Cheese Makers Take the Plunge

CHEESE MAKERS
TAKE THE PLUNGE

Beer-bathed cheeses

cheese
The distinct amber hue of Sprout Creek’s
Point of Origin cheese washed in beer.

BY BEN KEENE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER MAY

“Y

ou want that meaty flavor, a smoky, rich, buttery flavor. You don’t want something sour or overly acidic. You want it to be stinky within limits.”

Brian Ralph, the “cave manager,” in charge of ripening the cheeses in subterranean caves, at Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, was telling me what to look for in a washed-rind cheese, specifically a cheese washed in beer. I had called him with a lot of questions, but I wasn’t asking about this dairy product as a cheese connoisseur. I was asking as a beer enthusiast. Few things sounded better to me than a wheel of gooey cheese bathed in strong dark ale or a big, bold stout.

The practice of washing rinds began in the Middle Ages, when the challenge was to keep fragile foods stable beyond their natural expiration date without the benefit of refrigeration. Bathing a wheel in saltwater brine or a solution of beer, wine or spirits achieved the desired result: longevity. The bacteria that typically grows on a washed-rind is Brevibacterium linens, a microorganism that prefers a more basic environment and lends bright-orange, reddish-brown or, on occasion, pink surface color. As the cheese ripens, the paste within becomes soft, tacky and gooey while the aroma intensifies. The pungent smell however—pleasantly funky to some—doesn’t correspond to the flavor profile of the mature cheese. Extremely fragrant examples often reveal themselves to be rich and nuanced when tasted. According to Mr. Ralph, the principles behind rind-washing closely resemble those that led to the tradition of curing meats, meaning they stabilize but are not quite impervious to pathogens and the risk of going horribly wrong. “You still have to keep it cool,” he explains, referring to maintaining the cheese at a cool, but not quite refrigerated, temperature. “But salt is antimicrobial, so it can eliminate bad pathogens.”

Bathing a wheel in a saltwater brine or a
solution of beer, wine or spirits achieved
the desired result: longevity.

The Acid Test

Today, these practices of washing the rind are more typically employed by creameries looking to contribute additional flavor to the products they distribute to wholesalers and local cheesemongers. In Jefferson, Harpersfield Dairy makes a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese washed in local Ommegang Abbey Ale that has broadened the perception of what cheese could be for many. Further west, in Mecklenburg, Bronson Hill Cheesery makes an aged raw cow’s milk cheese with Ithaca Beer Company’s Gorges Smoked Porter. And in Poughkeepsie, Sprout Creek Farm recently experimented with various brews from Brooklyn’s Sixpoint to create a new seasonal cheese exclusively for sale at Whole Foods Markets in the Northeast.

“I’ve never been one for flavor additives,” says Colin McGrath, head cheesemaker at Sprout Creek Farm (see related story, p. 45). “And I’m that way with beer, too. I don’t want a smoked chipotle lager. But I’ve never had a problem combining beer and cheese. It’s been done for thousands of years. I’ve always wanted to, actually.”

Part of the
challenge, of course,
is finding the right
beer or wine to use
for the rind.

Experimenting with different ales for months, McGrath ended up creating 12 trial batches before arriving at “Point of Origin,” the variety that will appear at cheese counters in regional Whole Foods stores this spring. Since he hadn’t made a beer washed-rind cheese before, McGrath admits that he overthought the recipe in the very beginning. He initially took five gallons of beer, reduced it down into a syrup and put this in the middle of his test wheel. When the resulting cheese got mixed reviews, McGrath decided it was back to the drawing board (cheesemaking, in essence, is largely about experimentation). He had to get the brine right first, in this case the brine was the beer; and ultimately, the pungency of the cheese needed to complement the character of the beer.

“I tried it with Sweet Action, and it didn’t shine through,” McGrath remembers, referring to Sixpoint’s popular cream ale. “But you never get it the first time. You never do.” Point of Origin has been, for McGrath, one of the “most mentally challenging” projects he has tackled as a cheesemaker. He has continually labored over it, put in the midnight hours and called upon all of his creative reserves to produce something that he hopes will be worth the consideration and toil he put into it.

Part of the challenge, of course, is finding the right beer or wine to use for the rind. Then, depending on beer availability and consumer demand, the issue becomes a matter of consistent supply. For Nancy Taber Richards, the owner and cheesemaker at Bronson Hill in Trumansburg, the answer was the deepest, strongest beer she could get her hands on. At the same time, though, she also had a desire to work with a craft brewer from New York. So, after starting with Ithaca’s somewhat sweet Nut Brown, Richards eventually found the darker, smoky porter to be a better match for her Red Meck farmstead cheese, a style based on Dutch Gouda.

“It seemed like a nice way to connect with another local business,” Richards notes, describing the philosophy behind her successful experiment. “They [Ithaca] had an orphaned test keg and we just liked it a little better than Nut Brown. It would be kind of fun to alternate though.”

Happily, the cheese that she calls Bier Meck has become her bestselling wholesale product. Richards believes the complexities of the beer lend it a je ne sais quoi that appeals to consumers, but she also thinks that the versatility of Bier Meck has helped her to sell close to 10 thousand pounds a year since 2008. Generally cow and sheep’s milk yield the best washed-rind cheeses, while the relative thinness of goat’s milk and its pronounced tanginess can make it more difficult to work with. As with many things however, there are exceptions.

Joyce Henion discovered that her goat’s milk Montasio, a monasterystyle cheese with origins in Northern Italy, could be washed in balsamic vinegar infused with rosemary from her own kitchen garden.

At Acorn Hill Farmstead Cheese in Pine Bush, she began with leftover curd, hung up the cheese to see what would happen and got something completely unexpected.

“What happened in the balsamic vinegar wash was that it gave it a really nice flavor in half the aging time. It only took three months instead of six,” she explains. “I took it with me to the Kingston Farmers’ Market and sold out in an hour and a half. People are creatures of habit, but they definitely responded positively to the Montasio.”

Previously, Henion developed a semi-soft goat’s milk cheese that she submerged in a heavy brine and merlot for two weeks. By using Ziegenkäse, an acid precipitation cheese like a ricotta, she was able to enhance an otherwise mild and simple product. Dubbed PurpleMoon, this cheese gained a purple stain and a fruity flavor that many of her customers enjoy with freshly picked local tomatoes in the summer months. Both Henion and Richards spoke about a recent surge of interest in raw milk cheeses and talked about washed-rinds as products that enabled their farms to stand out in a local food industry that continues to grow.

Ralph agreed, citing his experience at Murray’s. “You’re really seeing a larger overall knowledge of cheese in general,” he remarks. “People want something a little more special, higher quality.”

Stinking of Beer

An increased popular interest in craft beers is another asset to washed-rind cheesemakers. Good food often enhances a beer-tasting event, and as many people have discovered, cheese is an excellent companion to a wide variety of ales and lagers. Since my own beery predilections had led me to Mr. McGrath and his Point of Origin, I was pleased to learn that Bier Meck and Harpersfield’s ale-soaked Tilsit also lent themselves to pairings with the assertive styles I often gravitate to. Richards declared beer bread—hot from the oven— served with a thick slice of her cheese and a pint of ale a fun combination, and recommended beer and cheese soup, too.

McGrath, meanwhile, offered advice of a broader nature: “They always match up better, beer and cheese. In wine and cheese, well, there’s a lot of fight in that marriage. You can have a bad pair. But beer and cheese usually never clash. And the cheese I’ve made has these awesome tones.”

Making a mental note of my favorite New York State breweries, I suddenly found myself eager to track down a wedge or two of savory washed-rind cheese. But I needed to contain my excitement. Cold temperatures dull the flavors of food. I had to remember that, as with most handcrafted beers, it never hurts to give these cheeses time to warm up before serving. Because they’ll only taste that much better.


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