team than in twenty years of unchaperoned museum visits.
According to Glenn, the decision to bring the skeleton to Rhinegeist happened about two years ago. Union Terminal, home to the museum’s exhibits, has been closed for restorations since late 2016. The exhibits all came out, and either went into storage or public locations under an initiative called Curate My Community. There’s an Allosaurus skeleton at the library, Ice Age mammals at the airport, and various exhibits at the University of Cincinnati. When Union Terminal reopens (slated for November of this year), new exhibits will be installed. One of the new exhibits will focus, of course, on dinosaurs, and this Galeamopus specimen will be the crown jewel.
“We needed a place for a teaser for the new dino exhibit,” Glenn explains, “a place where we could get this specimen in front of the public. Rhinegeist is large enough, accessible to the public, and has a certain ‘buzz’ around it. Rhinegeist is one of the hippest places in town. From my perspective, what goes together better than dinosaurs and beer?...I have to admit there was probably at least some beer that was consumed during the excavation of this dinosaur out in the desert." So Glenn contacted Katie Hoover, the Community Engagement Manager at Rhinegeist, and things took off from there.
Katie recalls Glenn’s initial contact about Jurassic Geist, as the project came to be known: “Glenn was going on a site dig, and inquired on his social media about getting a couple bombers to take out with the crew. When he got back, he reached out to say he had a dinosaur he wanted to put in the brewery. So I sat down, met with him, realized who he was and what he did, and it slowly dawned on me that this could actually be a real thing.”
Moving a dinosaur into a brewery, of course, isn’t something that you can just do in an afternoon. It takes a lot of behind the scenes logistical legwork. “We need to have really clear back-and-forth communication about the risks that our partners can handle,” says Sarah Lima, the Senior Director of Project Management for Exhibits at CMC, “what kind of care they can provide, and what they are worried about. We try to fill in any areas where they need additional help.” Two of the biggest concerns about publicly exhibiting such a large and precious item are cost and liability. The taproom of the brewery often serves as a giant adult playground, so the concern that someone might harm the dino was very real. Glenn says “they’re just a bunch of bones—no one’s gonna hurt ‘em,” but the concern still lurks. Nobody wants a bonehead mishap involving a 150-million year old, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable museum loan.
Did I do that?
Thankfully, the concerns and liabilities were addressed, and the dino made it to the brewery, albeit not in one piece. Which is where the Research Casting comes in. The casual confidence with which the Skeleton Crew from Research Casting put together the specimen would make you completely forget that you were watching the assembling of such precious ancient cargo and not some Claes Oldenburg-sized lego set or the biggest Ikea SNIGLAR in existence.
Research Casting, International is an organization based out of Trenton, Ontario (about an hour and a half east of Toronto). “We’ve worked with Research Casting before,” Glenn says, “and we’ve really had a fantastic experience with them. They do custom museum exhibits all around the world. They specialize in dinosaurs and other fossil skeletons, and in my view are among the best there are.” The team at Research Casting gets to do some really astounding things on a daily basis. A laundry list on the back of the T-shirt of Matt Fair, the Production Manager who oversees projects like Jurassic Geist and has been with the company for 29 years, reveals locations of previous projects from every corner of the globe. They’re currently in the process of moving Sue, the largest, most extensive and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever discovered, and also working on installations for the Smithsonian. Matt and his son Patrick, who has worked with Research Casting for 6 years, just returned from the Isle of Skye in Scotland two weeks ago, where they were collecting yet-to-be-identified fossils. Matt showed us some pics of the beautiful island that he took with his phone, and we had a brief chat about Talisker Distillery, the Island’s best-known single malt whisky distillery, which was right over the mountains from where they were digging. They had to navigate the icy Scottish waters in a rubber dinghy with the fossils in tow.
While they were in the brewery, the Skeleton Crew were just pulling pieces of the dino out of big wooden crates like they were eldritch cinder blocks and carrying them across the taproom to the large steel frame (custom-constructed at the Research Casting Blacksmithy, of course). If you’re not in the dino-construction game, you probably grew up thinking that these bones live in a cordoned off space under the watchful eye of a guard, or even underneath a bullet-proof bell jar protected by laser-triggered alarms, Mission Impossible-style. As you see the segments being handled with such casual indifference, you realize that this isn’t Research Casting’s first dino rodeo. When we mentioned how impressed we were by the fluid familiarity with which they approached their work, Matt responded “Well it’s pretty cool to get to work inside a brewery. Beer and paleontology go hand-in-hand. I wanted to open a brew pub when I was younger, with a friend of mine. Now I build dinosaurs, and he’s a librarian. That’s a bizarre ending to our agreement.”
From Museum to Brewseum
Part of Sarah Lima’s role at CMC involves facilitating and managing the offsite exhibit program, Curate My Community, mentioned above. “The idea of Curate My Community is to really flip the ‘come into the museum and see our collections’ mentality to one that says ‘our collections are right there for you, to experience for free, and to come around to on your own terms’” Sarah explains. “For me the biggest win of this project is being able to place our research in a social setting, have fun with it, and let people explore it on their own, without too much extra distraction. Also, to be able to put it right in the heart of Cincinnati, in a place where anybody can see it. We’re really excited to see how that dovetails into the way that people look at the museum when it reopens in November."
Sarah Lima is the Senior Director of Project Management for Exhibits at CMC.
Sarah is a also big fan of the direction she sees breweries going today: destinations where people can get together, share opinions and ideas, and spend quality time with the people that they care about. In her eyes, this jibes well with what museums are striving to be today. “We know that people don’t necessarily come into museums to learn about our collections, but rather to learn about each other, and about themselves. For us to be able to display an exhibit in a location where people are already predisposed to conversation and curiosity, to spend quality time with each other—it’s a perfect opportunity for us to really prove that paradigm.” And, as we may have already mentioned, there’s another perk to putting a museum exhibit inside a brewery: beer, beer, everywhere.
OF COURSE WE MADE A BEER
To commemorate Jurassic Geist, we brewed a beer, because, hey, it’s what we do. The beer is called Brittlebrain, which is an oblique reference to the dinosaur’s name. Galeamopus roughly translates from Latin into “need helmet,” as this particular dino genus had a particularly brittle brain case, making its skull susceptible to breakage (good thing it had such a long neck). Brittlebrain is a Belgian Golden Strong Ale, which clocks in at 8.6% ABV. It gives off some soft alcohol aromas, and has a very yeast-driven flavor profile, which is the case for many Belgian styles. A nice blend of bubblegum and white grape is balanced by a bit of spice that comes through as white pepper. The hops are really here to accentuate the other ingredients in this beer, and not to dominate it. It’s a big beer that drinks very delicately, a lot like Galeamopus, which was a giant, intimidating animal, but a vegetarian that was not overtly violent or aggressive. If you’re interested, you can check out a beer review of Brittlebrain here.
Glenn, who helped brew Brittlebrain, was particularly excited about the brewing aspect of the project. He has a homebrewing history that stretches back 30 years, to a time when craft beer was a lot harder to come by in the States. "I was employed in England before I moved to Cincinnati,” Glenn recalls, “and was a member of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), so I was very pleased to learn when I came back to Cincinnati that craft brewing was starting to be a thing here. I'm really pleased to be able to put craft beer and paleontology together."
Mitchell Dougherty, our brewer who worked with Glenn on Brittlebrain, was also stoked about the opportunity. “The Brittlebrain brewing process was one of the highlights of my brewing career. I got to brew beer with a paleontologist! And not just any paleontologist, but the paleontologist that excavated this Galeamopus. As Glenn said, two of his favorite worlds collided, and it turned out to be the same for me. We had the opportunity to spend time together and share experiences about our respective industries, and we came to find that a brewer and a paleontologist are similar in a lot of ways. There is also a lot of science bolstering both processes. As both a brewer and as a paleontologist, you get to do something that the public gets really excited about—something that people are very interested in. And when you’re involved in something that the public is so excited about, you develop a similar frame of mind. We’re also both preserving something in a way—an actual historic specimen in the case of paleontology, and a longstanding system of practices and traditions in the case of brewing. Having the opportunity to brew alongside Glenn really re-inspired me.”
Just to recap: there is currently a 50-foot, 150-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton in the taproom, and we brewed a delicious Belgian Golden Strong Ale to commemorate this momentous event. Keep an eye out for 22 oz. bombers of Brittlebrain wherever you normally pick up your Rhinegeist. If you didn't get the opportunity to make it to Jurassic Geist on May 15 (which happened to be National Dinosaur Day), don't worry—the Galeamopus will be on display in the taproom through August 14. There's a good chance you'll run into Glenn at the brewery too.
In the interim, in order to quench your thirst for all things dino, keep the following events in mind:
-Cincinnati Museum Center will be hosting a dinosaur info session in the taproom, Back From Extinction, on June 21 as part of their CurioCity Series.