I was quite excited by the prospect of this seminar. It was a session focusing on cheese and beer pairing, led by Francis Percival (who, together with his cheesebuying wife Bronwen has penned an upcoming book on cheese called Reinventing the Wheel ) and Melissa Monsoff (a master sommelier with beer expertise).
Francis began the seminar by describing how he recently took a scything class. Scything, an old-school way of cutting grass, was still in use in the UK back in the 1960s. He showed a picture of a field in the Yorkshire Dales in 1962, where the grass had been scythed for hay production. ‘Beer and cheese are both basically grass,’ he said. ‘We are looking at how these products access different parts of the grass.’
For cheese, ruminants break down cellulose in grass for energy. For beer, it’s all based on endosperm in grass seeds, which provides the sugar source for alcohol production. He pointed out that there are pronounced resonances between the worlds of cheese and beer making, which are both based on microbiology. ‘They are exercises in practical microbial ecology, like wine,’ he pointed out.
The microbes come to play early on in cheese making. Ruminants can access energy from cellulose, but we can’t. They derive their energy from an act of fermentation: they depend on microbial energy to break down cellulose into volatile fatty acids.
Cheesemaking is analogous to winemaking. In winemaking you are synchronising fermentation and extraction; whereas with cheese making you are synchronising fermentation and moisture removal. A litre of milk will give around 100 g of cheese. This conversion of something fragile and perishable into something much lighter and more robust was very important in the pre-industrial era.
Milk, of course, is made for young ruminants. Milk coagulates when it enters the acidity of the stomach and turns into curds. Whey is released, which contains milk sugars which is energy for the young animal. The solid curd remains and is digested more slowly.
Cheesemaking hijacks this metabolism of young ruminants, and it is the rennet, the enzyme present in the stomachs of juvenile ruminants, that is added to milk to begin the cheesemaking process. Then, lactic acid bacteria digest the milk sugars and produce lactic acid, a process called acidification. This is then followed by drainage, where much of the liquid is removed. Acidification and drainage are the two fundamental processes of cheese making
The cheese industry is bad at communicating how and why different cheeses are different from each other. Instead of talking about hard and soft cheese, or the animal origin, it’s better to talk about how the cheese is made. There are four fundamental types, on a 2 by 2 matrix consisting of high acid to low acid, and low moisture to high moisture. This classification is made at the moment of moulding, when the curds go into the container that will give the cheese its shape
- High moisture gives a soft cheese. If you have high acidity, then your cheese will be crumbly. Goats cheese from the Loire would be high acid/high moisture.
- Low acid/high moisture will be be ‘elastic taste’ cheeses.
- Low moisture and low acid gives alpine cheeses such as comte and beaufourt. The curds taste sweet and milky but they are also dry.
- High acid fully fermented curds and low moisture makes the cheese tend towards hard and crumbly – these are the classic British territorial cheeses such as cheddar.
- From the dawn of microbiology cheese has been understood as a practical exercise in microbial ecology. Now, some are using molecular tools to look at this ecology in detail.
Ben Wolfe and Rachel Dutton got funding from NIH to look at cheese rinds for a model system to understand real world microbial interactions. The cheese rind is a good model system because it is a reproducible succession of microbes. At the genus level they found that the microbes found on the rind are dependent on the type of cheese made rather than where the cheese is from. Now they are doing more research at the species level and it has become a little more complex and interesting.
The cheese rind is important and you want the right bacteria to colonize it – this is why the rind is washed. Then there’s a succession of communities that grow on the rind – from Staphylococcus to yeast to actinobacteria and to mould. This process occurs because the rind dries out and also loses acidity.
Melissa explained how she sets about matching beer and cheese. ‘In assessing [beer] aroma I’m looking for the main ingredients and what resonates the most,’ she says. ‘I’m trying to find commonality with cheese and beer aromas. In the palate, how it feels in the mouth is important. Then I think about the brewing ingredients on the palate.’ She pointed out that the water used in brewing is really important for beer quality, and it’s an element that has to be considered in pairing.
In particular, salty and bitter flavours are key. Salty cuts bitter: the saltiness of the cheese cuts the bitterness of the beer and enhances the sweetness. Cheese and beer often work so well together for this reason.
The matching process:
- Deconstruct: pick out the important aspects of the cheese: taste, smell, texture
- Break down the beer into base ingredients
- Matching intensity is important
- Work with the balance: some cheeses overtake the flavour of the beer. Look for balance, for the two to complement each other, see a nice contrast and look for similar aromas (earthy, barnyard, herbal, citrus, fermentation, etc)
- Taking it to the next level: go beyond matchy/matchy, go beyond the classics and think about things like seasons
What does the cheese need? Does it need freshness, hops, fruit, sour/tart, earthy, malt/toast/caramel/ sweetness?
On a cheese plate there are often other things apart from cheese, so why not use beer instead to go with the cheese?
Willoughby washed by Shacksbury Cider
Made by Jasper Hill, Vermont, USA
Pasteurized cow’s milk, own herd, animal rennet
Willoughby washed in brine
Both are lovely cheeses but the cider-washed cheese has more bite and complexity. It’s soft and complex.
Matched with Shacksbury Craft Cider from Vermont (6.5%)
Tangy and intense with lovely acidity. Appley, broad and really complex. There are nine different kinds of apples here, including some sourced from the UK. Quite a dry, tangy, complex style.
We also tried the cheeses with Orval Trappist Ale (6.9%) from Belgium.
This is very earthy and savoury with some herbal notes. It is earthy hoppy with some Brettanomyces. There’s a contrast here between the sweetness of the cheese and the bitter notes of the beer.
This cheese is made with a continuous whey starter. It is made by Joe Bennett, Staffordshire from raw goat’s milk.
Really tangy and intense with lovely complexity and acidity. Very powerful flavours and quite lovely with amazing intensity. The process produces a lot of sulphurous aromas: cabbage and truffle.
This is paired with Pilsner Urquell (4.9%)
It makes the beer taste sweeter, and the grassiness of the cheese and high acidity work well the subtly herbal hop characters of the pilsner. It’s a surprising match.
Camambert de Normandie made by Laiterie Fromagiere du Val d’Ay. This cheesemaker pools raw milk from 60 farms and then they keep the milk overnight. They run PCR for four pathogens on site. If the milk is clean they will make Camembert with it. The other Normandy appellations allow pasteurized milk cheese, so if there are any of these pathogens, the cheese it is declassified, the milk is pasteurized and they make the others. This happens about a third of the time.
Modern Camembert only exists because you can inoculate with a cocktail of yeasts and moulds. Uninoculated it looks quite different. In Normandy there are only two remaining farmhouse producers.
Matched with Sam Smth Nut Brown Ale (6.5%)
Nice match between the nut and chocolate notes of the beer, with some sweet caramel. This works with the creaminess. I don’t like the beer much, but it works with the cheese.
Also Fullers ESB (5.9%)
There’s a bit of hop bitterness. Rich, malty and a bit tangy with some hoppy bitterness. A really good match with the sweetness of the beer coming out in contrast to the creamy, tangy cheese.
Francis pointed out that it is possible to point to things in the cheese that are a consequence of the farming decisions that have been made. Not all grazing is created equal. As long as the cheese is made sensitively you can taste the difference between cheese from animals grown on a biodiverse wild flower meadow compared with a moderately high yielding grazing field composed of just ryegrass and clover.
Saint-Nectaire from the Guerin family from raw cow’s milk in the Auvergne. It’s the dry Riesling of cheese: it is not tricked out. It is a good cheese for giving you a sense of the pasture. The flavour is really balanced with some creaminess and lovely texture.
There is a research group looking at cheese in the Auvergne, and they are interested in terpenes. There are plants in diverse pastures that the animals like eating with resinous terpenes, and then you find them in the milk. You can’t find them in the cheese though. But the cheese from milk of animals grazing these pastures are quantifiably different. Many of these compounds in the milk have selective antimicrobial properties that then alter the microbial ecology of the cheese. Terpenes are in the hops of beer: they are aromatic bittering agents.
The remaining cheeses Francis put into a category named ‘British territorial cheeses’. ‘These are session cheeses,’ he explained. ‘These are substantial and significant. They are also cheeses where delicacy is a virtue.’ Fortunately, he points out, we are living in the era of celebrating delicacy, nuance and balance, rather than power.
These cheeses are an endangered species. Raw milk farmhouse cheesemakers are few and far between now. There were 388 farmhouse Cheddar producers in 1939, now there are just 3. Wensleydale has gone down from 176 to 0. Cheshire is down from 405 to 1.
Saint James, made by Nicola and Martin Gott in Cumbria. Very smooth, fine grained and spicy with lovely texture. Really fine and expressive. Creamy with a fine spiciness. It’s a raw sheeps milk cheese with a washed rind. Very seductive.
In terms of beer pairing this cheese needs something intense, sweet and well carbonated, but nothing too heavy. ‘When in doubt go Belgian,’ quips Melissa. The beer is the Chimay Premiere, 7% alcohol. The brewing water is free of minerals to create richness and softness. It’s sweet, toffeed and intense with a very rich texture and some spice from the carbonation. This works well: the sweetness of the beer is lessened and the bitter hops balance the sweetness of texture of the cheese. The Fullers ESB, a bit drier, doesn’t work so well, although there is some nice nut and toffee that is quite good with the sweetness of the cheese.
Appleby’s Cheshire, made by Gary Gray and the Appleby family from raw cow’s milk in Shropshire. It’s hard and has high acid, with a dry, slightly crumbly structure and some spiciness on the finish. Very full flavoured with lovely intensity of flavour. Tangy and intense. The pairing here is the Sam Smiths Nut Brown. The dryness of the beer works well, but the cheese dominates the beer a bit with its intense flavour. The cider is probably a better match, although this time the cider risks dominating.
Kirkham’s Lancashire, a raw cow’s milk cheese made by Graham Kirkham in Lancashire. It’s creamy, crumbly and delicious, and quite buttery but with a fruity tang. So complex. The beer pairing is a Kirsch Gose (4.7%) which is tangy, salty and fruity with some cherry and lime notes. Great acidity. The fruitiness and acidity of the beer complement the cheese well. The Chimay works pretty well, with the bold flavours of the Chimay cancelled out a bit and softened by the strong elements of the cheese. They pair well, but in different ways.
Kirkham inoculates with a very low starter culture. He has a 24 hour acidification, and keeps it, and blends a 24 and 48 mix. Acidification normally takes 8 h.
Hafod made by Rob Howard in Ceredigion from raw cow’s milk. This is really smooth and intense with a strong grassy character and lovely intensity. There’s some spicy horseradish on the finish. The beer that Melissa chose was the very fresh, tangy Helles from Community Brewing in Dallas, Texas. It’s made with German malts and hops, and the bitter hops work well with the strong grassy notes, and the freshness counters the spicy horseradish finish on the cheese. It’s a good match.
This Hafod is a hard cheese that feels soft because of the fat chemistry. If you are grazing rather than being fed grain-based diets you get lower levels of fats. The curd colour is different. The Hafod is undyed, but still a bright yellow: this is a result of the grazing. The milk is sterile in the upper part of the udder, but microbes get into the milk. Farmers are interested in how you address the teet. There is a decline in microbial populations in raw milk – this can result in the loss of gastronomic culture.
If you need to sell fluid milk you need as few microbes as possible. There are antimicrobials in the milking parlour. In Hafod, they use best practice, which is cleaning the udder with wood wool. It’s cheap, sterile and biodegradable.
Stichelton is a Stilton (it’s illegal to call it that because you need to make stilton from pasteurized milk) made with raw milk. It’s a brilliant cheese.
The match: North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout.
The rich saltiness of the cheese goes with the big, bitter flavours of the beer. The alcohol also adds richness (9%) with lots of hops and malt, and it goes well with the potent, spicy tangy Stichelton flavours.
The other match is the JW Lees Harvest Ale 2009, which is 11.5% alcohol, a barley wine. This is very sweet indeed with real intensity and some subtle herby notes alongside the liquid toffee and fudge. It sort of works but I think the Stout is best.
So that was it: a brilliant seminar with some amazing cheeses and thoughtful beer matches that worked pretty well. I quite fancy getting hold of some serious cheese and experimenting with some interesting beers.