Friday, May 06, 2011

The Session #51: Beer and Cheese

The monthly roundtable of beer writers/bloggers that is The Session is convened the first Friday of every month. A different host announces a theme of their choosing each month and plays the role of host and gatherer of submissions on the topic. (For a history of all Sessions, check out Jay's compilation of monthly wrap-ups.)

This month, May 2011, Jay Brooks took the helm. He announced the topic of 'Beer & Cheese: The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off', which of itself is a worthy subject for sure. But, he went the one extra step (perhaps in an effort to lure the likes of me back in to the fold after many, many months of absence from The Session) and set out a few specific rules for playing along. See, I haven't participated in this monthly project since somewhere in the early months of year one or two. This topic, though, is one that I couldn't refuse given the two tasty subjects and the added degree of difficulty.

I chose to not only share with you the tasting results from the group of eager and willing participants I gathered, but to also use this as a sort of guide to running your own beer and cheese tasting. Hopefully, there are some points in here (both in my successes and oversights) that you can take away as learning points as did I.

(the tasting table prep)
The Session "rules"
Jay asked all who would participate to go out and buy three cheeses. He named three cheeses that should readily be found in most major markets across the States, thus ensuring a somewhat level playing field for all involved. The first two were no problem for me, Cypress Grove Chevre's Humboldt Fog and Maytag Dairy Farm's Blue. The third, Widmer one year-aged Cheddar, I've seen plenty of on store shelves, but when I went to the cheese display this particular time, I came up empty. In fact, finding a one-year old aged cheddar to my liking from Wisconsin proved to be way more difficult than I would have imagined. So, I opted for Carr Valley's Snow White Goat Cheddar (cloth-bound and cave-aged six months) as a close approximation. Next to this cheese on the shelf was another that caught my eye, the Apple-smoked Cheddar also from Carr Valley.

Here are short manufacturer descriptions for each:
Carr Valley Apple Smoked Cheddar, $10.50 per pound
La Valle, WI
Made in a 12# wheel. This white cheddar is apple smoked and then hand rubbed with paprika. It has a light smoky flavor that balances very well with the paprika. This cheese won 1st Place at the 2005 American Cheese Society in its category, 3rd Place at the 2006 World Cheese Competition, and 3rd Place at the 2006 American Cheese Society Competition.

Carr Valley Snow White Goat Cheddar, $16.60 per pound
La Valle, WI
A creamy white Goat Cheddar Cheese made in 38# wheels and cave aged for 6 months. Took 2nd Place at the 2007 American Cheese Society Competition and 2008 Best in Show at American Cheese Society.

Cypress Grove Chevre Humboldt Fog, $22.99 per pound
Arcata, CA
Our signature offering, Humboldt Fog® is an elegant, soft, surface ripened cheese. The texture is creamy and luscious with a subtle tangy flavor. Each handcrafted wheel features a ribbon of edible vegetable ash along its center and a coating of ash under its exterior to give it a distinctive, cake-like appearance. An American Original!

Maytag Dairy Farms Blue, $14.90 per pound
Newton, IA
Made from cow's milk. It has been produced since 1920's when the Maytag's founded their family farm and began producing cheeses. Maytag Blue has a crumbly texture and it reveals a very spicy flavor. The period of curing and maturing takes six months.

After procuring these cheeses from our local Wegmans store, the next step in the game was to taste the cheeses paired with beers of my choosing — ones that I thought might pair well with each cheese. I could do this tasting solo or get others to participate. I wanted to keep this somewhat under control so Patty and I invited over just a couple of neighbors.

Beer and Cheese tasting preparation
I put together a tasting notes page for each of our participants. On one hand, I wanted to get enough feedback that I would somehow incorporate into this writeup of the cheeses and beers. But, on the other hand, I didn't want the form to be so "geeky" and so overwhelming when what I really wanted was for people to sample and enjoy without feeling too stressed by what I was asking.

To prepare for the gathering and tasting, while it was all about the beer and cheese, obviously there were other things I needed to worry about as well. If you prepare your own beer and cheese tasting, here are some things that you may also find handy to keep in mind.

Things like:

  • sufficient tasting area around the table for beer, food, glassware, writing, etc.
  • small sampling glassware
  • water glasses, and extra water for rinsing, if desired (dump bucket also, if so)
  • napkins
  • tasting notes forms and pens
  • tools like knives, spoons, cheese spreaders, etc.
  • crackers with very little flavor as a palate neutralizer between beers/cheeses
  • small snacks of food that might include nuts and fruits

    The Session at The Brew Lounge
    It's also important to choose a good day and time to conduct the tasting. Many will say that the palate, like much of the rest of the body, is more receptive and perceptive earlier in the day. Weekends, for some, can be less stressful as opposed to weeknight scheduling. This, however, does not typically accommodate well when trying to schedule a group of people. We took the opposite approach and chose a Wednesday night around 9 p.m. to undertake this little project.

    Selecting the beers was fun. My goal, as you'll see on the tasting notes form, was to ask that each participant definitely drink the one beer that I suggested with each cheese. I also put a variety of other beers on the table so that any of them could be tried with any of the beers. I attempted, for the most part, to choose beers that I already had on hand in my cooler and that any of you readers — no matter your location — would have a good chance of finding either across the Philadelphia region or the country.

    Each person would then make notes on the following for each beer and cheese:

  • What does it smell like?
  • What does it taste like?
  • Comments about the pairing.
  • A ranking within the beer/cheese pairing category.
  • An overall pairing ranking.

    Like I said, I didn't want to get into an overly scientific analysis and therefore constructed the form to hopefully be as least intimidating as possible. Check it out the form below (click for larger view).

    (the Tasting Notes form)
    The Session, Lessons Learned
    As I might have expected, while I did get good feedback on all forms, we all reached a breaking point eventually. It could have been due to any of the following reasons that you might want to consider if you're throwing your own beer and cheese tasting party.

  • I was distracted by the Philadelphia Flyers playoff game that I had on the TV in the background. Music would have been the better choice, particularly given the final score!
  • There was too much clutter on the table. It was all necessary, but the table that we used on the sun porch was too small.
  • At the same time, I had too much beer and cheese on the table. In hindsight, I might instead have chosen to put a small hunk of each cheese on individual plates and maybe even pre-poured the recommended beers. That way, extra bottles and cheese could have been moved off to a side table for later additional servings.

    This was my first such structured tasting, with notes/forms and whatnot, so this was a learning experience for sure.

    (the chosen 4)
    The Session, Results
    To the results, beer-man! What you'll see in the following notes are a compilation from all of the tasting comments without identifying individual names (to protect the innocent?).

    Humboldt Fog: Paired with Brasserie Dupont Saison

    Pairing judgement: The beer had notes of citrus rind like lemon and grapefruit; other fruit notes like apple and pear. Some honeysuckle and pepperiness as well. The cheese was smooth and tangy, but not overwhelmingly so. Notes of grass, butter, mineral, and fresh milk house buttercream. The cheese was nearly the unanimous favorite and the pairing was fairly well-received with comments about the prickly carbonation that lifts the cheese's creaminess off the the nice balance between the beer's fruitiness and the cheese's creaminess.

    Other pairing notes: The Orval did not have enough punch to stand up to the cheese. The Alaskan Smoked Porter was a pleasant surprise with its smokey creaminess blending nicely with the cheese's creaminess. The Sierra 30th Anniversary was a bit overpowering for the cheese as it muted some of the cheese's more dominant flavors. And, lastly, the Maui Bikini Blonde Lager also surprised with its Meyer Lemon-like and clean flavors that brought out even more of a French butter-like quality in the cheese.

    Maytag Blue: Paired with Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Barleywine

    Pairing judgement: It seemed that almost no one was up for the sharp tartness of the Maytag Blue. I was surprised by this as I am one that can really pack away mouthfuls of this cheese. But, not on this particular evening; I found the tartness too much for my liking. Others found the same tartness, the same acidity as I along with some flavors of peat moss and "spicy mud". The barleywine and its molasses, port, caramel, and cork characteristics made for a beer that all enjoyed, but the intended pairing was an afterthought. Though, one did comment that the mellowness of the beer provided a nice offset to the tangy sharpness of the cheese.

    Other pairing notes: No one attempted another pairing with the Blue, but I can imagine that a soured beer may provide a nice complement to the cheese.

    Apple-smoked Cheddar: Paired with Alaskan Smoked Porter

    Pairing judgement: I only picked up this cheese because I saw the word "apple-smoked" and thought, "hey, I have one last bottle of '05 Alaskan Smoked Porter...let's give this a try". Most enjoyed the cheese with its fire pit, cedar plank, paprika, sweet bologna, apple, smoked salmon, and burning leaves characteristics. And, most enjoyed the beer and how its mellowed a bit over the years while still retaining its pleasant leathery, wood, and also burning leaves flavors and aromas. All agreed that smoked next to smoked, though, did not do so well together.

    Other pairing notes: A recurring secondary pairing that pleased a few of us was the Dogfish Indian Brown which really did not go well with the other cheese from Carr Valley at all. Here it provided molasses, caramel, and bitter hoppiness that provided additional depth to the pairing that the Smoked Porter could not. Very pleasing.

    Snow White Goat Cheddar: Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale

    Pairing judgement: I realize that this cheddar did not really measure up to Jay's request for a one-year-old (or more) cheddar from Wisconsin. I got the Wisconsin right...but this one was aged six months. I thought it might add a couple of points for being cloth-wrapped and cave-aged, but nonetheless, the pairing did not work. The cheese was nice, and the beer is mighty fine and worked well with the apple-smoked. But, the grassy, earthy, burlap, somewhat gamy/goat-y properties of the cheese were overpowered by the hoppiness of the beer.

    Other pairing notes: The cheese only worked for a couple of us, therefore the only one alternative pairing that was attempted was with the Maui Bikini Blonde Lager. This one worked better than the DFH beer, but still not stellar. Even though it's a hoppy beer, the 21st Amendment Bitter American might be a combination I should have tried instead.

    Also on the table, but not tried, were: 21st Amendment Back in Black IPA; General Lafayette 275th Anniversary Barleywine; Ommegang Gnomegang; and Scaldis Noel.

    This was a lot of fun. I think I put the right amount of preparation into the tasting night and am anxious to work out a couple of the finer points where I came up short as I mentioned earlier.

    Thanks to Jay Brooks for facilitating this and I'll do my best to reconvene in two weeks for another go-round.

    (Humboldt Fog, far and away the most popular)
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