Getting Cheese Delirious

Chèvre interior, blue mold exterior! Served with a refresher from Leuven!

I’ve got a serious case of ‘ants in my pants.’ Look what UPS just delivered for Friday’s cheese and beer event! He was smirking as he bounced down the stairs. Was it the fact that I was caught listening to SOMA-FM’s Underground 80s music at a volume sufficient for a block party? I wouldn’t know, because I was momentarily distracted by the lyrics…

A little something to make me sweeter
Oh baby refrain from breaking my heart
I’m so in love with you
I’ll be forever blue
That you give me no reason
Why you’re making me work so hard

Erasure was the one-hit-wonder, in case you must know. Kismet, synchronicity, or just the hollow-graphic nature of New Wave? Dunno. As an old friend used to paraphrase from a very different band in the 80s “Nous sommes des fromages.” Cheers! TPJ

Cheese and Beer Runup

With just a couple of days before our inaugural cheese and beer event in Lincoln, we received a nice writeup from Star City Blog’s beverage reporter Alexis Abel.

You can link to it here. Oh yeah, that fellow Cory was a trip – hope we see him on Friday!

If you live in these parts and haven’t gotten tickets yet. Do it while they last. Cheers! TPJ

Orchestrating Successful Cheese & Beer Pairings

Cheese and beer go really well together. They have for centuries. They grew up hand in hand in small settlements where early people first harvested grains and domesticated milk-giving herds. That may be old news. The newsbreak, though, is that today we live in a global village ensconced in thousands of cheese and beer choices. We have limitless possibilities to pair artisanal cheeses with craft beer from any place, anytime we want.

So why not get together with a few of your friends, or a few hundred of your customers, and orchestrate a perfect cheese and beer pairing?

Overture

Let’s begin with some precepts and traditions that leave your audience clamoring for an encore.

For cheese pairings that are not tied to a specific brewery or distributor’s line, it is best to select your cheeses first, then find the beers that harmonize. Fine cheeses are expensive, and at least in most places in America, selection is limited. If you have access to a huge variety of cheese or are planning on a tasting that pairs beers from a single source, say a brewery or a locality, choose a variety of beer styles to allow more flexibility in cheese selection.

The amount of cheese you serve depends on the event. If it is a course in a dinner, choose two or three cheeses and provide no more than one ounce of each cheese per guest. For full blown cheese and beer tastings you will want four to six varieties, serving between an ounce and an ounce and a half of each. A beer size of four ounces works well. You may also have some condiments, crackers, plain bread, and drinking water.

Cheese flights ready for the curtain to come up. (Source: ontolondon.blogspot.com)

There is a tradition in cheese tasting of working around the plate clockwise from the 6-o’clock position. Your guests may not be experts in cheese and may not recognize which cheese is which simply hearing the name of it. Starting at a set position allows everyone to stay together and pair the right cheese with the designated beer.

Just as with tasting a flight of beers, there can be palate fatigue. It is generally advised to move from mild, low acidity cheeses to blues or washed rind cheeses of greater intensity. Occasionally, the cheeses will be ordered more in relation to their milk type and age, putting younger goat’s and sheep’s cheeses first, then the older cow’s milk cheeses. The tasting order is really up to the planner where the judicious juxtaposition of textures, age, and rind can create exciting cheese drama. (Yes, I said that, cheese drama.)

First timers will benefit from a straightforward methodology for the tasting. Each should begin by getting familiar with the beer by sniffing and sipping some. This is a good time to recognize the major flavors in the mouth, including: grainy, toasty, malty, fruity, bitter, resinous, herbal and floral. More on beer flavor can be found at beersensoryscience, along with a nice version of the famous Meilgaard Beer Flavor Wheel.

After the beer has cleared the throat, place some cheese in the mouth. If the cheese has a distinct rind, start with some pâté from the center of the cheese, leaving the rind for a subsequent bite. Let that cheese soften on the tongue forming a paste. This only takes a moment, but it can be hastened by pushing the tongue upward until the cheese hits the roof of the mouth. Make a mental note of the principal cheese flavors and textures, which might include: creamy, buttery, nutty, sweet, tart, minerally, salty, musty, mushroomy, herbal or grassy. More cheese flavors are listed in this Italian cheese wheel, this French wheel specifically for Compté, and this source, too.

With the cheese soft on the tongue, add a sip of beer and notice how the cheese and beer combine in the mouth. At the very least there should be a happy balance between the flavors and intensities of both. Notice how the beer lightens the cheese texture and lifts it from tongue. Though we don’t usually eat this way, swishing the cheese and beer in the mouth enhances the reactions between the two and brings about a crescendo of flavor. In the best pairings you will observe harmonies, where the beer and cheese ennoble each other releasing hidden tones related to terroir and ingredients.

Providing a note card for people to jot down impressions is essential for commercial tastings. Casual sessions at home will benefit from this, too. It is common for a guest to enjoy a particular pairing and not be able to remember the names of a peculiar cheese or beer the next day.

Improvising

Cheese-beer tastings do not require a theme, although thematic pairings can be instructional. One approach is to have a “milk vertical.” Start by picking a type of milk, specifically, cow, goat, or sheep. Offer a range of cheeses made with that one kind of milk, working from the mildest to the strongest and saving blue mold and washed rind cheeses for the end.

You might pick all cheeses with a manufacturing similarity. For instance, bloomy rind or blue mold cheeses, or perhaps cheeses made by the cheddaring process. Cheeses could be grouped by texture, by region, or even a crazy, aesthetic theme. You might plate various cheeses that all have holes in them. On game day, say if you’re a Princeton fan, you could play off team colors with orange cheeses paired with black beers.

Generating Applause

Your cheese tasting can only be as good as the cheeses. You must find a reliable cheese monger and take the time to explore new styles. Most will happily give you a small taste of cheeses that interest you. Grocery chains may have the best price, but most of these cheeses will be produced by large factories and will typically be tamer in flavor. You want idiosyncratic cheeses from smaller producers that have been handled and sold by cheese experts.

Seek out local cheese producers. Their products haven’t suffered in transport, you can support local agriculture, and save a few dollars. As with craft beer, it is possible for artisan cheese makers to make almost any style they set their mind on. Absolutely first rate cheeses of many classic and emerging styles are now made in America. You just have to find where they’re hiding. Of course, finding treasured cheeses offers value to your guests, who can now purchase good local cheese instead of industrial imitations.

Researching pairings is key to finding the best combinations. Here a flight of mostly goat's milk cheeses are tasted with three different styles of wheat beer: German hefeweizen, Belgian witbier, and American wheat beer.

If holding a professional tasting for a paying audience, you must conduct trial tastings. What people are paying for is not just some cheese and some beer. We’ve probably all been let down by ill-rehearsed food-beverage events. Guests deserve to be entertained, educated, and wowed. Time permitting, trial tastings are even a good idea for a home pairing.

Trial tasting can allow you to discover where the cheese and beer you thought would surely match… simply don’t work. While each is good on its own, together they somehow get metallic or ammoniac or sour. Just as one pale ale differs from the next, cheddar is big universe, from young, bland and rubbery to grassy, nutty, crumbly, minerally, sharp and quixotic.

There is no substitute for knowing your audience. If hosting a casual tasting among friends there’s no need to be formal. Set out the cheeses on a nice wood or stone surface, provide cheese knives, and a little sign with each cheese name, milk variety, and place of origin. You may find that even in the most casual settings your guests will want to jot down their favorites for later, so provide a pen and paper.

In a more commercial environment, make sure you’ve done your homework on each cheese and each beer. Anticipate audience questions and be an authority. Know the manufacturing basics for each cheese. What type of milk? Pasteurized or raw? Special finishing with white mold or washed in beer? What season of the year was it made? Who makes it, a nunnery in the Pas de Calais or an old woman in the Alps or a huge factory in Lille? Understand why this cheese is special. Know why you chose it and rejoice in the complexity and balance of the beer pairing that you have chosen.

And there’s one last thing, that little three-letter word: fun. Any two persons’ tastes will differ as much as two blue cheeses. There is no absolute answer. Approach your cheese and beer pairing with a healthy attitude of discovery and you will excite and inform while the ancient and magical rhythms of cheese and beer do the rest.

Cheers, TPJ.

p.s. If you are in Nebraska, don’t miss the Cheese & Beer – Far & Near tasting. Friday, March 4, 2011, 6 pm at the Derailleur Tap Room in the Bricktop, 1427 O St., Lincoln, NE. Tickets are $45 and on sale now. Here’s the poster for the event and more details on the pairings are found here.

Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near

It has taken long hours in planning, scheming, and tasting, and now we’re just two weeks away from an awesome event: Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near.

From the Press Release:

The Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop pairs their exclusive craft beer selection with handpicked cheeses from around the world. Cheese and Beer – Far and Near is a guided tasting designed to astound Nebraskans with exciting flavor combinations.

Five substantial portions of cheese with snifters of fine beer will be provided. The fascinating origins of traditional cow, goat, and sheep milk products will be described for cheeses from Nebraska, Massachusetts, England and France. Special ales and lagers from sought-after breweries in the US, Belgium, and Norway will be expertly matched to the cheeses and interesting facts of each beer’s production, ingredients, aromas, and flavors will be given.

The cost is $45.00 per person for the event, expected to cost upwards of $65-70 in larger cities. Tickets go on sale at the Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop at 4 pm on Friday, February 18th. Tickets are limited to the first 50 persons and are expected to sell out quickly.

For the past several weeks, Craft Beer Manager Jason McLaughlin, organic cheese maker Krista Dittman, and I have been tasting various cheeses against special beer selections. We’ve been looking not only for solid pairings, but pairings with synergies that release hidden flavors and liberate nuances. If you’ve ever added a few drops of spring water to a single malt whisky, or combined vanilla with lobster, you know what we’re talking about.

As a preview, I thought I’d list the courses in general terms. Maybe as we get closer I’ll provide more specifics, but that might take some prodding!

  • French abbey cheese, pasteurized cow’s milk, lightly washed rind, served with an abbey quadrupel from Belgium.
  • Artisanal chèvre log, blue mold exterior, paired with a Belgian witbier.
  • Rustic Spanish cheese, raw ewe’s milk, quite surprising with a Belgo-IPA and side condiment.
  • ‘Swissy’ farmstead cheese, raw cow’s milk, with a malty, nutty doppelbock.
  • English farmstead cheddar, raw cow’s milk, dances with a resinous American double IPA.

Jason and I will MC the event. He will describe the beer we’ve chosen, after which I’ll outline the cheese and guide the pairing of the two. We also have two special guests: Marty Wells from The Saucy Cook and Krista from Branched Oak Farm.

This is a high energy event that will last about an hour and a half. Come with an appetite and be prepared to be wowed. There will be cheese drama. Yes, that’s what I said cheese drama!

Cheers! TPJ

Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – Recap

It has been too much lately, reading the exploits of my friends who only seem to frolic, never work. My old buddy Rodrigo reportedly has some sort of high-tech job, but all I see on Facebook are videos uploaded from his surfboard-mounted digital movie camera. Another friend, Phil, now living in Oregon goes snowboarding down Mt. Hood when he’s not doing… Come to think of it. What does he do?

Though I have been known to strap on snowshoes, I’m not too keen on drowning in the surf or ending up a crumpled pile of fleshy bones after suffering the effects of gravity. This week I goofed off in my own way. I cooked, I brewed, I ate, I laughed.

I even got in an argument with a drunk guy and called him by a piece of digestive system anatomy… to his face. I’m opinionated, but I rarely share that epithet in mixed company. We made up. He bought me beer. What will our next meeting bring?

It’s Sunday now and I’m basking in the success of being in my own, indefinable way, the champion of un-work.

Here is my nugatory rundown of the week.

  • Monday I ate lunch and contemplated Tuesday.

  • Tuesday was the day for the chocolate and beer. I kept my fingers crossed that chocolates would come from Lincoln’s Chocolatier Blue and they did! The beers were a variable bunch provided by a local distributor. By his own admission, the rep stated he hadn’t much experience with chocolate and beer – and it showed. But the deeper message that was planted in my brain had to do with the biases inherent in distributor-chosen selections. I feel a bitch session coming on that I’ll have to post in my Gripefruit section very soon! However, there were two delicious pairings, both with Weyerbacher beer (Easton, PA):
  1. Belgian-styled quadrupel Quad with the holiday spice chocolate (“You got your apricot in my custard!” “You got your cloves in my peaches!”)
  2. Rum Soaked Currant praline with Weyerbacher Tiny (“Bing, bang, bada bing bing bang.”)

  • Wednesday I brewed my traditional Baltic Porter,  a dark, potent lager that will cold condition towards perfection (what, can’t I aim high?) for a couple of months. Thanks to my new book Yeast (White and Zainasheff, Brewers Publications), my yeast cell counts were (say it like Carl Sagan) in the “billions and billions.” Within six hours of pitching the fermenters were rollicking and spewing stuff that only a homebrewer could love.

  • It was also a good time to save some spent grains from the brewing. I had an idea, actually I thought it to be a revelation, that I could make pumpernickel rye soft pretzels. The trick to using spent grains in bread is to purée them in a blender with some warm water. Otherwise you end up picking coarse grain husks from your teeth. The recipe included stone-ground rye flour, molasses, caraway seeds and a few standard bread ingredients. I won’t post a recipe here, not because the pretzels weren’t good – they were delicious – but because a black pretzel has a rather unappetizing appearance. Judge for yourself…

  • While the infamous pretzel dough was rising I met up with beer maestro Jason to try out a few more of our cheese pairings. We had settled on certain cheeses but were still searching for the specific beers to knock it out of the park. We settled on a date (March 4) and number of tickets to sell (50) and we are sure to sell out early. There is a practical size to a cheese-beer tasting; even this one will have 250 measured portions of cheese, the same number of beers to dispense, plus accouterments. Then everything has to be at the right temperature. I hope we’re getting prep help the day of…
  • Thursday rolled around and there were still pots and pans to clean from beer and pretzel operations. I put off the cheese making to Saturday. But I did stick with the plan to attend a six course beer dinner at a Greek restaurant called The Parthenon. If you read my previous thoughts on beer dinners, you know that I believe it is a good idea to have some moderate strength beers in the mix so you don’t turn into a “pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course.” What I failed to estimate were the portions of food. The first course of spice-rubbed chicken drumsticks pressure-cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, sitting atop couscous flavored with lemon juice and blanched almonds was huge. What would pass for a chicken tagine entrée in some Moroccan restaurants was more food than an entire upscale beer dinner. By the fifth course, we were slung over the back of our chairs, our arms akimbo and eyes at half mast. Awesome, filling, soul-warming food. Then the soup bowl sized crème brulée, redolent with vanilla seeds. It had the consistency of melting ice cream. Here’s a similar recipe with a discussion on the key ingredient: vanilla bean paste. Oh mercy. Yes, if you’re wondering, we ate the whole thing.
  • Friday, is it Friday yet? Coasting just a bit. I spent most of the day researching an article for All About Beer magazine. Something about ancient beers and their cultural and ceremonial importance. Now, that is work. Sorry. Didn’t mean to mention the “w” word. I was trying to convince you that I am really just a professional goof-off. Back to being indolent… I made a batch of cider. Although I follow my own recipe, I’m going to let you in on a guilty little secret

  • Saturday – the Day of the Satur. I pause to imagine I know what a Satur is… some sort of man-beast mythic creature. Perhaps the body of a cow, a chalky green hide of lizard scales, angel wings, and man’s head that looks like Wallace. Or maybe I was channeling my inner cheese god. This day was for blue cow’s milk cheese in the British tradition, i.e. Stilton.

  • Saturday night it snowed again. A fair dose. After an hour and forty minutes of shoveling against the drifting snow, icicles on my eyebrows, I returned to the warm interior. No hot chocolate tonight. I have invented a new hot toddy that appeals to my woodland upbringing, my Scottish heritage, and, well, a desire to consume alcohol. I call my drink Woodsman’s Fly Dope because of its memorable aroma. First I make a big mug of strong tea using Lapsang Souchong tea. The tea has a huge pine/juniper smoke aroma and flavor. It brews a deep rust-colored tea with substantial body. So much body, in fact, that a wee dram of Scotch whisky is needed to lighten it up just a bit. The smoked tea and the peaty Scotch merge. Wisps of campfire memories wend their way through your skull like the figments they represent. Sleep will come, and dreams will weave my week into one confusing mural.

So, Rodrigo and Phil, right back atcha!

Cheers, TPJ.

Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – What a Week!

What a Bohemian week it will be… I’m reminded just how cool Lincoln-town really is.

Thankfully a homebrewing homie turned me on to the Nebraska Beer Blog, maintained by a guy named Nick Spies. He keeps up on all the area events, of which there are many. I’m already in training for Omaha’s Extreme Beer Fest coming up next month.

Tonight I’ll be at one of the area’s best package stores, The Still, for a chocolate and beer tasting. It remains to be seen what beers and what chocolate. The distributor conducting the tasting is from Omaha, so the chocolates may not be coming from Lincoln’s newest treasure: Chocolatier Blue. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. CB’s chocolates rely on Italian dark chocolate and fresh, local fillings from organic cream to roasted filberts to pears and bay leaf… world class pralines and I can ride my bike there!

Exceptional cream is blended with organic butter and 70% dark chocolate for a rich ganache then encased with a dark chocolate shell. (Courtesy: Chocolatier Blue)

Then tomorrow, after an early start on brewing (I’m cooking up a baltic porter by double decoction), I’ll be heading out to Bricktop. Bricktop is a dance club at night, run by a cool guy who escaped from Patchogue, Long Island.

Bricktop owner Dave loves 80s music, beer, girls, and of course, the Huskers.

In the early evenings, before the doom-tah-doom-tah-doom-tah starts, the place is called the Derailleur Tap Room and caters to beer connoisseurs. DTR’s beer master of ceremonies, Jason McLaughlin, and I are planning a cheese-beer pairing event in the near future. We’re going over a few of the pairings with beer fresh from the taps.

I’ve been studiously developing pairings with imported cheeses sourced from The Saucy Cook and some local gems from nearby creamery Branched Oak Farm. Beer can pair magnificently with cheese – uh – much of the time. It is not as forgiving as some beer apostles may lead you to believe, however. Some of my attempts to date have brought out a stark metallic note in the cheese or accentuated oxidation in the beer. But many of the pairings exhibit dramatic synergies that release hidden flavors in both the beer and the cheese. Stay tuned for the specific pairings!

One cheese I know we will feature is this lovely sheep's milk cheese from the French side of the Pyrénées: Ossau-Iraty. Sweet, nutty, semi-hard with slight vesicles.

Thursday morning I’ll be making cheese – this time an enriched cow’s milk blue. I’m shooting for something like Saint Agur. Mine will be whole, vat pasteurized cow’s milk with some whole cream added. The blue mold (Penicillium roqueforti) is introduced during the acidification (the first step in cheese making) and will take off after the finished cheese is pierced with a sterile pick and matures for two to four months in a cool conditioning room.

The "melts-in-your-mouth" enriched cow's milk blue from france - Saint Agur. (Source: http://www.relishcaterers.co.uk)

Then in the evening I’ll be attending a six-course beer dinner at the area’s renowned Greek restaurant, The Parthenon. Thankfully we will not have to choke down salty, husky Greek beer. I look forward to meeting whoever masterminded this dinner because they have had the good sense not to choose a lineup of big beers. All too often, when strong beers are served at this sort of thing I have seen a group otherwise eager beer lovers turned into a pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course. Beers of modest strength with a good depth of flavor are what you need. That’s why I’m looking forward to the main course: grilled leg of lamb with ancho chile marinade and saffron orzo, served with Sprecher Black Bavarian-styled lager.

For Friday? I don’t know, might make a cider. Or if my venison connection comes in, it could be venison sausage with juniper and allspice.

Cheers! TPJ

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