Beer as a Vessel for Community Transformation
A Conversation with Imagine Nation Brewing Company
by John Nelson
On a mid-February Sunday, following the recent cold front that swept the nation, I made my way into Imagine Nation Brewing Company (INBC) near downtown Missoula, Montana, for an arranged interview with the brewery owners. Driving down Broadway Street, the brewery will turn any head with their all-blue building, plastered with colored portrait outlines of influencers like Frida Kahlo, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Even with piles of snow scattered around the building and near-freezing temperatures, it was easy, and albeit, satisfying, to picture a post-Covid era where this building is bustling with thirsty patrons, busy food trucks, and patio-seekers embracing some sunshine at the brewery, next to the Clark Fork River.
The same social justice messaging found on the outside of the building immediately translates to the interior upon walking into the taproom: The artwork dedicated to influencers continues, shelves of books line parts of the north and east facing walls, ambient light radiates through windows, and the shell of a wooden canoe dangles from the ceiling (perhaps a nod to Montanan outdoor recreation culture, amid the encompassing culturally diverse décor).
What was also instantly noticeable was that the taproom (due to self-implementing Covid protocols) is less of a gathering place these days, and more of a beer ‘pickup station’ and production overflow area, with trays of empty cans waiting to be filled and bags of malt waiting to be steeped. As I snuck around the corner, I could hear the sound of brewing liquor (water) heating up, and I was greeted by Robert Rivers, a cofounder at INBC. Robert, attired slick looking INBC logoed coveralls with blue brewer’s boots. Behind his N95 mask I was greeted with squinty eyes (today’s assurance that someone is smiling back at you).
While we started introductions, his wife, Fernanda Menna Barreto Krum, the other cofounder at INBC, walked through the door shortly after. Fernanda too greeted me with a friendly warm welcome, and we didn’t waste time getting set up for an interview, while Robert headed back into the brewery to continue working on the day’s tasks.
Though I interviewed Robert right after speaking with Fernanda, I’ve mixed in quotations from that conversation below to build a more complete and fluid story. Fernanda and I jumped right into her and Robert’s story and the past experiences they’ve had which have directly shaped this brewery.
Fernanda Menna Barreto Krum (FMBK): “My husband and I met abroad doing humanitarian aid work. I am a Trauma Psychologist, and Robert is a Peace Building Specialist. We met through a NGO (non-government organization), working primarily in war zones.”
After initially meeting, the two found themselves working roles where they were often apart, employed in different countries, but also occasionally working together again. Later establishing a relationship in the years that followed, they began to introduce each other to their families and the cultures they were brought up in.
FMBK: “We’d visit family where Robert is from in Helena, Montana, visit my family in Brazil, and travel, drinking beer and enjoying learning about new cultures.”
During their time working in these war zones, the two lived with a variety of people from varying cultural backgrounds, for long periods of time. In working in these highly stressful and emotionally charged environments, Fernanda and Robert developed a crucial understanding of the importance of working with diverse teams to achieve a common goal.
Before too long, the couple began seriously considering their post-humanitarian work life. With their passion for psychology and working with people, naturally the two shared an interest in opening a retreat center where they could further build upon and share their unique past experiences. However, they realized the financial instabilities of a retreat center would likely be extremely difficult to overcome. And so the brainstorming continued.
FMBK: “We were in Brazil, in this beautiful, touristy mountain town, having a beer and talking. We thought; ‘if we have a for-profit business, we can fund a community center with the profits from the business.’ And I thought, ‘this could work.” And with a beer in hand, Robert said ‘How about a microbrewery?’”
After this definitional ‘lightbulb moment’, Fernanda and Robert could not escape the idea of opening a brewery to achieve their overarching goal of bettering a local community. They were instantly drawn to the social appeal, or the public gathering status that microbreweries so often hold, and in fact wanted to take this social status a step further with a dedicated ‘Center for Community Transformation’. But they recognized their naivety in running a business, especially in an industry where they had no experience.
Robert Rivers (RR): “It was absolutely the cart before the horse; thinking we wanted to create an educational or retreat center, but we needed a way to fund it. And so we thought that this (beer) would be the most communal way of producing a product that then the money (profits) could be used to fund the educational center. So it wasn’t until we had the epiphany until we said: ‘Well, now we need to learn how to make beer.’”
With straightforward regulations on opening a brewery, they turned their eyes to Montana, and in 2012 the couple made a permanent move to, or back to (for Robert) the Treasure State. Even before the move though, the full-blown research phase had begun: Robert was delving deep into learning all things beer, and Fernanda focused her attention on the business aspect of running a brewery.
With non-profits aplenty, and a special community feel, Fernanda and Robert focused-in on Missoula, a cozy little college town in the western part of the state. INBC broke ground on construction and renovation for the brewery in 2014. Throughout the planning, construction and renovation phase, Robert and Fernanda were actively seeking input from all corners of the Missoula community.
FMBK: “The focus always was that we want the brewery to be serving the community. So we met with a lot of non-profit leaders, religious leaders, city council, neighborhood associations, etc. This approach came from our experiences of working in war zones.”
Learning to Brew
Before construction and renovation took place, the books and readings continued to pile up for both Robert and Fernanda, as well as testing out various homebrewing experiments. Production brewing is a different animal though, and it’s crucial to learn best practices in order to make consistent quality beer. Regarding their ‘dive’ into commercial brewing, Robert said:
RR: “We jumped off the deep end with no floaties on our arms.”
And so the couple also executed the equally important task of reaching out to industry professionals for guidance. The two credit their successes to Brad Simshaw and Brian Smith, who are industry veterans and co-owners of Blackfoot River Brewery, just down the road in Helena (where Robert is from). Robert also took a three week Malting and Brewing Science course at the University of Wisconsin, where he met mentor and friend Tim Lozen of Bells Brewery. Brad, Brian, and Tim played instrumental roles in helping Robert and Fernanda understand the ins and outs of a brewery operating as a business, as well as learning how to make excellent quality beer.
In terms of developing an appreciation for beer, I openly envied Fernanda and Robert for the world-class beers they have tried throughout their careers, working and traveling around the world: I received an excited and very ‘brewer-like answer’ from Robert when asked about favorite styles.
RR: “We were so lucky when we got to do international work, we got to travel through a lot of the big hubs in Europe. To be honest, I think if I did one thing well before opening this brewery, it’s that I developed a palate for beer: I went to Prague and had Pilsner Urquell on tap, and I was like ‘okay, this is what a Bohemian Pilsner should taste like. Or you go to Dublin and have Guinness at the brewery (and think) ‘this is what an Irish Stout should taste like’. Or beers off firkins in England. Or to have the Westvleteren 12 (a Trappist ale) at the monastery; it really is a religious experience to see the monks brewing.”
The Center for Community Transformation and INBC Values
Both Fernanda and Robert share an obvious passion for quality beer, but it goes without saying that the community is their true focus. After all, the Center for Community Transformation (CCT) was a morphed take on their original idea of opening an educational or retreat center.
While the taproom encompasses vibrant colors, unique artwork, and positive social messaging, the CCT (a room adjacent to the taproom) offers a different ambience: A gigantic chalkboard occupies the east-facing wall, and forest green walls with wood paneling make up the remainder.
The blank walls and chalkboard are quite symbolic of a blank slate, an area for ideas to flow, and that is exactly what happens in this space: INBC prides themselves on the thousands of community events that have taken place in this room in a relatively short period of time.
Fernanda mentioned that the space has been used for all sorts of presentations, meetings, board meetings, workshops, and even baby showers. When discussing the ‘socially lubricating’ effect that beer has on making people comfortable, I asked how this has shaped events held in the CCT, and she responded with a specific example:
FMBK: “One (University of Missoula) professor for a PHD program would invite students to (bonus) classes (in the CCT), with an outside speaker to discuss class topics (dubbing these ‘chalk talks’). He said that the students were 90% more engaged doing it here, than hosting these presentations at the school (UM campus). It became something that everyone was looking forward to doing, and the conversations and discussions were amazing. People would stay after, get another beer, mingle, and continue that conversation, which may have been briefer if it were held at the university.”
For non-profits wishing to utilize the space for fundraising, Fernanda goes a step further in ensuring that an educational component goes hand in hand with raising money for these organizations. She personally works with each group to understand their mission and goals, and then establishes unique methods and activities for their events, to maximize community education of the specific non-profit, while in turn raising money for these crucial institutions.
In addition to these highly successful CCT events, the engagement also pours (pun intended) into the taproom. Fernanda mentioned that since its opening, INBC has hosted several ‘Taproom Dialogues’ where presenters discuss topics like conflict resolution, climate change, fake news, child trafficking, healthcare, and more. The brewery even aired multiple 2016 presidential debates, and followed them with public discussions. Discussing their ‘Taproom Dialogues’, Fernanda said:
FMBK: “The taproom is full of people, and everyone is quiet, sipping their beers, and engaged in the presenters. There’s always a moderator and two or three presenters, and then we open to the public for dialogue. People are polite almost 100% of the time and know how to behave. That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions in the dialogue that are tense, but everyone is still listening and respecting the space. We also provide ground rules beforehand, which are posted on the tables; that comes from our experience of doing dialogues and conflict resolution in the past.”
As the interviews continued, we transitioned from their story and the structure of INBC to deeper industry issues of importance to Robert and Fernanda.
RR: “There is a side to the craft brewing industry that is extremely toxic. For me the one thing that I find really destructive in craft beer is how ‘frat-y’ and ‘bro-y’ the energy can be. And I think that the extreme of that, which I can see in a lot of the industry, is misogyny.”
Misogyny, having been baked into our society since its beginning, indeed leaked into the craft brewing industry at an early age. ‘Bro culture’ and the likes undoubtedly still persist as an obstacle moving forward (Read more about it in our recent article). But when asked if Robert expects to see industry change he provided an optimistic answer:
RR: “Absolutely. In fact, when I see people in the industry engaging in oppressive behavior they kind of look like dinosaurs. Whereas 15 years ago, honestly it was kind of a common thread through the beer industry. It was almost like the motto was ‘have a beer, let’s put down women’. I mean, it was almost ubiquitous, and now I think that you see it really weaning away, and I hope that that is partially because you see more breweries owned by People of Color, or women-owned, and LGBT-owned and focused breweries. I think that there are different voices getting into the industry and I am so excited about that.”
In mentioning INBC’s methods for promoting diversity in the industry, Robert stated that five of their last beer labels had all been designed to celebrate women. And Fernanda mentioned their hiring of a female brewer (which unsurprisingly are few and far between), and her dream of someday hiring refugee workers. But in addressing the broader point of why promoting diversity is so crucial, Robert had an enlightening response:
RR: “Part of it is working against that energy that has been destructive or oppressive, or promotes oppression for different groups of society. But I think there’s another side to it, where without interfacing with the so-called ‘other’, we never soften our own edges. And I don’t think we really understand who we are as human beings. If we live in echo chambers, where we’re only surrounded by people who look like us, think like us, talk like us, we never actually understand the complexities of humanity, or of the world. So I think that until we’ve actually heard the voices of the marginalized and the oppressed, that we can really understand the dynamics in the world.”
While prefacing with the racial and economic injustices we saw throughout 2020, I then asked Robert where he finds optimism. He detailed an incredible experience he had in October this past year, where, because of his past experiences in working in conflict resolution, he was invited to train security specialists for the Minneapolis public school district, following the murder of George Floyd. This new program the school district was implementing wanted to approach school security differently than the conventional methods set out by the Minneapolis police department. There to train a team of Security Specialists, Robert was also able and fortunate to attend the George Floyd Memorial.
RR: “Honestly I would say that visiting the George Floyd Memorial was the most hopeful thing that I did all of last year: Going there, they had the names of everybody who was killed by police officers in the last 10 years on the street leading up to it, and it was an entire block of names. So you walked reading all of these names of human beings whose lives have been taken by law enforcement in our society. They had an outline of where he (George) died, and they had the outline of his body with some angel wings painted on. Everything in that entire block was about healing; it wasn’t angry, it wasn’t hateful. Everything there was healing. Although it’s tragic, I’ve never seen a more positive sense of beauty, reconciliation, and healing intermixed with that tragedy. So where do I find hope? I find hope that somehow, someway, the folks that are marginalized and have been put down for hundreds, and hundreds of years are still bringing a voice of change, of love, of healing, and of what we can be together.”
During Times of Covid: Community-focused, Community-backed
Lastly, I wanted to develop a sense of how INBC weathered the Covid storm this past year. Compared to several parts of Montana, many businesses in the Missoula area, including INBC, approached the pandemic quite cautiously, causing an abrupt halt and a significant altering of operations.
Because of their reason for existence (a focus on bettering the community), appreciative Missoula residents and businesses were incredibly supportive of them during this time. Fernanda and Robert approached these tough economic times by seeking out new revenue streams and through available loans.
One such profit boost came from Coaster Cycles in nearby Bonner, Montana, who approached INBC because of an appreciation for their business model. Coaster Cycles received a contract to build face shields during the pandemic, and as demand grew, recruited INBC as they needed help making more.
Fernanda expressed her gratitude in being able to directly impact the pandemic, as well as hire close to 40 Missoula workers in need of work during this difficult time. Turning the whole taproom into a production area, INBC made 350,000 face shields for two months of the pandemic.
In regards to beer production, just as Covid brought complete disruption to every brewery, INBC faced an inevitable switch from primarily taproom sales, to solely can sales. As a man that wears many hats, Robert is also the artist behind their unique and eccentric can labels. In staying true to their core values, Robert views them as more than just advertising.
RR: “We knew when Covid started that the labels were going to be one of the only ways to carry the messaging of our brewery.”
Because of sales on the specialty beer app, Tavour, INBC now pushes this social justice messaging (and fantastic beers) to various parts of the country. They also have increased personal deliveries to nearby areas, and of course continue with taproom ‘to go’ sales to their loyal Missoula patrons.
As Covid caused activities and events at the CCT to screech to an unfortunate halt, both Robert and Fernanda, and surely the Missoula community, anxiously await the days where they can safely welcome back the community they know and love. Until then, their mission moves on as INBC continues to work toward lasting community and industry transformation.
Top: Imagine Nation can labels.
Middle: Robert and Fernanda posing for a photo booth setup inside the CCT at the first Arab Dinner night the brewery hosted featuring cuisine from Kamoon Arabian Cuisine (a popular food truck often seen parked outside INBC).
Bottom: The INBC team is awarded the ‘Peace Award’ in 2019 from the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center.
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Facebook: Imagine Nation Brewing
Photo source: https://alternativemissoula.com/make-15-per-hour-making-medical-masks/