When our friend Ben invited us to visit his lakeside camp in Maine, we jumped at the chance. A weekend away from the city. A literal breath of fresh air. And, as Ben’s parents own and operate a stove, fireplace, and grill store, the opportunity to utilize a truly beautiful piece of barbecuing hardware. Fantastic. We couldn’t just drop everything and wakeboard the weekend away, however. After a bit of brainstorming, it was decided that we’d celebrate our woodland getaway with a country-inspired beer and cheese pairing. We grabbed a bottle of Mystic’s “Saison Renaud”, Brewery Ommegang’s “Bière d’Hougoumont”, and to change it up and stray from the farmhouse path, Nightshift Brewing’s “Trifecta”. To pair with our trio of nectar, we decided on a healthy and pungent selection of washed rind cheeses: Consider Bardwell’s “Pawlet”, Twig Farm’s “Washed Rind”, Cato Corner Farm’s “Hooligan”, and Jasper Hill’s “Winnimere”. We couldn’t stop there though. A huge fan of goat cheese, we also nabbed some of Blue Ledge Farm’s “Lake’s Edge” and Sage Farm’s “Madonna”. Laden with goodies, we struck out for the untamed wilderness of Vacationland.
The cheeses (clockwise from the top left): Pawlet, Madonna, Lake’s Edge, Washed Rind, Winnimere, and Hooligan
The worlds of craft beer and artisan cheese are represented by an amazingly vast array of styles and products. In this vein, beer continues to charm countless drinkers with its myriad of flavors and engages palates with a plethora of sensations. From silky and subtly carbonated to bursting with effervescence, from malty sweetness to intense hop bitterness, it exists as the perfect companion to another staple (and usually fermented) food – Cheese. Like beer, cheese is incredibly diverse. Derived from a multitude of milks and formatted, aged, and flavored in various ways, cheese spans a wide spectrum of flavors and textures. But what most cheeses do have in common is a high fat content and some degree of saltiness. The residual malt-derived sugars in beer contrast this saltiness nicely. Similarly, acidity, carbonation, and hop bitterness wash and cleanse the palate of milk fats which otherwise may coat the tongue and prevent certain flavors and sensations from gracing the palate.
Farmhouse ales (such as Saisons and Bières de Garde) describe a subset of beers which were used to refresh summertime farm hands, to provide winter employment and labor, and to generate spent grain for wintering cattle. Franco-Belge by heritage, it is thought that the styles hail from Wollonia, the French-speaking region of southern Belgium. Indeed, “Saison” translates to season, while “Bière de Garde” translates to beer of keeping; both exist as relics of a time when farmer-brewers brewed beer seasonally in the late fall and winter – when temperatures were ripe for fermentation to occur – creating a provisionary supply of beer for the remainder of the year. Though the history and culture surrounding these styles is undoubtedly rich, which is why they continue to be personal favorites, little is actually known about the historic recipes and the styles themselves. Farm life, as it turns out, was simply not well documented. Born in Belgium and France, regions well-known for rather laissez-faire brewing traditions, both styles have recently cropped up in the United States with unparalleled vigor. The styles’ loose structure permits a wide acceptance of experimentation, a trait which thrives within the American craft beer initiative. Generally speaking, modern Saisons tend to be ales which are highly carbonated, fruity, and quite dry, while their Bières de Garde counterparts exhibit less hop character, more maltiness, and tend to be more full-bodied.
Mystics “Saison Renaud”, named after their Renaud house yeast, is a light, refreshing, and cheerful Saison. Brewed with Pilsner malt – which imparts a straw color and slightly sweet character – and Saaz Hops, the beer is refreshing and straightforward. With few ingredients to hide behind, “Saison Renaud” not only showcases Mystic’s house yeast strain, but also stands as testament to the technical brewing attention of Mystic’s brewers and their impressive understanding of the farmhouse style. Medium-light in body with hints of straw, spice notes, and subtle fruit, “Saison Renaud” is a fantastic addition to the Mystic lineup. Brewery Ommegang’s “Bière D’Hougoumont” is noticeably darker and heavier than its Saison counterpart. Named after the historic farmstead at the center of Napoleon’s battle at Waterloo, the Hougoumont is said to be brewed with eight different malts, Strisselspalt hops, and is aged on both white oak and hard maple staves. The richly amber-colored beer’s malt character is phenomenal, with caramel notes, hints of toast and toffee, and a comfortable warmth which helps blend everything together. The Strisselspalt hop, a native hop of France – specifically the eastern region around Strasbourg – is a mild varietal known for a roughly 1:1 ration of alpha acids (contributing to bitterness) and beta acids (contributing to flavor and aroma) and is widely regarded as having a mild, pleasant hop aroma which fits the farmhouse bill well. Finally, the oak and maple staves provide a certain spicy, earthy undertone, taking the traditional farmhouse style in a pleasant and slightly different (perhaps more traditional, even?) direction. Finally, Nightshift Brewing’s “Trifecta” rounded off our trio of beers. The “Trifecta” provided something a bit different. Neither grassy nor earthy, “Trifecta” showcased the smoothness of its vanilla and unique triad of Belgian yeasts. Having had the beer before, it was noticeably fruitier this go-around. As it turns out, Nightshift experimented on the ratio of yeast for this eighth batch, culminating in an increased fruitiness and more subdued spice character. As we would come to see, this would ultimately influence how the beer paired with our cheese selection.
Cato Corner Farm’s Hooligan
With the Saisons and otherwise Belgian-styled beer, we looked to geography and history to direct us towards appropriate cheese pairings. In the same region of Wallonia on the Franco-Belgian border, a style of cheese proliferates known as a washed rind cheese. These cheeses are colloquially referred to as the stinky cheeses, with sulfuric and farmy notes that are given off by the particular reddish hued B. Linen bacteria encouraged to grow on the cheese’s exterior. Frequent washings of brine or other liquids, such as beer, wine, or brandy, and a humid aging environment allow the creation of these truly exceptional cheeses. We chose a few of our favorite domestic washed-rind cheeses that are styled after these northern Europe forbearers.
“Pawlet” is the mildest of the bunch. Peter Dixon at Consider Bardwell Farm makes this cheese with the raw milk of a couple of neighbor’s organic Jersey cows. He washes this four to six month aged cheese like a similarly aged infant, only gently. This leads to a textural contrast with the other cheeses featured here which are washed more vigorously and aged for a shorter period of time (around 90 days). Michael Lee at Twig Farm combines the raw milk of his mixed herd of Alpine, Nubian, and Saanen goats with the raw milk of pastured Jersey cows to create his sardonically, if appropriately, named “Washed Rind.” The mixed milk gives this cheese a heighted acidity perfectly complementing the cheese’s subtle sweetness. Cato Corner Farm’s “Hooligan” certainly lives up to its name. This little stinker packs quite a punch, a result of it receiving a bath twice weekly in brine solution which encourages significant bacterial growth. Mark Gillman has nearly perfected the art of washed rind cheeses and actually makes a number of varieties washed in various liquors including eau di vie, grape must, and brown ale.
But since cheese and beer pairing is far from a rigorous science we chose a few untraditional cheeses that we thought would be delicious with the beer and for the tremendous weather. Nearest to the others in style was “Winnimere” from Jasper Hill Farm. This cows milk washed rind cheese is wrapped in on-site harvested spruce bark helping to not only hold this runny cheese together but to give it a tremendous woodsy taste. Its modeled on a cheese known as Èdel de Cleron from the Jura mountain range in Eastern France. Not satisfied that washed rind cheeses were the only delightful pairing we added two fantastic goats to the equation. Greg and Hannah at Blue Ledge Farm make a wonderfully sweet and smooth goats milk cheese known as “Lake’s Edge.” Not only is it tasty but it’s aesthetically gorgeous, with a layer of ash adding visual contrast to the paste and a well formed bloomy white rind. Last, but certainly not least, we included Sage Farm’s soft-ripened disc called “Madonna.” Katie and Molly raise an extremely small herd of sixteen alpine goats and the care they take with them shines brilliantly in their cheese. Madonna has a slightly crumbly paste with a hint of citrus but the floral sweetness of the milk comes through most prominent.
Blue Ledge Farm’s Lakes Edge
“Trifecta” loved the goat cheeses, “Lakes Edge” and “Madonna”. The eighth batch’s fruitiness and smooth vanilla paired well with the clean, creamy, and slightly tangy goat cheese, but was grossly overpowered by the pungent earthiness of the washed rinds, namely “Washed Rind” and “Hooligan”. ”Saison Renaud”, on the other hand, favored these washed rinds. The dry, effervescent, and grassy nature of “Saison Renaud”, highlighted by the earthiness of the noble Saaz hops, both illuminate and contrast the cheeses’ stronger character. Field meets barnyard while a pleasant carbonation tempers the stinky, washed rinds and washes away the cloying milk fats. But it was especially friendly with Jasper Hill’s Winnimere whose particularly unctuous paste benefited from the beers palate cleansing effervescence. The “Bière d’Hougoumont” starred as every cheese’s best friend. Earthy, farmlike, and wood-aged, it took to the washed rind cheeses like a long-lost sibling, while its sweet maltiness paired exceptionally well with the tart goat cheese. Of particular note for the Hougoumont is its wood-aging. The addition of the oak and hard maple really set this beer apart – the spicy wood notes and subtle, almost whisky-like smoothness rounded out the pungency of the washed rind cheeses while also providing a delightful backdrop for their earthier elements. Defying the odds, “Hooligan” was even tamed by this beer. Having a wood-aged beer for future washed rind pairings is a must.
Acknowledgments: We would like to thank our friend Domenica Cerasaro for photographing the event.