Black Project’s Cherry Beer Hard to Explain, Easy to Enjoy

Photos: Neill Pieper

Photos: Neill Pieper

The secret is out

By Steve Graham

Even when James Howat isn’t being secretive, it can take him a while to explain his brews.

Howat is the founder, brewer and blender at Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales on south Broadway in Denver. As the name might suggest, the theme of the brewery is secrecy. On the other hand, Howat is proudly forthcoming about his award-winning wild ales. Nonetheless, the styles can be hard to explain — both because they are complex and because of international labeling traditions.

Case in point: Black Project releases the third edition of Cygnus this spring. In place of a simple phrase identifying the beer style, the brewery’s website has a three-paragraph explanation. Howat was only a little more succinct in a phone interview.

“It’s made in the same way as an authentic kriek lambic, but we’re not in Belgium,” he said.

Like French champagne, only beer from one region of Belgium should officially be labeled lambic, but the Methode Traditionnelle guidelines help brewers around the globe create similar beers. Unlike champagne, international law does not prohibit the wider use of the lambic title, but Howat and other brewers avoid the name out of respect and tradition.

So the shortest descriptor of Cygnus is “a Lambic-inspired, coolship spontaneous ale.” But the name is less important than the fruity and funky flavor.

Howat hasn’t always brewed such obtuse concoctions. After earning a microbiology degree and working as a home brewer and high school biology teacher, he opened his first brewery, Former Future Brewing Company.

“We essentially made normal beers,” Howat said.

Shortly after opening in 2014, he started working on some spontaneously inoculated and spontaneously fermented beers. His first experiment earned a Great American Beer Fest prize, even though it was a surprise even to his staff. 

“I was taking money out of the register to buy barrels,” Howat admits. “I waited until I had something that tasted good before I even told the people that worked here.”

The Black Project name grew out of that early stealth. 

“We took the secrecy theme and ran with it,” he said. 

Cygnus    Style: Lambic-inspired,  coolship spontaneous ale    Brewery: Black Project    Location: Denver    ABV: around 7 percent    IBU: 20


Style: Lambic-inspired,
coolship spontaneous ale

Brewery: Black Project

Location: Denver

ABV: around 7 percent

IBU: 20

He started brewing Black Project beers at Former Future, but soon realized there was at least as much demand for the spontaneous beers as for the “clean” beers in the standard Former Future lineup. So he briefly shut down the brewery to rebrand and reopen as Black Project, which has a taproom but specializes in bottle sales. He said the bottle conditioning with wild microbes improves the beer and adds flavor.

The first version of Cygnus was bottled two years ago — a blackberry rendition that was only available for brewery members. Last spring and this year, Black Project has aged the beer in oak barrels on two kinds of whole tart cherries, pits included, and created a pair of specialty Cygnus blends.

“It’s really fun getting in thousands of pounds of cherries, and the beer is really tasty,” Howat said. “It’s got a depth of complexity that goes far beyond a cherry puree or something.” 

Howat said that his regular customers are familiar with Cygnus, even if the style is hard to explain. “People love Cygnus,” Howat said. “It’s a classic style, so a lot of people know what to expect. 

Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.

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