While studying microbiology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the Chicago transplant started homebrewing. “Mostly I was interested in the science of it,” says Howat, now 30. “I wasn’t even that big of a beer drinker.”
After graduating in 2008, he got a job as a high-school science teacher in Commerce City, met his wife, Sarah, and “started homebrewing like crazy,” he says. “I had somebody to drink it with.”
After a few years of teaching, he was looking for a change and thought about getting a job as a brewer, then applied to the lauded brewing program at University of California, Davis, but was thwarted by a two-year waiting list.
So the Howats decided to launch a brewery themselves. Just as Former Future turned on the taps in early 2014, James got a call that his number came up at UCD. “That ship had sailed,” he laughs.
Homebrewing experience plus a stint at a garage helped prepare Howat for commercial-scale brewing. “Everybody who’s a brewer is also a mechanic and an engineer,” he says.
Two years in, the decision to skip school looks prescient. Former Future’s production doubled in 2015 as capacity increased more than tenfold to accommodate beers that require more time to ferment.
While Former Future’s beers are largely sold at its South Broadway taproom, Howat’s microbiology background shines through in the brewery’s Black Project, special bottled releases of spontaneously fermented beers that are routinely aged for 10 to 12 months.
The Black Project wort is inoculated by local microbes that wander into a coolship on the brewery’s roof, explains Howat. “It’s stuff floating in on the air,” he says. “It could be stuff that was in the barrel. It’s tough to say.”
Then the wort goes into tanks downstairs in the brewhouse, and some remains in the tank after the beer is barreled. Howat compares it to sourdough starter. “Microbes are precursors for other microbes,” he says.
The process is very experimental, to say the least. “It’s like Lockheed Martin Skunkworks,” says Howat. “If it’s bad, we dump it.” The rule, he adds, is to dump 20 percent, no matter what.
But when it’s good, it’s very good: The label won bronze medals at the Great American Beer Festival in both 2014 and 2015.
Howat says the brewery is charting unknown territory. “A lot of that is R&D into spontaneous fermentation,” he says. “Basically, nobody is doing that.”
It shows. The Black Project has attracted a cult following: Retailed direct via the brewery, the beers sell out quickly. “People come in and literally buy as much as they can because they want to hoard it and trade it,” laughs Howat.