The brainy duo behind Acid League, Allan Mai and Cole Pearsall, met in the University of Guelph’s food science program. Rather than bonding over the usual student fodder of beer and poutine, they connected over fermentation experiments in Pearsall’s basement. By 2019 they had reinvented tired kitchen staples, like vinegar, turning them into taste sensations, and now they want to shake up the entire condiment shelf with their new Living Pantry products. This time they’ve taken on everything from Worcestershire sauce (theirs is made with smoked malt, blood orange and umeboshi) to oak‑aged tamari. “Acid League was born with the intention of making food that we find interesting and super memorable,” says Mai. Still based in Guelph, we lured Mai and Pearsall out of their lab to dish on their love for artisanal vinegars, excitement at entering the non‑alcoholic wine sphere and how travel has inspired their favourite Acid League products.
Acid League’s Allan Mai and Cole Pearsall, food scientists from Guelph, Ontario, spill about their latest non‑alcoholic wine venture.
enRoute You dabble a lot in “living vinegars” – what are they and why do they inform so much of what you do?
Cole Pearsall We noticed there was an increase in people having an apple cider vinegar shot in the morning – and we wondered why. A lot of health‑conscious consumers are gravitating toward products with gut‑friendly bacteria to increase their microbiome. Every product across Acid League’s lines goes through a vinegar process resulting in probiotic, prebiotic gut bacteria. The “living” aspect is that the bacteria are still alive in that bottle.
eR You recently branched out into non‑alcoholic wines – what inspired the move?
CP Our third partner, Scott, was inspired while eating at Noma in Copenhagen: Instead of wine pairings, he had juice and tea paired with his meal. We realized that the same health‑conscious consumer who was gravitating toward prebiotic and probiotic products was also gravitating toward either less alcohol or no alcohol. We saw an opportunity there. Wine pairs so well with food, more than any other alcohol – the Wine Proxies are a way for us to stay true to our love of all things culinary.
eR How do you make the Wine Proxies?
Allan Mai We know that wine has tannins, an extremely important part of the wine and food pairing experience, so we wanted to recreate that. That’s why it was important to include things like teas because they also have tannins. The Wine Proxies are a complex blend of different juices, teas and infusions. We have many ways of infusing different ingredients into a beverage and a lot of what we do involves working with local farmers, foragers and specialty distributors from all sorts of global cuisines as well as sourcing interesting ingredients, like spruce tips and kombu.
eR What sets your Wine Proxies apart from other non‑alcoholic wines on the market right now?
AM Most non‑alcoholic wines are created by boiling off the alcohol. The problem with that is you lose a lot of the nuance in the process, which makes for a very one‑dimensional drink. Our Wine Proxies are never heated so that all the complexity and nuance is maintained.
ER Can you give us the inside scoop on what products you will be working on next?
AM We just launched the Living Pantry – our ultimate vision for this business. We want to offer all the pantry staples, but with our interpretation of what is interesting and delicious – like our Wild Berry Balsamic, which combines fruity sweetness alongside the classic balsamic flavour.
ER Is there a place you’ve travelled to that has inspired an Acid League product or flavour?
AM Inspiration for flavour often comes from experiences I’ve had travelling, so naturally, my time spent in Vietnam has left a lasting impression on me, being Vietnamese myself. The best pho I ever had was in Ho Chi Minh City. The broth packed so much umami without being too rich and the herbs were so fragrant and fresh. Capturing the nuance and undeniable tastiness of that experience in a bottle of our Broth Bombs has been one of my proudest achievements from a product development point of view.
ER Which food culture, from any destination around the world, excites you the most?
AM I am really excited by the experimentation and exploration going on in Denmark. Although traditional Danish food is nowhere near my top 5 favourite cuisines, some of the more forward‑thinking chefs, brewers and farmers in and around Copenhagen are really pushing the boundaries of what food experiences can be, like chef René Redzepi who is known for his super creative menus and out‑of‑the‑box ideas, including fermented pine cones.
ER What has been your most exciting discovery?
CP It’s empowering to expose people to flavour concepts and ideas that they have never considered before, like the Cola Balsamic from our soda vinegar series, or concepts like our Sauvage Proxy, with notes of crisp apples, green spruce tips and spicy cedar – it’s like the Canadian landscape in a bottle. It’s also fun to introduce people to food cultures they might not be as familiar with, like our Liquid Kimchi, which translates the tangy, distinct flavours of kimchi into an easy‑to‑use sauce.