Aggressively Approachable: Crafting a Signature Line of New England-Style IPAs at Imagine Nation

Haze is in.  Once perceived as a flaw, ultra-cloudy IPAs are taking the nation by storm.  With a catchy name and a dedication to the craft, one Missoula, Montana brewery is turning them into a signature line of beers on par with the finest in the country.

Say hello to Lupujūs, Imagine Nation Brewing Company’s explosion of hop aroma and flavor.

Lupujūs is not so much a beer as a series of hop experiments, each seeking to create a beer with an unmistakable juiciness to it, known as a New England (or Northeast) style IPA.

“The New England-style takes the hops and uses them in a more evolutionary way that pulls out this juice like quality,” explains Robert Rivers, Imagine Nation’s brewer and co-owner with wife Fernanda Menna Barreto Krum. “It is more than just having it be floral or citrusy, or resinous.  All of a sudden you’re getting this flavor from the hops that really does taste like juice.”

Aggressively Approachable

Rivers describes Imagine Nation’s Lupujūs series as “aggressively approachable.” This oddly counter-intuitive description is not lost on Rivers. “It’s crazy, isn’t it,” he notes. “The beer that I put more hops into than any other beer also attracts more people from across the beer spectrum than any other beer on tap.  It’s something that five years ago I don’t think anybody in the country would have said this is going to be the future of craft beer.  But the fact that a massively hopped IPA could be a gateway beer into craft beer is not only counter-intuitive, it’s remarkable.”

Lupujūs 8 at Imagine Nation Brewing Co.

It is also much more than adding additional citrus flavor to a standard IPA. “These beers have a softer mouth-feel and you treat the water in a way so it feels like juice,” says Rivers.  “It has a thicker mouthfeel and that’s on purpose.  It is meant to be hazy. It is meant to feel like juice, it’s meant to look like juice, it’s meant to smell like juice. And it ultimately is meant to taste like juice when it is fresh.  And the beauty of it is you’re not throwing fruit into the kettle or part of the fermentation. It’s all from hops.”

To name the series, Imagine Nation borrows from the Trappist tradition where the number in the name of the beer, like a Rochefort 10, roughly corresponds to the amount of alcohol.  Thus, Lupujūs 5 is Imagine Nation’s session IPA at around 5 % alcohol by volume. Lupujūs 6 is a Northeast strong pale ale at 6%, the Lupujūs 7 is an IPA and the Lupujūs 8 is a double IPA.  All are created based on the same family of New England-style IPAs that Rivers has been perfecting.

The hops change from batch to batch, but always include those with big tropical fruit and citrus flavors and aroma – hops like Citra, Mosaic, Eldorado, Azacca, Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin.  “Basically all the southern hemisphere hops that nobody has access to, those are the great ones,” Rivers says with a laugh.

Building on a Style

Call them New England-style, Northeast-style, murky, cloudy, or hazy, they generally trace their evolution back to Heady Topper, the unpasteurized and unfiltered creation of The Alchemist brewery in Vermont. Rivers remembers the first time he tried one.

“The thing that blew me away was when we poured it into a glass and it was like this radiating lemon drop,” says Rivers.  “The color was so beautiful and striking and my first thought was ‘did they put the wrong beer in this can?’ because I’d never seen a beer that looked this way. The color, the haziness, but I looked at it and thought this is actually kind of mesmerizing.  That translucent glow when the light is shining through it.  I thought, this is the next level of how to use hops.”

Robert Rivers, brewer and co-owner of Imagine Nation, enjoys one of his Lupujūs creations.

Rivers’ also drew inspiration from a brewery closer to home, Helena’s Blackfoot River Brewing Co. “Their Single-Malt IPA is the best beer in the state,” says Rivers.”It shows that what already works in this state are these incredibly balanced IPAs like Blackfoot makes with a massive amount of hop aroma and flavor without being abrasively bitter. There is a connection between that style and the New England-style.”

The balance Blackfoot created with its Single-Malt IPA was ahead of its time, shown by the broad transformation IPAs have undergone over the past few years from biting bitterness to a stronger focus on hop aroma and flavor.  The shift has attracted a broader range of beer drinkers, something Imagine Nation is experiencing with Lupujūs in a dramatic way.

“There are two specific demographics that are drawn to this style of beer,” explains Rivers.  “One is the hopheads and the huge beer lovers who love hop forward beers, love aroma and flavor and all those things of hops. And the other are people who don’t even like beer.”

In fact, in response to patrons who ask for the lightest beer on tap, Imagine Nation often takes the opportunity to introduce the New England-style IPA.  “Our staff will say, ‘have a sip of this, it’s called the Lupujūs,’ says Rivers. “And they’ll try it and say, ‘Oh! that tastes like juice, I would love a glass of that.’ And it’s not light at all. In fact, there is an incredible amount of malt in the beers to really beef up the malt backbone to hold the amount of hops that are in there because these beers are so aggressively hopped.”

Boatloads of Hops

How aggressively? Imagine Nation uses more than twice the amount of hops to brew a Lupujūs than used in their west coast style IPA, often using 12 to 14 pounds of hops for dry hopping in a seven bbl batch. Rivers dry hops the beers at multiple times during fermentation to let the yeast interact at different points in the process.

Not surprisingly, the large amount of hops needed to brew Imagine Nation’s Lupujūs beers comes with added expense. Yet, Rivers acknowledges the cost is necessary to produce these smooth, juicy beers bursting with hop aroma and flavor.

“If you think about money as the number one priority, you produce a more malt forward, bitter IPA, because it takes very few hops to get up to 70 ibus [international bitterness units] if you throw all your hops in at 60 minutes,” says Rivers, referring to the start of the boil when hops are traditionally added. “On a seven barrel system I can get a beer that has 70 ibus with probably 2 pounds of hops. But to create a 70 ibu IPA that is almost all flavor and aroma takes about 26 pounds of hops.”

Look fast. Lupujūs varieties tend to disappear quickly at Imagine Nation

“That’s extremely expensive. But I’ve had conversations with brewers around the world whom I respect. And every single one of them said make the beer that you love and the people will also love it.  This is the style that I love the most.  I love IPAs but I love maximizing hop flavor and aroma and love finding techniques to do that.”

Adding all those hops can also come with a certain extra challenge.  Rivers explains. “You’re dry hopping earlier, which can be frightening. As soon as you throw all the hops in, the CO2 starts to break out of the beer and it creates pressure in the tank and you have a very limited amount of time to get your cap back on and your tri-clamp secured to seal the tank so your pressure goes into your blow off bucket.

“I remember one time I slipped on the ladder and dropped a piece in the bucket, found it, got back up there and the pressure started to build and I literally had to climb on top of the tank and put all of my weight on the cap for 15 minutes until the pressure subsided so I could cap it.”

When he’s not perched on top of a fermenter, Rivers is working on new ways to build off the success of the Lupujūs series, using only the four basic ingredients of beer, water, malt, hops and yeast.

“I would not consider myself a puritanical brewer of the Reinheitsgebot [the German beer purity law],” notes Rivers. “But I think if you can find ways to manipulate the core ingredients to create these different kinds of profiles, I like that better than throwing whatever you can at the wall and seeing what sticks. So to be able to use hops in a way to pull out the most juicy nectar  is really kind of an extraordinary thing.”

Stacking Up

Beer geeks fawn over the darlings of the New England-style IPA, breweries like Massachusetts’ Trillium, and Vermont’s Fiddlehead and Hill Farmstead. Could a Montana brewery compete with the finest brewers of New England-style IPAs?

To find out, we turned to a blind taste test between Imagine Nation’s Lupujūs 8 and an 8% New England Style IPA from Tree House Brewing in Massachusetts.  Tree House is the kind of place people make pilgrimages to. Where the beer is so popular, can and growler sales are limited to specific hours and often run out before the line dissipates. In other words, about as tough a test as Lupujūs might face.

With furrowed brows, we dissected every aspect of the two beers over the course of a half an hour or so.

The result? The Tree House and Lupujūs had nearly identical color, mouthfeel, explosive hop aroma and massive smooth hop flavor.

Tree House won on appearance to style with a slightly murkier character. Lupujūs 8 won on overall juicy flavor, with Tree House receiving a couple of points deduction for a slight garlic/onion presence, which, we guessed, came from the use of Summit hops. Not a flaw, but just enough of a character to give the nod to Lupujūs.

Both beers were excellent and proved a lesson learned time and again. Phenomenal beer can often be found right in your back yard.

Beyond Beer

Rivers and Krum created Imagine Nation out of an unusual context. “Our background is in international humanitarian work,” Rivers says. “We worked for 12 years around the world in conflict zones.  Fernanda is a trauma psychologist, and I am a peace building specialist. So we worked in communities around the world affected by violence and war.  After being in the trenches of warfare for so long, I couldn’t keep doing it.”

Instead, Rivers began to wonder how he and Krum could keep giving back to the world, but do so in a way that is emotionally sustainable. “We were kicking around lots of ideas and we were in Brazil,” says Rivers. “We always wanted to do an education center, a retreat center, but you can’t fund a retreat center by itself.  I was looking around this bar of Brazilians doing what they do best, connecting with incredible warmth over beer, and I thought, ‘Beer, what if we could make great beer and use the money to fund an education center.’”

What Rivers and Krum created is Imagine Nation Brewing Company, the world’s first brewery to incorporate a community education center.  The center is meant to be a house of dialogue, learning, and understanding, providing a space for people from all walks of life to find common ground for inspiring social change locally, in Missoula, Montana, and beyond.

More than a brewery, Imagine Nation is a popular spot for community events.

Much more than a slogan, “Beyond Beer” is the brewery’s catch-all phrase for its mission. “People say ‘we love your beer’ but I’ll tell them that’s not the ultimate point,” Rivers says. “I’ll point up to the room here connected to the brewery and say what happens in that room is the point.  Being able to create a space where people can connect and feel the desire to make positive changes in society, that’s the point.”

Beer is the vehicle that helps Imagine Nation accomplish this mission though an experience shared by beer fans throughout Montana’s tap room culture. As Rivers notes, “beer is something that, it doesn’t matter your political persuasions, or social perspectives, everybody can gather around craft beer and, for the most part say, we all love beer, let’s take that conversation to the next level. The whole point of the educational space is to give people the space so people can take that conversation to the next level.”

Is it working? “I would say every time we have a taproom dialogue where we take on very controversial issues challenging to people, most recently on issues of race and identity in American, the tap room is elbow to elbow and completely silent and still with people paying attention to panelists and then people talking at their table together and connecting about the issues of our times,” says Rivers.

Some might call it idealistic, but Rivers and Krum believe it is important to promote healthy connections between people. “Every time we’ve tried to do that whether it is dialogues in the taproom, educational events in the center, art exhibits, poets coming in, those are the nights when we get the biggest influx of people coming into the taproom.”

“We don’t look at people as sources of money, we look at people as sources of social change.  Yes, you do need money to keep your doors open. We do need people to buy our beers. But I think if I made beer to make money, it wouldn’t be art, nor if I were to create events to make money they wouldn’t be meaningful. Strategically how we do that is a constantly evolving process that we’re trying to figure out.”

Rivers’ love for making beer is infectious, but it remains second to the broader mission of Imagine Nation. “I love being part of the process of fermentation, but we also try to say that beer is the most important of the least important things in the world,” he says.  “We can talk about beer, but let’s enjoy the beer and talk about something even more important. It is one of the great social connectors.”

When you go . . . .

You’ll find Imagine Nation Brewing Co. at 1151 W Broadway St, Missoula, MT, along the banks of the Clark Fork River.  The brewery typically has one version of Lupujūs on at any given time and it’s anyone’s guess which version that will be. It also rotates quickly, thanks to its popularity. Enjoy the patio overlooking the river during the warmer months and don’t pass up Imagine Nation’s other popular beers, like the Freedom Fighter IPA, Na Fianna ESB, Luminous Folly Oatmeal Stout, and Veiled Philosopher Double Black IPA. You’ll find more about Imagine Nation at its website and facebook page.

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2 thoughts on “Aggressively Approachable: Crafting a Signature Line of New England-Style IPAs at Imagine Nation

  1. Thanks again for an interesting read. Did I overlook the part where you tried the beer and gave your thoughts? Certainly seems that I would want to try it for a new experience.

  2. Pingback: Missoula Marathon Beer Run and Missoula Area Beer Guide | Growler Fills | Craft Beer Enthusiasm

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