Cheese, Alcohol Make for a Spirited Pairing
Alcohol and cheese are a popular pairing, and adding alcohol to the cheese production is an old tradition that dates back to monastic methods from the Middle Ages. Modern cheesemakers have continued the method, and for many American cheesemakers, it provides a great way to combine cheese with local brewers or vintners to meet consumers’ demand for local products.
“A lot of these cheeses are very traditional, especially the monastic cheeses that have been made for hundreds of years in France and Germany,” says Libby Shepard, cheesemonger and general manager for The Cheese Iron in Scarborough, Maine. “Very traditionally, they are washed in ales or ciders, and this is the season (the holiday season) for those sorts of cheeses. Right now, I have a beautiful cheese (Langres) from the Champagne region that they actually wash with Champagne; the flavor of the Champagne really does come through in the cheese.”
But she also notes that several American cheesemakers are beginning to come on the scene and washing cheese with a local distillery’s gins or whiskeys and local brewers’ beers. “That’s fun because that’s really part of the local food movement that’s so popular now,” Shepard adds.
While cheesemakers like Carr Valley have been producing beer-washed cheese for 20 years, says Sid Cook, owner and master cheesemaker, it has taken several years to gain traction. Limburger, Brick and Cheddar all work well with beer. For its beer-based cheese, Carr Valley adds a powdered India Pale Ale during production. The cheesemaker also introduced Porto Duet, a sheep milk cheese marinated in port; sheep milk also works well with wine.
At Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia, cheese washed with beer has been more prevalent than those involving wine or spirits, which may be mostly attributed to the rise in craft beer production in the country. The best-sellers in this category are collaborations that the cheese shop initiated with two local beer producers and cheesemakers, notes Hunter Fike, merchandising and category manager. One such collaboration is Soft Harbison, a collaboration between Jasper Hill and Fermentery Form. “We sent Jasper Hill a couple cases of Form’s Belgian Wit, called ‘Soft,’ which was liberally applied to the developing rinds of Harbison,” he says. The beer has hints of coriander, orange zest and chamomile, which really permeated the cheese. “The team at Jasper Hill kept telling us it was one of the best batches they’ve ever made,” Fike notes.
The other popular collaboration is Troegenator Tomme, a result of Troegs Brewing teaming up with Cherry Grove Farm in New Jersey. “The cheese eats like a funky, farmhouse-style tomme of central France, but with American terroir. It’s pudgy and peanutty,” Fike adds.
At The Cheese Iron, Rogue River Reserve, a blue cheese soaked in Clear Creek pear brandy and wrapped in shiraz vine leaves, “is huge for us this time of year,” Shepard says. While that particular award-winning cheese is seasonal, the cheese shop does have some favorites that are available year-round. One of which is Cabricharme, a Belgian goat cheese washed in Belgian ale. “It really doesn’t taste much like the beer itself, but it does lend that sort of earthy, musky quality to the rind,” Shepard says.
For retailers, these cheeses provide easy pairing options. “It’s a no-brainer for retailers to do pairing,” says Cook. “For example, with our Porto Duet, buy a port or red wine. The names help consumers, and retailers can suggest pairings.”
Sartori, which offers several alcohol-washed cheeses, gives pairing suggestions on its website, notes Maria Sartori, brand ambassador. For example, with its Cognac BellaVitano — an aged BellaVitano steeped in Remy Martin Cognac for up to 10 days that produces smoky, nutty, oaky flavors with toasted notes of vanilla and caramel — pairs well Beaujolais, Chardonnay, pinot noir or merlot wines and porter, dark malty pale ales and stouts. For food, the cheesemaker suggests pairing it with nuts, crusty artisan bread, dried pineapple, chocolate, red grapes, cured sausage or smoked meats.
Shepard agrees with the simplicity of the pairing options. “Back to the Langres from the Champagne region of France, traditionally how you serve it is you put it on a plate and pour champagne right over the cheese on the plate, then smear it on crackers or bread,” she says. “The beer washed ones are always going to pair well with the beers or the style of beer they were washed in.”
At Di Bruno Bros., Fike notes that they also often suggest the obvious pairings of the beer or wine the cheese was washed in as well, but “as far as condiments go, we like to suggest something savory, like an onion confit. With the nuttier options, a ‘deep track’ pairing suggestion would be Stagg’s Banana Jam, like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but grown up.”
Consumer education has been minimal, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some misconceptions that need to be worked out. “We do certainly get questions like ‘Are there traces of alcohol in it?’” notes Sartori. “Which there are not. Once it’s been on the cheese, there’s no traces of alcohol.”
The Cheese Iron fields similar questions, but also deals with questions about flavor. “A lot of these cheeses are aged for anywhere from just a couple of weeks to a significant amount of time. So, the flavor you’re familiar with from beer or wine or liquor is going to be completely different from what the end product will taste like. Washing a cheese in a good, dark beer might give a little more of that malty, yeasty flavor, but it’s not going to taste like you’re sitting down with a glass of stout.”
All agree that there is really nowhere for this segment of the cheese category to go but up.
“Washing cheeses with alcohol has yet to become a full-on trend, but we are starting to see it pop up more and more,” says Fike. “This is a category that will continue to grow. I believe more collaborations will occur all around the country. It makes too much sense for it not to continue, both because the products work well together and because customers are immediately interested. I used to think nothing was easier to sell than cheese, but if I mentioned that a cheese is washed in wine, customers are doubly interested.”