Monday, March 29, 2010

Beer & Cheese: Two of My Favorite Things

There's an old saying in the wine business: "Taste with bread, sell with cheese." While bread has a very neutral flavor, the better to let the wine express itself, cheese is almost the exact opposite. The creamy, butterfat goodness of cheese is almost perfectly designed to cover the tannins of an immature red or smooth the sharp edges of a less than stellar white, which is what makes it the "weapon of choice" for desperate wine merchants.

While cheese may hide the defects in a wine, wine and cheese do not compliment each other nearly so well as beer and cheese.

Now remember, the cheese I am talking about here is not some homogenized, pasteurized, mass-produced, and thoroughly commodified cheese like Kraft American Singles, anymore than the beer we are talking about is a BudMillCoors macrobrew. No, I'm talking about real artisanal cheeses, made the traditional way. "Craft" cheese, if you will.

Sorry, couldn't resist the pun...

Let's face it, it's certainly no coincidence that some of the great monastic brewers left in this world (Chimay, Orval, & Westmalle) also produce outstanding artisanal cheeses. Or that a "farmhouse" brewery like Brasserie Dupont also makes excellent cheese. Hell, Fritz Maytag, the genius behind Anchor Brewing Company and the godfather of American Craft Beer comes from a cheese-making background. Maytag Blue, anyone?

As I said above, good, flavorful, artisanal cheese pairs much better with beer than it does with wine. Cheese and beer are produced by similar processes and have much in common. The process of making beer involves mashing, boiling, & fermenting; cheese making consists of production, reduction, and ripening. The higher in alcohol a beer is, the longer it can be kept; the harder a cheese is, the longer it will last.

Personally, I was a little late to the "good cheese game". I didn't discover how absolutely fantastic cheese could be until Elaine and I were living in London and stumbled on to a place called Neal's Yard Dairy. They specialize in wonderful artisanal cheese and other high quality produce from farms located around London. That was where I discovered the joy of Colston Bassett Stilton...

Colston Bassett is one of the smallest Stilton Dairies in the UK. They buy milk from 5 farms surrounding the dairy. Their Stilton is more traditional than any other. The curd is hand-ladled before draining which results in a luscious, creamy texture when the cheese is mature. The rinds are dimpled and aged, bearing the marks of long months in the caves, but the cheese is creamy and luxurious, with a silky texture and a long, fruity bite. Pair it with a nice, hoppy British Bitter, like a Young's Special Ale or a Fuller's ESB, or better yet a strong Old Ale like Thomas Hardy's and you have a match made in heaven.

It opened my eyes to just how good cheese could be, both alone and paired with a good beer.

So why my sudden current fixation on cheese? Well, this weekend I paid a visit to our local specialty cheese shop, The Gourmet Garden, located at the "Y" in Soldotna, next to River City Books. While it may not be Neal's, it's still a very nice little gourmet market. I went in to replenish my supply of Stilton (not Colston-Bassett, unfortunately). Whenever I am there, I always take a look to see what new treasures might have arrived in the cheese case since my last visit. Over the last five years, I've found some pretty interesting things.

This time around, a couple of new cheese caught my eye (and then my taste buds). There was a cheddar made with caramelized onions; amazingly delicious. Then there was a cheese called a Boxing Cheddar from Australia (it had a kangaroo with boxing gloves on the label). It was a very hard cheddar, having been aged for three years, and was quite salty. It had a fantastic meaty, rich, salty flavor that paired very well with a strong, rich imperial stout. In the end, I walked out with a pound of Stilton and a half pound of each of the other two.

So if you like good craft beer, I'd recommend you try pairing it with some good, artisanal cheese. Just remember, you want to pair subtle flavored beers with subtle cheeses, while saving the beers with big, bold flavors for cheeses with the same. Serve the beer cool, but not cold, and the cheese at room temperature.

Besides buying cheese last Saturday, I made it out to Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop. I snapped up a jug of their latest batch of Double Wood Imperial IPA. As I predicted last week, it's excellent. If you like 'em hoppy, get some before it's gone.

Last week I had lunch on Thursday at St. Elias Brewing Company. Their Vanilla Porter was on, so I had a pint to accompany a breadbowl of their excellent Soup of the Day, a Beer & Asiago Cheese Soup. (Beer and cheese, what a novel idea...) The porter was excellent, with a nice clean taste and a subtle vanilla flavor. Zach stopped by my table to chat and told me that his latest batch of Brass Monkey ESB would be on tap later in the day. He said that he had tweaked the hop profile slightly, so I'm looking forward to trying the new version. St. Elias also has some cool new liter swing-top jugs; they have built in handles. I think I'll have to pick one up on my next visit. And before you ask, I'm still waiting for my BDOTY check to arrive, so I had to pay my tab...

As for "new" beers, I drank an old favorite last night, then realized that I had never written a review of it. Midnight Sun Brewing's Monk's Mistress, a Belgian-style Special Dark Ale. It's brewed with Belgian yeast, hopped with East Kent Goldings and Fuggles to 13 IBUs, and brewed to an impressive 11.5% ABV. It pours a very dark brown, almost black, with a good-sized tan head that is slow to dissipate. The roasted malts used give it a wonderful aroma, full of hints of dark fruits, like plums, figs, and raisins. On the tongue, the first thing you notice is a big alcoholic character, very boisterous and very warming. Mouthfeel is viscous, but the carbonation gives a lift, making it smooth and crisp. It's a very complex brew, and a great sipping beer. I spent about three hours finishing mine last night.

If you like malty, strong dark Belgian ales, you'll love Monk's Mistress. Midnight Sun's tag line for this brew is:

Submit. Surrender. Succumb. For tomorrow, you will repent.

I'd say that about sums it up.

We'll, that's all for this week. Have you contacted you Representative about H.R. 4278 yet? See last week's blog to learn why it's important that you do so.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

1 comment:

Cody Christman said...

Reypenaer and a nice balanced Pale Ale! Yes, cheese and beer are great together. Last Saturday the Wynkoop had a great (so I hear) beer & cheese pairing/tasting. Unfortunately I could not make it - though my friends thoroughly enjoyed it. I have to make the next one.

- Cody