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Edmonton’s Blind Enthusiasm Brewing recently launched The Monolith taproom, pictured here in Edmonton on Sept. 1.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

What’s old is often made new again and that’s exactly the mantra behind brewers in the Prairies that are taking a more natural approach to fermentation for their unique creations.

Edmonton’s Blind Enthusiasm Brewing is best known for its standout brewpub Biera, but a few months ago, the company launched The Monolith taproom.

The small space is tucked into a striking building on an otherwise-unsuspecting street in the city’s Ritchie neighbourhood. Its exterior is concrete, yet much of it is stamped or cut into with Blind Enthusiasm’s distinctive eye logo. You’ve never seen a brewery quite like it, and that feeling continues inside, with its blue-grey tiled walls, rust-coloured wooden men, ornate framed artwork and a huge circular lighting fixture above.

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The brewery in Edmonton's Ritchie neighbourhood has a concrete exterior.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Then there’s the beer.

Microbreweries are a dime a dozen in Alberta, which means newer breweries can’t just be slinging the standard IPA and lager and expect to stand out. To answer that challenge, The Monolith embraces the methods of spontaneous fermentation and mixed fermentation to offer up a dynamic array of beers using house-bred yeasts and bacteria and barrel-fermenting processes that can take up anywhere from one to three years.

The man behind it all is head brewer Doug Checknita, who started his brewing career 12 years ago in Calgary before spending time in Montreal, and then in Belgium, where he worked at the famous Cantillon Brewery, a producer best known for its lambic sour beer.

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The Monolith boasts blue-grey tiled walls, ornate framed artwork and a huge circular lighting fixture above.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

“What we are doing is quite unique, and sometimes hard to explain, but can be summarized by the brewery’s tagline, which is, ‘Traditional technique with modern technology and scientific method,’” Mr. Cheknita said. “So, almost everything we do at The Monolith is rooted in traditional techniques developed in Belgium in the 1800s.”

Spontaneous fermentation is when wild yeast and bacteria infiltrate the wort (post-mashed or unfermented beer) by being exposed to air for a prolonged period. Mixed fermentation involves adding a blend of yeast and bacteria.

Mr. Checknita and his team put a lot of research and development into The Monolith’s beers over the years, before the taproom finally opened this past winter. He stresses that his creations differ dramatically from “barrel-aged” brews, as everything is “barrel-fermented” for an extended period before being blended or further aged.

“We have optimized some traditional methods to work best for the barrels we use in our environment here in Edmonton and at our facility,” he said. “The entire one- to four-year fermentation of the beer happens slowly in one barrel before blending. We then blend the different barrels and vintages to make our different products much like wine.”

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The Monolith uses barrel-fermenting processes that can take up anywhere from one to three years.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Looking at the front of house in the taproom, sipping on a beer such as the Substantially Complete – a truly punchy drink that offers citrus and stone-fruit notes – one may find it has more in common with the complexity of wine rather than traditional beer.

The brewery also dabbles in aged ciders thanks to a collaboration with Calgary’s Uncommon Cider and its owner, Brodie Thomas. It is currently serving concoctions such as Cherry Apple Cider and Both, a graf (beer-cider hybrid) that is a combination of mixed-fermentation beer and plum cider.

“We collaborate on the ideas and execution of our individual parts. The fermentation in cider can be quite different because pressed apple juice is made of different sugars and nutrients than the wort used to make beer, which requires differences in process,” Mr. Checknita said. “Apple juice also does not have a pasteurization step when pressed so it adds some complexity in what micro-organisms are present during fermentation.”

The Monolith is among a handul of breweries in the Prairies that are experimenting with unconventional brewing techniques to create funky ciders and wine-like beers.

Winnipeg’s Low Life Barrel House makes its own beer and also shares a space with Jesse Oberman and his cider company, Next Friend Cider. Mr. Oberman has built a highly sought-after cider brand out of minimizing food waste. He takes unused fruits, such as from yards and farms, and transforms them into small-batch ciders that Winnipeggers have become enamoured with.

Mr. Oberman uses the two companies’ shared space to collaborate with Low Life’s head brewer, Chris Young.

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The Monolith uses techniques developed in Belgium in the 1800s.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

“Blending is definitely a unique part of what we do at Low Life,” Mr. Oberman said. “Chris Young [Low Life’s head brewer] and I do a lot of this for all the products that come out of our facility. Our barrel-aged beers are often mixed-fermentation blends and the Next Friend Ciders and our Low Life Wines are nearly always blends of different ferments too. I think the most fun we have in this regard, though, is with our grape ales, which are true collaborations between the beer and wine sides.”

Mr. Oberman is also the Low Life Barrel House winemaker.

He has been travelling to grape harvests in various parts of the world since 2015, and has worked as a sommelier first in London, and then in France. That gave him a better understanding of natural wine production, which he now applies at Low Life. The winemaker has created an impressive line of pét-nats, piquettes and sparkling wines (and more).

“The Low Life wine project is a natural wine project through and through. We buy organic fruit from Ontario and, through as little manipulation and additions as possible, produce the best wines we can,” Mr. Oberman said. “The intention behind the Low Life wines is to produce excellent, affordable natural wines. This project will always remain small and have direct relationships with all the grape growers we work with.”

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