Making good beer is a mix of art and science, and you can’t have one without the other. New and creative recipes are only part of the formula for success, which also depends on a brewer’s mastery of the finicky biochemical processes that bring a beer to life.
Even with certain constants — hop varieties, yeast strains and types of malt — a brewer has to properly execute a long series of steps to yield the desired result, and then be able to do it consistently.
Now imagine trying to do all that while herding cats — microscopic cats. Mixed fermentation adds several layers of complexity to the beer-making process by using wild yeast strains and bacteria and aging the beer in barrels that each has its own microbial signature, depending on its prior contents. Unlike yeast strains that are cultured to produce certain styles, the microbes used in mixed fermentation take beer in less predictable directions. A brewer must devise combinations that will produce something palatable, then further fine-tune the beer during aging; fermenting it in different kinds of barrels for varying lengths of time, then blending the contents from different barrels and different batches to arrive at the desired result.
If it sounds like mixed fermentation brewing involves a high degree of experimentation and finesse, that’s because it does. It’s a challenge that the founders of one of Edmonton’s newest breweries relish so much, they built it into the company name: Trial & Ale.
“I don’t have any pretense that I can control what’s going on in these beers. It’s all about creating the right conditions for success,” says co-owner Ryan P.
Saying he’s fiercely protective of his privacy, “P” is the only surname Ryan agreed to provide.
“Our ethos is to throw shit at the wall, but that didn’t look as good on the label as Trial & Ale,” Ryan says of his venture with partner, Jeff B, who is also keeping his surname out of print.
It’s a self-deprecating description of what Trial & Ale has produced so far. The brewery’s debut release, Separated To A Degree, was an appealing mix of stone fruit, citrus and fresh-cut melon with a moderate amount of acidity that demonstrated they can tame the wild forces at work in its stock of red and white wine barrels.
Mixed-fermentation brewing is a challenging discipline and practitioners are relatively rare in the beer world, yet Edmonton is now home to two: Trial & Ale and Blind Enthusiasm’s Monolith brewery, which opened at the end of 2019.
There’s an obvious invitation for comparisons, but Ryan makes it clear that there’s no rivalry between the two breweries. To Ryan, every mixed-fermentation brewery that succeeds is “proof of concept” that there’s demand for these kinds of complex beers as Alberta’s craft beer industry matures and consumers’ palates become more adventurous.
“I think there could be 20. There’s plenty of room for more,” he says.
For now, Trial & Ale’s brewery is strictly a production facility with no space for the public to visit — though Ryan adds that having a tap-room “where people can come and stare at the barrels” is a long-term goal.
In the meantime, Trial & Ale plans to follow up the first batch of Separated To A Degree with another vintage this fall, and in-tends to release some fruited sour beers and ones made with wild brettanomyces yeast. Exactly when will depend on what the barrels have in store.
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This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Edify