Tria’s Liquid Lessons: An Education in Fermentation

(Beginning last Febrewary, I became a regular contributor to Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. A version of this post about the Tria Fermentation School appeared in the April-May 2007 issue.)

Beer, wine, and cheese share fermentation as a common process of creation. And now they share a common home at the Tria Fermentation School in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square.

Beer Is Divine Class
(In March, I presented a class at Tria entitled Beer Is Divine, in which we tasted spiritually inspired beers and meads paired with foods from the gods. Photo by Seung Lee.)

When he opened Tria Café in the spring of 2004, owner Jonathan Myerow’s hoped to enjoin two beverage worlds that he saw as living largely separate but equally intriguing lives. The Tria concept was to provide the missing link in the marketplace of exquisite fermented beverages – a place serving excellent craft beers and carefully selected wines on an equal footing in one establishment.

In attaining this lofty goal, Myerow ensures a delicate balance in the Café’s ambience, striving as he says, for “blue jeans casual without even a hint of frat party.” The concept bridges the gap between uptight wine bars and sticky-floor beer joints. The result is an understated yet elegant café with an inspired beverage menu where sought-after beers vie for attention with sublime wines, all of which are presented and consumed in an air of erudition, while somehow managing to avoid pretension.

During a recent visit, the beer list included such delicious regionally created oddities as the Brooklyn Smoked Weissbock and the Cantillon Gueuze Monk’s Café Cuvee (a lambic co-created by Cantillon and Philadelphia fermentation figurehead Tom Peters of Monk’s Café), as well as more exotic rarities like J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale 2002, and Oud Beersel Oude Kriek Vieille (that’s right – two lambics on one small but intentional beer list). The majority of the beer offerings were well-selected brews from within the mid-Atlantic region from brewers like Victory, Stoudt’s Sly Fox, but West Coast stars appear too, such as The Lost Abbey Lost and Found Dubbel and Russian River’s Damnation and Temptation.

With such a complex selection, well-trained servers are fundamental to the success of Tria’s strategy. How often have you encountered brewpub staff who lack a basic understanding of beer in general, and inadequate or even inaccurate knowledge of their own house beers? Tria staff, on the other hand, offer guidance in beverage selection while managing to avoid judging their customers’ own knowledge or perceptions of what makes a particular beer or wine enjoyable. The bartenders and servers at Tria seem genuinely interested in education as a way of enhancing their customers’ enjoyment and experience, rather than flaunting know-it-all attitudes that can be off-putting to even the most confident of connoisseurs.

Given the emphasis on education, it was a logical extension when, last October, Myerow opened the Tria Fermentation School in an office building around the corner from the Café. The School’s courses are a curriculum in fermentation appreciation. The place is essentially a class room built for the express purpose of hosting tutored beer, wine, and cheese tastings. Custom refrigeration units line the back wall. Rows of tables and chairs are arranged for instruction rather than socializing. The lighting is bright enough to be conducive to note-taking but dim enough to create an atmosphere of relaxation.

Tria Class
(Tria students get serious about studying beer. Photo by Seung Lee.)

Tastings are held as often as three or four nights per week and feature brewers, vintners, sommeliers, distributors, cheesemongers, critics, and authors. The front podium is an elbow-high tasting table for the speaker and a multimedia sound system provides all that’s needed for visual guidance and pre-class audio entertainment. Classes start promptly and service is excellent. Beer is served in stemmed glassware, accompaniments on a wooden cheese board, and customized table mats are provided with the night’s beverage names printed within circles underneath each beverage’s respective glass. A clipboard with tasting notes is provided to each student. The overall effect is an atmosphere of dignified appreciation of three of the finer enjoyments in life: beer, wine, and cheese.

Mind you I am not opposed to beer-fueled reveling, but the Tria Café and Fermentation School are simply not the places for them. That’s not to say that they are stuffy or snobby, rather they serve as forums in which those of us fascinated by fermentation may indulge our curiosity without the requisite self-deprecating laughter that is normally triggered when one suggests that beer is something meriting more than mere quaffing.

Menu prices and class fees reflect the high level of service and the effort put toward selecting and acquiring such outstanding fermented products, but budget-minded imbibers can sample one new beer, wine, and cheese discounted 50% during the weekly “Sunday School”. Can it get any better than that? This spring Myerow is planning to open a second Tria Café, this one in Philly’s Washington Square West. As a beer writer based in Washington D.C., I’m beginning to consider a move to the city of brewerly love.

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