Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Session: The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off

The Session #51: Beer & Cheese

The Session is a monthly event for the beer blogging community begun in March of 2007 by Stan Hieronymus of Appellation Beer, and co-moderated with Jay Brooks of the Brookston Beer Bulletin.

On the first Friday of every month, one beer blogger hosts The Session: Beer Blogging Friday, choosing a specific, beer-related topic, inviting all bloggers to write on it, and posting a roundup of all the responses received.

For more information, view the archive page.

For May 2011, Jay Brooks himself hosted the 51st iteration of The Session. His topic was The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off.
I’ve been to many cheese and beer tastings, whether part of a structured dinner or a separate dedicated cheese event. In almost every case, whoever put on the tasting chose the beer and the cheese. If you’ve done likewise, I’m assuming you’ve had the same experience. Some pairings work, others don’t. Whichever way it goes, you usually only get one shot at it, that is just one cheese paired with one beer. But finding that divine pairing always made the effort worthwhile because when it works, boy does it ever. A perfect pairing of cheese and beer is practically spiritual. At least to me, but as I say; I love cheese.

So I was thrilled when someone figured out another way to sample cheese and beer. During the first SF Beer Week three years ago, Vic Kralj — who owns The Bistro in Hayward — hosted a different kind of cheese and beer event: the “cheese-off.” What Vic did was pick five cheeses and then invited five breweries to play along. Each brewery took the five cheeses and paired each with one of their beers.

On the night of the event, attendees got a plate of each cheese, in turn, along with the five beers (one chosen by each of the five breweries). You then tried each beer with the cheese and then picked the pairing you thought worked best. 
That brings us back to Session #51, and the topic of cheese and beer. Below are three cheeses. I chose ones that I believe are available throughout the U.S. and quite possibly beyond our shores. And they all sell via mail order, too. So pick up some of each, or if you can’t find those specific cheeses, choose similar ones. 
Pick a few beers you think will pair well with each cheese. Drink them with the cheese. Write up your results and post them on or before Friday, May 6.Leave a comment here, the announcement, or send me an e-mail so I can find your Session post.

I've done this many times for others, personally selecting the combinations, and, as Jay noted, insisting, but with enthusiasm, that the pairings 'worked.' Why not have my pre-&-post-conceptions organoletically tested? I was game!

For the venue, I chose Arrowine, a wine, beer, cheese, and charcuterie shop, in Arlington, Virginia. I asked Jesse Ploeg —the shop's beer buyer— to choose five beers. My only stipulations were that a dark beer and a saison be two of the five. And, not as a stipulation, but as a request, I asked that at least one be a local beer (for freshness of flavor) and that one be a beer that the store purchased from me (as a representative of Select Wines, Inc.).

Here are the five beers he selected, and his tasting notes:

  • DC Brau Can (01)The Public Pale Ale, from DC Brau of Washington, D.C.
    DC Brau is the first production brewery to open in Washington DC since 1956. The Public Pale ale is its inaugural brew.

    Pours a nice orange color with a thick white head and some good spotty lacing as it makes its way down the glass.The nose is pretty hoppy with a bit of malt undertone. A good bit of pine, floral, and citrus hops. The flavor is along the same lines.

  • Heavy Seas Dubbel CannonDubbel Cannon, from Heavy Seas Brewing, of Baltimore, Maryland.

    A Belgian-style IPA. Pour is a goldish-copper color with a white head and a ring of lacing down the glass. The nose and flavor brought floral/spicy hops, spicy Belgian yeast, and stone fruits. Zesty with medium mouthfeel. Hop presence gives way to fruit and spicy yeast. 7.25% abv.

  • Moo Thunder Stout (01)Moo Thunder Stout from Butternuts Beer & Ale, of Garratsville, New York.

    A 'milk' stout, brewed with lactose. Pours a rich, opaque black with dark brown edges and a creamy tan head. Soft aroma and flavor: malty with some roastiness, dark chocolate, and a hint of milk. Lighter side of the Stout Ale spectrum, without being water. Edges have a slight roasty bite, smoothed with chocolate, earth, toasted bread, slightly sweet. Finishes dry and fast. 4.9% abv.

  • The Bruery Saison de LentSaison de Lente from The Bruery, of Orange County, California.

    Cloudy, bright gold, with a large head of foam. Aromas and flavors of toasty yeast, warm spice, lemon, mowed grass, and pepper. Medium mouthfeel, lots of carbonation, slightly tart, and a long finish. 6.5% abv.

  • Trappiste Rochefort 10Trappiste Rochefort 10 from Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy, in Belgium. The abbey was founded in 1230, and the monks began to brew beer sometime around 1595. The small brewery in the abbey, Rochefort Trappiste, is one of only seven Trappist breweries in the world.
    --Merchant du Vin

    Deep brown with a off-white creamy head. An aroma of spice, alcohol, raisin, plum, and ripe melon. A sensation of alcoholic warming is evident on the palate, with flavors of ripe plum pudding, peppermint, and white pepper. 11.3% ABV

Then, I decided to mix things up a bit. I asked Katie Carter —a cheesemonger at the store, and a soon-to-be cheesemaker in her own right (Afina Cheese)— to select three cheeses other than those Jay had suggested. Not there there was anything wrong with his trio —Humboldt Fog is a personal favorite of mine— but, just as with craft and imported beers, there is a trove of wonderful cheeses locally-fermented, and imported, now available in the US.

I asked Katie to keep to the spirit of Jay's choices, but to include a washed rind cheese as one of the three.

  • Isle of Mull Cheddar
    A smokey Scottish cheddar was substituted for the Wisconsin cheddar.

    Isle of Mull CheddarThe Reade family creates this unpasteurized, traditional cheddar on a small island in northwest Scotland. Short summers provide little fresh pasture for the 100 cows that are raised by the family so diet is supplemented with silage and spent grain husks from a local whiskey distillery. This moist cheddar is made traditionally, meaning it is made in 40 pound drums and wrapped in cloth. This gauze rind allows the cheese to breathe and develop deep, complex flavors during its long aging period. The flavors are earthy and fruity with a bright acidity and subtle peatiness.

  • Monte Enebro
    Combining the choices of a blue cheese and a goat's milk cheese.

    Monte Enebro goat's milk blue cheeseFrom the town Avila in Spain comes this extraordinary goat’s milk blue cheese. Formed into a flat log shape, this dense and rich cheese is not pierced, so the blue mold (penicillium roqueforti) grows only on the outside of the cheese. This unique cheese is well balanced with very bright, lemony acidity and a earthy creaminess. A great spring and summer cheese because of the bright, fresh flavors.

  • Oma, from Von Trapp Farmstead.
    Substituting a funky washed-rind cheese for the tangy Humboldt Fog.

    Oma at Arrowine Brothers Sebastian and Dan Von Trapp turn organic, raw cow’s milk from their family’s farm in Waitsfield, Vermont into this supple washed rind cheese. A mixed herd (mostly Jerseys) graze on lush Vermont pasture. For being a raw milk, washed rind cheese, the aroma is not intensely funky or earthy. The rich paste is soft and supple, yet will never reach a runny consistency. Oma has well balanced flavors of fresh, raw cream, toasted nuts, and chocolate. Low acidity.
    —Aged by Jasper Hill Farm, in Greensboro, Vermont.

Seven of us gathered at Arrowine on Thursday evening, 28 April 2011. There would be 15 pairings, so there was a 'spit' bucket, if one chose not to drink. Buckets are also provided at cheese judgings, Katie told us. The judges would otherwise be quite cheese-filled.

The Tasters

Left to right:
  • Graham Reid, Arrowine wine buyer.
  • Katie Carter, Arrowine cheesemonger, and "next level" cheesemaker at Afina Cheese.
  • Badr Adam Abaichi, Arrowine cheesemonger.
  • Jesse Ploeg, Arrowine beer manager.
  • Michael Zelechoski, craft beer sales for beer/wine wholesaler Hop & Wine Beverage.
  • Not pictured: Aldo Molina, Arrowine cheesemonger;Thomas Cizauskas of YFGF, behind the camera.

Katie gave us a quick overview of the cheeses. Isle of Mull Cheddar is aged in a cloth bandage, which protects the cheese as it ages but also allows it to "breathe," its flavor developing. The Isle of Mull is an island off the west coast of Scotland. Cheddaring is the process of making cheddar, a cutting and concentrating of the curds. 

The Monte Enebro is a pasteurized goat's milk cheese that has been inoculated with Penicillium roqueforti —the same mold as in 'blue cheese'— but only on the surface rind of the cheese, rather than veined throughout the loaf, as in blue cheese. She described the flavor result as herbaceous. 

The milk for the Oma comes from an organic-certified dairy in Vermont. The rind is washed with wine and the tomme style cheese is aged for 3 months. The rind develops a characteristic "stinky foot" aroma, but the cheese within the rind does not, and is soft and slightly sweet. Oma is not pasteurized.

Then, it was my turn. I asked the participants to avoid the flights of fancy found on beer rating websites and wine magazines. Paraphrasing the British website CyclopsBeer, I suggested, instead, they use descriptions more useful for a typical beer consumer: no more than 5 words for the appearance, aroma, and taste. More specific flavor terms —such as orange, chocolate, toffee, etc.— should only be used if those flavors/aromas could be overwhelmingly picked up. 

When tasting beer and cheese together (or any beer and food), the taste of the food and the beer together is more important (and more satisfying) than the the taste of the beer or the food by itself. Thus, taste the beer first. Describe it. Then, taste the cheese. Describe it. Then, taste the beer and cheese together, and describe the synergistic result. "One plus one equals three," said wine buyer Graham. 

The beers were described by beer manager Jesse Ploeg as each was tasted. (See his notes, above.) 


Saison de Lente 
Most of the panel remarked on the slightly tart but crisp taste of the saison. Badr noted that the peat of the cheddar brought out a sweetness in the finish of the beer, while Katie felt that the saison overpowered the cheddar.

Jesse said that the Monte Enebro goat cheese "spanked the saison." Katie tasted "band aid" in the combination.

Graham liked how the saison cut through the stink of the Oma. Katie sensed a meaty and slimy character when the Oma and saison were tasted together. 

The Public 
I remarked on the candied grapefruit nose of the beer; Graham noted the quick finish. Katie liked the interplay between the hops and the sharp cheddar flavor; Graham noted a smoked almond flavor when the two were tasted together. I felt that the beer and cheddar together completed the flavors of the other. 

There was less enthusiasm for the Monte Enebro. I found the pale ale and the cheese tasted medicinal together; Mike added it was like "going to the dentist." Aldo found that the cheese overpowered the beer; the hops simply vanished.

Badr found the Oma's aroma complimentary to the beer's hops.. Mike added: "If you like hops, you'll like this combination." 

Trappiste Rochefort 10
All found flavors and aromas of plum. Katie noted "warm spices," such as ginger and cinnamon. Graham noted the (pleasant) aroma of old banana.

Tasted with the cheddar, the Trappiste seemd to gain an artificial sweetener flavor, Graham observed. Katie said the flavor of the cheddar simply vanished but the beer seemed more carbonated.

No one liked the combination of the Monte Enebro blue goat cheese with the beer; the flavors did not meld at all.

Mike found the Trappiste and Oma to be a pleasingly earthy combination. Katie noticed a Gran Marnier flavor. Tasting that, Katie brought out some Parmesan, feeling that the subtle fruitiness of the hardcheese would mesh with the Trappiste. We we all astonished by the gorgeousness of this unplanned combination ... which, again, was the point of this endeavor.

Dubbel Cannon
When the bottle of this 'Belgian-style IPA' was opened, the panel found it too cold, and the pairings simply harsh. Things improved, when a second bottle was opened 15 minutes later. Badr noted flavors of sweet spices, brown sugar, and molasses.

In tandem with the cheddar, the group tasted a strong earthinesss. I liked it; Katie not so much.

Jesse found the pairing with the Monte Enegro very salty, "like Virginia Beach water," he said.

No one cared for the beer and the Oma together: the flavors clashed unpleasantly.

Moo Thunder Stout
Katie said the beer reminded her of iced coffee. Jesse said that Moo Thunder Stout was one of his end-of-the-day "go-to" beers; not too strong (4.9% abv), but very flavorful.

Graham liked the beer but he faulted the combination of the beer with the cheddar: "Neither enhances the other," he said. It's empty calories."

On the other hand, everyone reacted positively to the stout with the Monte Enebro blue goat cheese. "The beer's coffee character really accentuates the cheese's goatiness, " said Jesse.

No one cared for the pairing of the Oma with the stout. "They feel slimy together" said Mike, "like I just ate a worm."

Most of the panel felt that the Oma washed rind cheese was generally unsuccessful as a mate for any of the cheeses. I disagreed; I liked it with both The Public Pale Ale and with the Dubbel Cannon. However, I agreed that it was not nearly as successful as some of the other pairings.

For his favorite combination, Graham voted for DC Brau's The Public Pale Ale paired with the Isle of Mull Cheddar, as did Jesse.

Katie chose Butternuts' Moo Thunder Stout with the Monte Enebro blue goat cheese, as did Mike.

Badr voted for the combination of the Trappiste Rochefort 10 ale with the Parmesan. I agreed, but also selected the peaty Cheddar with the hoppy Public Pale Ale.

The consensus surprise of the evening was Katie's's last-minute substitution of the Parmesan over the goat cheese to taste with the Trappiste Rocheforte 10 ale.

One lesson of the evening?

Beer and cheese do indeed taste wonderful together, but not all combinations are created equal, and some are downright no good. Do not merely postulate a pairing, but actually taste a proposed beer and cheese, together. Then decide. "The first rule of beer-and-cheese pairing is that there are no rules, only enthusiastic suggestions."

Another lesson was something that I thought about after the session had concluded, and we were cleaning up.

Only just recently, life in the US was only light lager and processed cheese. Now, the time is indeed a golden era for beer. The variety and quantity of beer available is stunning. Not all is of high quality, but a lot is, and this could be said for cheese as well. Such delights are not guaranteed. As consumers, we need to support those breweries, dairies, restaurants, and merchants who provide us with this bounty.

Thank you to Jay Brooks of the Brookston Beer Bulletin for suggesting this delicious exercise. Thank you to my fellow panelists. And, last, but not least: thank you to the owners of Arrowine for graciously donating the venue, the cheeses, and the beers.

  • Today is Sunday. The Session is published on the first Friday of the month. I was tardy.
  • See a slideshow of the tasting here.
  • Read Jay Brooks' summary of all the submissions to The Session. There were quite a few.
  • Read about another Arrowine beer & cheese event, for charity, held four years earlier: here.
  • Read more about Beer-with-Cheese: here.
  • Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virgina— I sell the beers of Heavy Seas.

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