Thoughts on the Wicked Weed Acquisition

This morning, we received an email from Walt Dickinson, of Wicked Weed Brewing Company, a few minutes before the news appeared publicly, informing us of the big news. When we checked online, our social media feed was flooded with posts about Wicked Weed and ABInBev. Personally, Sarah and I were shocked to learn of ABInBev's acquisition of Wicked Weed, and we still are.

We consider Walt and the rest of the Wicked Weed crew to be friends and we are happy for them and honestly wish them the best.

However, at Black Project, we have deep and serious issues with many of ABInBev's business strategies, mission, and overall ethics as they relate to craft beer in America. In Denver alone, we've seen several instances of highly aggressive, predatory, and what we consider to be unethical practices. We truly believe that ABInBev intends to systematically destroy American craft beer as we know it. We don't personally buy, seek, trade, or acquire any of their products for this reason, and we've been known to encourage our friends to do the same.

As some of you may know, and something many people have asked us about today, we have two collaboration beers with Wicked Weed currently in-progress; one beer at our facility and one at theirs. We also had plans, and were looking forward to attending, the Wicked Weed Funkatorium Invitational this July. We had a decision to make - to continue a business relationship with Wicked Weed now that they will be owned by ABInBev, or to cut ties and hopefully remain friends.

For us, the choice is clear. At this stage, we don't feel we are able to have a business relationship with Wicked Weed because that connection, ultimately, is one with ABInBev. Unfortunately, we don’t feel that having any connection with ABInBev is something we can do while still maintaining our mission, values, and core beliefs.

What this means is that we will not be able to lend our name to the unfinished collaboration beer currently aging in Asheville, NC. Additionally, the beer we brewed with Wicked Weed here at Black Project will be blended with other existing aged beer we have on hand to make something totally different which we will not consider a Wicked Weed collaboration. Finally, we will not be attending the Wicked Weed Funkatorium Invitational in July.

We wish the best to everyone at Wicked Weed and we are happy for their success. We know they will continue to make great beers and we hope to remain personal friends in the future.


James Howat and Sarah Howat
Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales

Black Project Expands Oak Cellar

Meet the newest addition to the Black Project oak cellar. This is 'Stella'. She is a baby foeder and is only 11hL (~9.4bbl / 290gal), made of Slovenian Oak.

In a past life she lived in Montepulcaino, Italy where she aged Nobile di Montepulcaino, a wine made primarily from Sangiovese grapes.

Now we are rinsing and steaming her to make sure she produces a neutral flavor and is sanitized of any pre-existing yeast or bacteria.

Tomorrow we will brew a batch (actually 2) of BLACKBIRD.. A wort that is turbid mashed with 60% Pils / 40% raw wheat, boiled for 3+hrs with aged hops, and then cooled and inoculated via coolship (brewed in accordance with the traditional Belgian methods).

Stella will be filled on Thursday morning, directly from the coolship, and 100% spontaneous fermentation will take place in the following days. Finally, the beer will be allowed to continue fermenting and developing for 1-3+ years before being blended into a final product.

Black Project

The Secret is Out

For quite a while now, we’ve been working on different ways to get small quantities of beer to Black Project fans in different markets across the United States. Most of the time, when we attend a beer festival or conference, we just ship beer in advance or bring it with us as cargo. Unfortunately, that is not as easy as it used to be, when we were relatively unknown. We have also added even more beer festivals this year.

Last year, at BeerAdvocate’s “The Return of Belgian Beer Fest” (now called “Wood and Beer Festival”) we were briefly introduced - via a mutual acquaintance at Mystic Brewing - to Annecca at Shelton Brothers Importers. After pouring her some of our beers and getting to know each other, we began a dialogue regarding distribution. Fast forward a few months later to January - after several emails - and we are excited to announce that we have been invited to join the Shelton Brothers portfolio!

Shelton Brothers Logo

For us, this was an easy decision to make. Shelton Brothers is predominantly an importer of many traditional beers from Europe, however they also work with a small group of traditional and quality-minded brewers that are based in U.S. They’re a company that appreciates unique and well-crafted beers and they have a distribution network in place across most of the country that also values and understands these types of beers.

By partnering with Shelton Brothers, we will be able to distribute beer to the areas we are traveling to. We will ship the beer needed for the festival and supporting events, and also a bit extra for limited retail distribution in the area at the same time. This makes the most sense for us as it allows us to be able to easily get beer across state lines to various festivals, plus we will finally be able to tell people that we meet at these festivals where they can get a bottle of our beer.

Black Project will not be available across the entire Shelton network for now, we simply don’t make enough beer to do that. Instead, we will be working with them and their local distributors to deliver small amounts of our products to select markets on a limited basis. This does not change our local distribution.

I want to make a brief note for our local customers: We know that we owe much of our growth and success to your support. We are very much a local company, right down to the yeast used to brew our beers!

Please also know that this will not affect the amount of Black Project beer available locally. As more of our barrel cellar expansion comes on line and more beer available, you will always come first. Despite increasing turnouts for our bottle releases, we have and will continue to work to increase bottle allotments. We are still self-distributing in Colorado and we soon hope to be able to make more frequent deliveries to our favorite retail accounts. We are working hard at keeping the tasting room supplied with a wide selection of unique draft beers, including a new and ever-changing selection of bottles from our cellar for on-site consumption.

We are sincerely overjoyed to be a part of the Shelton family of breweries and absolutely cannot wait to be able to share our beers with everyone out there who enjoys them. We will announce specific areas where we will be sending beer soon. In the meantime, check the calendar (under “affairs”) on our website to see our current festival and travel plans as many of those locations will see some distribution around the time of our arrival.

Thank you,
James & Sarah Howat

Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
Innovation in the research and development of spontaneous fermentation

Time does not respect that which is done without him...

In a room in Brussels, scrawled on sign overlooking rows and rows of lambic barrels, there is a barrel head with a phrase that you may have heard: 

"Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui"

Approximately translated as: "Time does not respect that which is done without him"

It is a phrase that wraps an idea, a method, and a desire into one. This mantra from Cantillon is something we have believed in from the beginning, and it's something that means even more now. 

We are a small operation that produces about 120 gallons at a time with our largest batch we've brewed to date only being 4 barrels, that's roughly 7x 15.5 gallon kegs. Not only do we brew small, but our space is limited, 2800 square feet and nearly 50% of that is tasting room. This has left us with limited places to put barrels, or bottles, or raw materials. People ask us why we don't have more beer on tap, and despite our spacial limitations and brewing capacity, the answer has nothing to do with our space. It is TIME.

We do not believe in shortcuts. In fact, as our neighbors and friends at Law's Whiskey House say, "THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS".

Each of our beers (with very few exceptions) take eight months on average, even in stainless. Starting with 100% coolship-caught microbes, we collect yeast from the barrel and then directly transfer it to what we call "steel foeders". In these vessels, we allow them to act as soleras: each time we pull beer from the vessel, we fill it back up with fresh wort without the addition of more yeast but instead, allowing the original yeast to convert the sugar from the newly added wort. This allows the beer to flow and evolve between each pull, creating depth and complexity. For the beers that aren't aged for months, we have carefully foraged and grown the yeast that is used. HYPERSONIC, our New England-style IPA, is brewed with a strain of yeast that we found on the skin of a wild apple in our neighborhood. It was selected specifically to brew citrusy IPAs because of it's white wine-like character. Even this process requires a significant amount time.

The OXCART release last month and the CYGNUS release coming up this weekend will be two of our largest releases to date with about 60 cases total between the two beers. It has been three years in the making.

Three years of brewing, three years of aging, three years of tasting, and three years of blending and dumping barrels.

In July we were offered the opportunity to expand our space into the antique store adjacent to us. This was a Godsend. We had been considering how and where to expand, with opportunities offered on the Western Slope and Virginia. As soon as the expansion was offered and finalized, we opened up the wall between the two and began building a barrel cellar. Soon after, we had 100 oak barrels delivered from Rocky Mountain Barrel Company, and just a few weeks ago we received a custom-built 10-barrel copper coolship. As of this writing, the barrels are in place and set to be filled, the window above the coolship has been installed, and the coolship has been tested. Over the next few weeks we'll be filling every single barrel with coolshipped beer, finally working toward larger batches, along with some bottle availability in the tasting room.  

We hope this helps people understand that while we want to release more beer (and are currently making a lot more that will be ready in time), at this stage it is a game of patience. It's important to us to respect our product enough to give it time. Time limits us, but we also believe in it's power to transform. Time does not respect that which is done without him.  Time can't be forced. It creates a product that can't be forced. It creates something spontaneous. We will remember this mantra while working among the barrels this winter. 

See you soon,
Sarah Howat
Founder | Operations

Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
Innovation in the research and development of spontaneous fermentation

Thoughts on Rules, Tradition, and Experimentation

As a maker of spontaneous ales, I often get asked/find myself in conversations about traditional processes that other spontaneous ale producers use.

Typically we're talking about Belgian Lambic/Gueuze producers and the fairly rigid, hundred-plus-years-old traditions, processes, and specifications that producers of authentic example of these styles are using / must use in order to make a beer "to style" and call it Lambic (or Gueuze, or Kriek). We'll ignore the fact that a large percentage of producers of beer called by these names is made without following many or even any of these traditional processes, which is frankly none of my business. 

There is zero doubt that these Belgian examples of spontaneous fermentation (the only ones available until U.S. brewers started experimenting fairly recently) are a big influence on why we do coolship-inoculated spontaneous fermentation. As I always say I think that this method of fermentation creates a complexity that absolutely cannot be rivaled with mixed cultures from a lab or otherwise. 

In fact, one of my single favorite beer styles is Lambic. I was recently asked in I Love Colorado Beer lightning-round interview to name my favorite beer and the first thing that came out of my mouth was Tilquin Gueuze (Gueuze Tilquin À L’Ancienne). It is really an exquisite beer, as are many examples of traditionally produced Lambic.

Back on topic, though - people often ask if Black Project follows the Belgian Lambic "laws". Do we use a certain percentage of unmalted wheat? Are we using a turbid mash? Is our coolship made to certain dimensions? Is all of our beer aged for a certain length of time? Is our beer blended from different vintages? Do we age our bottles for X amount of time?

The answer is frequently: "No."

At Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales we don't make Lambic. We don't make Gueuze, or Kriek, or whatever else kind of beer has to follow someone else's rules. Some purists are freaking out right now probably - but let me explain something about these traditions...

The traditional production processes in Belgium make some really excellent beer. There is no doubt in my mind about that (see paragraph 3 & 4). I have no doubt that if we followed these traditional 'rules' to the letter we might also make some really good beer that I would be proud enough to put the Black Project label on. Heck, there is a good chance that someday we might do exactly that (although being made in Colorado I still wouldn't feel right about calling it Lambic as geography is one rule we can't follow!). 

What some may not realize is the history of these traditions and rules. Yes they can be followed to make good beer - but what's the point of a turbid mash? Yes it gives lots of complex starches for long fermentations with Brettanomyces... but there are many simpler ways to accomplish that. The actual answer is that in the 1800s Belgian brewers were taxed based on mash tun size, meaning a small mash tun was important. Lambic producers were also very much using whatever ingredients that they could get inexpensively (like unmalted wheat and aged hops). These conditions come together and you end up with a crazy mash regime and a 4 hour kettle boil and 3 years of aging. The end result is awesome, but the origin of the processes isn't based in science. 

Another example: I was recently informed that technically a coolship/koelschip used to make spontaneous ales in Belgium must be a certain depth range, no matter what the volume is. I am a huge advocate that cooling rate and surface area are critical to great spontaneous inoculations in a coolship, but specifying a depth without a volume is useless. Cooling rate is not determined by depth, it is determined by (among other things, like vessel construction and material choice) the surface area to volume ratio of the coolship vessel. Surface area to volume ratio isn't linear.... Specifying only a depth means that a smaller brewhouse will have a significantly faster cooling rate than some of the bigger brewhouses in Europe. It is a rule that tries to establish cooling rate, but unfortunately it isn't really effective if you look at the science involved. 

Our 120gal coolship isn't traditional, at all. Depending on batch size, we don't meet the traditional "Belgian rules" for wort depth. However, we've done extensive research and experimentation and settled on this system. It allows us to closely match the cooling rates and surface area to volume ratios of successful spontaneous ale producers around the world. We feel those factors are key to getting great inoculations.

We study traditional techniques and processes in order to learn from them and create our own techniques. We take what works best for us, what is best for the fermentation and, in turn, the flavor. We aren't trying to make Lambic, despite our steadfast stance on using only spontaneous / wild microbes. I am personally obsessed with experimentation and exploration in the area of spontaneous fermentation- there really is no other logical reason for the madness of opening a brewery that only makes beer using microbes from the air. 

Our goal is to simply make the very best tasting beer we can. Beer that is both subtle and complex; delicious and unique. Beer with a sense of place, a fermentation character that is constantly evolving and that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Our name alludes to secret government projects, but especially those that push the envelope, those that take research and development beyond tradition to make something amazing. That's an ethos that we humbly strive towards with how we do spontaneous fermentations. 

Thanks for listening,
James Howat
Founder | Brewer | Blender  

Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
Innovation in the research and development of spontaneous fermentation

Spontaneous vs. Wild

At Black Project, all of our releases fall into one of two categories. Every beer will say either "spontaneous" or "wild" on the label. Our perspective on what these terms mean may be a bit different than other breweries, so I decided to make a post sharing what we intend with each term. 

"What is a spontaneous ale?"

At Black Project, spontaneous ales are beers made without adding any cultured yeast or other microbes whatsoever. The entire fermentation happens because we expose the beer to small numbers of wild microbes from the air in our coolship (or potentially from, say, fruit skins).

These first cells eventually multiply and the many different species represented ferment the wort into beer that has incredible complexity and flavor. These beers are typically tart to sour with moderate level of funkiness and fruit. However, because we have very little control over the organisms making these beers, their characteristics can potentially very over a wide range.

There is considerable risk in making these types of beer. A percentage of the beers will not develop favorably, or not develop at all - and have to be dumped. They also take a minimum of several months to mature, often times a year or more. Finally, because of the unknown nature of the fermentation organisms - spontaneous ales that we release can never really be repeated. Luckily, with our spontaneous beers, repeatability isn't one of our goals - we like to let nature take its course. 


"What is a wild ale?"

Many brewers, journalists, and craft beer enthusiasts use the term "wild ale" to describe any beer made with Brettanomyces. Almost always, when a brewery uses the term wild, they are talking about a beer made with Brettanomyces that they have purchased from a lab. The strains they use are essentially available to anyone with a Mastercard, typically a strain isolated from Belgian beer. There are 5-10 of these strains currently on the market.

We DON'T use any commercially available Brettanomyces (or any other type of yeast or bacteria that is commercially available) in any of our beerThere isn't anything wrong with these strains, necessarily. However, we feel the diversity of our local microflora is superior in many ways, not the least of which is that all of our wild strains were "caught" by us personally. 

When we use the term "wild" it means that the beer was made using cultured (grown) wild yeast and/or bacteria from our local environment. We may grown these microbes in another beer/barrel (aka inoculation via blending) or we may isolate wild microbes and grown them as pure cultures to use alone or, much more typically, in a blend with other strains. 

Wild ales will vary much less batch-to-batch than spontaneous ales, and will also be able to be released on a much more consistent schedule. This means that our wild releases will be much less limited than our spontaneous ales. In 2015 we intend to release at least one wild ale that will be available year round. 

Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
Innovation in the research and development of spontaneous fermentation