Sarah, who was born and raised in Colorado Springs, got a degree in marketing at Metropolitan State University in Denver and wanted to open her own business. She met James — a Chicago-native and graduate of Colorado State University — at a nightclub, and the two got married. James, who holds a degree in microbiology and natural sciences education, taught high school science and homebrewed in his free time.
“We fell in love with beer together,” Sarah says. “I think the first time we tasted New Belgium’s La Folie, we knew we wanted to open a brewery.”
After five years as a teacher, James quit his job, and Sarah abandoned the last year of her graduate counseling program so that the two could open a brewery. In July 2013, James and Sarah signed the lease on a space that became Former Future, a neighborhood taproom known for its “clean” beer — mostly light, refreshing, single-strain lagers. At the same time, they started aging sour beer in barrels. This was an investment in the future: unlike IPAs or porters, which take only a few weeks to brew, barrel-aged sours need anywhere from several months to several years to mature.
In 2014, their golden ale, Flyby, won a medal in the Wild Ale category at the Great American Beer Festival; in 2015, they won a second medal in the same category for a dark sour aged on cherries called Ramjet.
“For me, it was probably after the second medal that I thought we should start dedicating everything to Black Project,” James says. Former Future faded; Black Project took off.
At the time, it may have been a harrowing decision to put all of their energy into a side project, though now it seems like the right move. With the recent explosion of breweries across the country, it’s hard for breweries to stay competitive. This is especially true in Denver, where breweries combine to make over 200 unique beers every day. As a result, many breweries in Denver specialize: aptly named Grandma’s House on Broadway is “styled to look like your grandma’s house,” and Ratio Beerworks, founded by two punk musicians, hosts live concerts on their brewing floor. Beryl’s Beer Company barrel ages many of their small batch creations and Black Shirt focuses almost exclusively on red ales.
Black Project belongs to a small minority of American brewers specializing in spontaneous wild ales, which means that they don’t ferment their beer with packaged yeasts, or even cultured yeasts, but with wild bacteria and yeasts floating through the air. This is the primary way in which the process for making spontaneous beers differs from that of other styles. After making wort — unfermented beer — more typical brewers cool their beer in a sterile environment and add packaged or cultured yeast strains, which ferment the beer. Contrariwise, brewers of spontaneous ales pump the wort into open-air steel containers called koelschips, where it sits overnight, becoming “infected” with floating bacteria and yeast. Because brewers simply leave their koelschips open to the elements, they don’t know what type of microbes they’ll attract.
“Any place is going to have its own uniqueness,” James says, equating spontaneous beer to the wine concept of terroir, in which the same grapes grown perhaps a few hundred feet apart might have different characteristics. The microbes floating in the air around a brewery in Belgium might impart grassy or barnyard notes, while the ones above the Black Project brewery in Denver tend to bestow the final product with stone fruit flavors like peach and apricot. Other American breweries working with spontaneous ales include Allagash in Portland, Maine, Jester King in Austin, Texas, Russian River in Sonoma, California, and Crooked Stave, just up the road from Black Project in Denver. Smaller breweries that only produce spontaneously fermented sour beer form an even more exclusive club, members of which include De Garde in Tillamook, Oregon, OEC in Oxford, Connecticut, and The Ale Apothecary in Bend, Oregon.
The labor- and time-intensive processes required to make spontaneously fermented beer means that in three years, Black Project has only put out about 200 barrels. By contrast, Boston Beer Co. — which brews Sam Adams — shipped nearly double that number of barrels in the first quarter of 2016, on average, every hour.
“We dump almost twenty percent of all the beer that we brew,” James says. “If you’re not willing to do that, you won’t make good beer.”