Beer making involves a lot less addiction than music making, says Jeff Erway, the president at La Cumbre Brewing Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The jazz-guitar-player-turned-brewer tried his heart out to make it as a musician before he realized he wasn’t a junkie. “And I was never going to be a junkie,” he jokes. “I was never going to sit in a small apartment and play my instrument twelve hours a day. It wasn’t for me.”
Now, Erway labors in a 2,400-square-foot brewery on a 30-barrel brewhouse for hours on end instead. He and his wife, Laura, opened La Cumbre Brewing in 2010 after Erway’s homebrewing got the best of him. “I caught the bug. I brewed feverishly,” he says. “I dreamt for a long time about opening a brewery of my own. Luckily I had the foresight to realize I needed to work in a commercial brewery before I did that.”
So Erway attended the American Brewers Guild brewing program and then joined the brewing staff at Albuquerque’s Chama River Brewing Company before opening La Cumbre. All the while, he was focused on IPA. “My wife is a hophead, and because of that I’ve dedicated myself to really perfecting that style,” he says. “You know how they say you’re your own biggest critic? Well, my wife is my biggest beer critic.”
So what’s the result of fanatic homebrewing, professional beer school, and your own personal hophead beer critic who keeps you in check? It’s a honed-in house IPA that dominates its local market and takes home a gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival. La Cumbre’s Elevated IPA was one of the first-ever beers at the brewery, and it now comprises 60 percent of the beer that the brewery makes.
Elevated IPA starts with 10 percent wheat and 5 percent Bairds Carastan malt. The majority of its grain bill is Canada Malting’s Superior Pilsen malt, which Erway swears by. Elevated’s amber color comes from a small addition of Munich malt. Elevated is mashed in at 151°F (66°C) and hopped with seven different varieties of hops. “We blend so many hops in Elevated because of varietal shift,” Erway says. “If one of them moves around a bit, no one will notice the difference.”
That blend of hops creates Elevated IPA’s consistent aromatics and flavors, which is always the goal when brewing a flagship beer that’s a town staple. “Elevated’s hops aromas run the gamut from pine and grapefruit to stone fruits and raw earth, from dank and catty to floral and herbal,” says Erway. At 100 IBUs, the beer packs a punch of brazen floral, fruity hops. Although it finishes bone dry, Elevated has some malt to it, with light but present notes of biscuit and toast.
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Elevated IPA is fermented with what Erway calls the most ubiquitous yeast in the country: American ale yeast. Despite his use of a common yeast strain, he claims that one of the secrets to his IPA’s success is the low rate at which he pitches it. “We pitch 400 million cells per milliliter per degree Plato, or 40 percent of the recommended amount to pitch,” he explains. “We achieve a faster, healthier fermentation by pitching a little less yeast.”
On the sixth day after brewing, Elevated is dry hopped with equal parts Simcoe, Mosaic, Centennial, Nelson Sauvin, and South African J-17 hops, at 1.9 pounds of hops per barrel. After dry hopping for three days, the beer is transferred to a bright tank with silicic acid for fining, then carbonated and kegged. Whereas most brewers make an IPA in two weeks, Elevated is a 10- or 11-day beer, tops. “That’s how you want to serve your IPA,” Erway says. “As fresh as humanly possible.”
That freshness is a by-product not only of the beer’s shorter fermentations, but also of La Cumbre’s hankering for hops.
“When I first brewed Elevated in 2008, it was the biggest, hoppiest beer I thought I could make,” says Erway. At 100 IBUs, it was certainly one of the hoppiest beers that anyone in Albuquerque had ever tried. “Fast-forward three or four years and people say, ‘It’s really nice. Balanced,’” he jokes, explaining that much like his and Laura’s taste in IPAs, the American palate craves more and more hops each year.
Out of a love of hops, and Erway’s boredom with brewing the same beer every day, came Project Dank. It’s an ever-changing series of beers in which each beer focuses on different hops and hopping techniques. “It’s a blank slate for us every single time, an opportunity to use new, unique hops in experimental ways,” says Erway.
This beer series developed out of a relationship that he has with a local brewer who worked in South Africa. Erway’s access to South African hops not only provided a challenge for working with new hops flavors and aromas, but it also fueled his lifelong goal to create the perfect beer for his hop-headed better half.
On any given Project Dank beer, Erway uses eight pounds of hops per barrel. That’s double the hopping of a lot of double IPAs. “No bones about it, I’m trying to make a hops bomb,” he says.
Project Dank is not for the faint of heart—it’s not IPA for the masses either, Erway says. Those who drink it “want an experience. They want to take a taste and have their jaw drop to the floor.”
The ABCs of La Cumbre’s IPAs
La Cumbre is available on tap, in cans, and in bottles throughout the state of New Mexico. Through an arrangement with the Ska distribution company, it is also available in southwestern Colorado.
A 2011 GABF Gold Medal winner, Elevated has hops aromas that run the gamut from pine and grapefruit to stone fruits and raw earth, from dank and catty to floral and herbal. At 100 IBUs, the beer packs a punch of brazen floral, fruity hops. Although it finishes bone dry, Elevated has some malt to it, with light but present notes of biscuit and toast. Try your hand at brewing a batch with our recipe.
A 2013 GABF Bronze Medal winner and the 2014 National IPA Champion in Beer News’s National IPA competition, Project Dank is an ever-changing series of beers in which each beer focuses on different hops and hopping techniques.