Beer and Cheese Pairing Notes, December 2015

Cabot Clothbound Cheddar

My apologies for the infrequency of these dispatches, they have become a casualty of my success both with the beer program and with the writing phase of my professional life. In other words, the beer program’s success began to involve extra time maintaining the Instagram account and of course much more time in the store putting beer on the shelf. Yes, we have a stock clerk, but here’s one key difference between cheese and beer and a grocery store and a boutique. The people I worked with in cheese had an eye toward higher stations in the culinary world; they had a passion for food and of course cheese. The people I work with in grocery stores and especially in grocery beer sections are there to do a job and go home; even though craft beer is a 20 billion dollar a year business, it’s not something that my stock clerks see as a bright future. They are great people and I love my coworkers, but I can’t expect them to parse the difference between Maine Beer Company Lunch and MO or Founders Backwoods Bastard and Breakfast Stout. And I mean in the bottle, not in the glass. Thus I spent two-three hours a day taking care of the shelves in addition to handling the social media marketing, merchandising and much of the purchasing. In store promotion, the fancy term I use for sampling beer and cheese often gets pushed to the back burner, and these days when I get home journalism awaits.

But I did do some in store promotion in December, some where I work at Westside Market East Village and some at three different Whole Foods. Most of it involved trying to break the general public’s resistance to darker beers. During the warmer months, I sought to demonstrate that not all lighter craft beers are India Pale Ales, and that the best india Pale Ales are not just a mouthful of bitter. To that end I frequently introduced the public to Saisons, Helles Lagers, Sours and the like. In December I sought to acquaint the public with the joys of scotch ales, doppelbocks, schwarzbiers, milk stouts, and a few others. The idea was to demonstrate that not all dark beers and the malt and hops equivalent of black coffee.

At Westside I used a mix of classic brews like Schneider Weisse Aventinus, with recently arrived seasonal dark beers like barrel aged Wulver, Evil Twin Christmas Eve in a New York City Hotel Room, Stillwater Surround, The Bruery’s Eight Maids-A-Milking, Stillwater Folklore. At Whole Foods, I was on the clock for Brooklyn Brewery introducing their new Insulated, a dark lager. The WF gigs were a pairing with Flagship, a remarkable cheddar from Beecher’s Handmade. Flagship is a cheddar made with a bit of Gruyere cheese culture so there’s a sweet and nutty component to its flavor profile. Since I often sample Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, I was ready and eager to explain the cheesemaking process, much to the delight of the Beecher’s people. At Westside I used cheddars like Prairie Breeze Milton, the aforementioned Cabot Clothbound, and the occasional dose of Basque Sheep or Marcel Petite Comte as pairing companions.

It has been effective. People are delighted that cheddar is proving to be much more than they originally anticipated, and that not all dark beers finish like black coffee. In January, I’m going to press my campaign into blue cheeses. Ports and Stilton, no! Porters and Stilton, that’s the ticket. Now if only I could persuade the cheese buyer to get me some Stichelton.

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Some More Recent Posts from Beer Geeks TV Blog

On Great NYC Beer Bars

At Beer Geeks TV Blog on Three Great NYC Beer Bars.
Three Great Barrel Aged Beers
Beers and Thanksgiving
Evil Twin
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At Beer Geeks TV Blog on NYC IPA and on the new Paste Magazine Stout List

These new IPA’s are phenomenally bright!

The Paste List judges stouts!

Evil Twin

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Four Blog Posts from Beer Geeks TV Blog

It’s been a busy month.  Here are my latest posts from Beer Geeks TV

On Men, Women and Beer

On the need for a better lexicon

On Why Beer Should be Sold Like Wine

On Liking Beer with Stuff in it.


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Beer and Cheese Pairings October 2

Midnight Moon

There are several reasons that these dispatches have become less frequent. For one, some of the pairings have become routine and feel less newsworthy as a result. Some of the good ones get lost in the writing workload that I have (definitely a good problem) and then other times, I’ve worked so many extra hours at the store, Westside Market East Village that the last thing I want to do when I get home is write about my retail endeavors. The extra hours owe to the nifty coincidence of the busy season starting just as a new stock clerk gets settled in. The new guy is more conscientious than his predecessor but English isn’t his first language and he is still learning to parse the difference between the nine types of Lagunitas and eight varieties of Founders we carry. Asking him to grasp the six varieties of Stillwater or five of Maine Beer Company….yeah, that falls on my shoulders these days.

Anyway, Friday is a night I usually look forward to meeting the public with samples of beer and cheese. People are usually receptive and chatty. This Friday was tougher though. It was the first rainy and cold day of the autumn and on top of that the weather forecasts warned of a hurricane. New Yorkers used to shrug off hurricane forecasts, but Sandy, three years ago knocked the city in general and downtown Manhattan for a loop. Power was out in many areas for weeks, and everywhere for days. So I decided not to take any big risks. When my colleague on the cheese counter suggested I use up some Midnight Moon that he was going to trim, I was thrilled. Midnight Moon is an aged goat gouda from Holland via California and it has a smooth delivery and gentle sweetness that makes it an instant crowd pleaser. Aged Goudas with their sweet overtones and salty finish in general pair well with India Pale Ales and we are having a Double IPA moment. The clientele went crazy for the Grimm’s After Image and before that the Pipeworks Ninja v. Unicorn. We just got the Westbrook Citrus Ninja Exchange and those bottles are moving briskly, perhaps the best selling big bottle right now. I’m hoping to have a dedicated NYC section by the first of the year. Yeah, everyone has Sixpoint and Brooklyn, but I want to anchor a sales area around the work of the new Gotham breweries like Singlecut, Finback and Other Half.

We have two Singlecut bottles, Does Anyone Remember Laughter, an excellent IPA full of orange zest and smoky overtones and a new one, TNT Bon Bon, a Double IPA. I chose the latter to pair. It has a grapefruity finish that I figured would contrast nicely with the Midnight Moon’s smoothness. It did, and people either gravitated toward one or the other. It brought people out of their shell for a minute (“damn that’s good, can you show me where that is” was a common response to the items), which is all you can ask for from people with hurricanes on their mind.

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At Beer Geeks TV Blog on The Rise of Double

Double IPA’s are having a moment!

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Beer and Cheese Pairings September 21


A lot of the work that I’m particularly proud of at Westside Market East Village is in introducing people who don’t consider themselves to be beer drinkers to beers or ciders that they enjoy. About once a week someone will tell me that they didn’t like beer until they tried my free samples and discovered a whole new world called saison or that their new favorite vocabulary word is Brettanomyces. Sunday was a chance to see if I could stretch the playing field in a comparable way with cheese. The nature of our store is that all of the cheese is pre cut and wrapped, and although the section is meticulously maintained (there are two guys who spend 60 hours a week cutting, wrapping, cleaning and rewrapping cheese), this still isn’t optimal for the cheese, and the lack of cheesemongering limits the kind of cheeses that we carry.

Not that the buyer doesn’t take chances. Sunday my colleague gave me pieces of Cantal, an earthy buttery French cheese from the Auvergne, to sample, and I knew why. Cantal, much like a traditional English Cheddar, molds quickly, so I bet that the cheese guys were cleaning it often. The mold on Cantal isn’t “bad.” In fact, it makes the cheese tastier; peppery and earthy notes are more prominent. When I worked at Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn, many customers wanted the bluest cheddar available. My colleague was concerned that I happily left the blue on the surface of the cheese and charged onto the sales floor. “Trust me,” I told him.

To pair with the Cantal, I fulfilled a request. One of the deli managers requested that I sample the Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout as he and his girlfriend had been surveying the dark beers in the inventory, and he wanted to make that one next. He liked the stout, its chocolaty and anise notes were different from other dark beers in our midst. Those overtones enabled the beer to pair nicely with the earthiness of the cheese. When the stout ran out, I switched to Stillwater Brontide, a Belgian Brown Ale, brewed by a Brooklyn based gypsy brewer. The Brontide is lighter and has distinctive caramel notes. If any of the clientele were put off by the moldy cheese, they kept it to themselves. I underestimated them again; I’ll have to some washed rinds in the near future.

Sunday often feels like one long dialogue with a variety of customers; Monday is completely different. The hustle bustle takes over and rush hour borders on a stampede of well dressed urbanites reacting to offers of free artisanal cheese and craft beer with something that borders on contempt. I was left to my devices and chose Etorki, a semi soft sheep cheese from the Basque regions of France (hence the unGaul-like name). The cheese has a muted, grassy sweetness: think of the aroma of dewey meadows in the morning. I figured that would be perfect for the savory overtones and crisp flavor of a classic lager, so I chose the Mahr’s unfiltered lager. The handful of people who tried it liked the pairing, and they were delighted to discover that Etorki was on sale. One woman also enjoyed the beer enough to comment that she didn’t think she liked lagers, but now she knew different.

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ICYMI, That NY Times Story

It came up a few times recently, so those of you just tuning into the narrative, here’s that NY Times story, a story about me rather than by me, but happily a story about writing that I’ve done, albeit on cheese signs.

This is the story,  Jeff Gordinier did a fine job encapsulating the phenomenon.

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ICYMI, Three Wall Street Journal stories on the NYC beer scene

Two of them are outside the firewall.

This one is on the brewing renaissance.

This one is on local gypsy brewers

This one on barrel aging is inside the firewall so….

Barrel-Aged Beer Is Making a Comeback

A growing cadre of brew masters is aging beer in casks that once held bourbon, brandy or wine.


Martin Johnson
Aug. 18, 2014 4:45 p.m. ET

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds a glass of Zymatore beer and a glass of the beer in its original format. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

With its barn, greenhouse and bucolic fields of camomile and berries, B United International Inc., from the outside, doesn’t look like a typical warehouse beer distributorship.

And inside the Oxford, Conn., facility, there is another anomaly: a room where beer is being aged not in huge industrial steel tanks, but in hundreds of hand-me-down wooden barrels. That is where B United, which distributes aficionado brands like Germany’s Schneider Weisse and Japan’s Hitachino, is giving some of its clients’ brew a secondary round of aging—in containers that formerly held wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages.

The Zymatore room at B.United International. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

“Select beers can actually soak up the flavors and aromas of the spirit previously housed in the wooden barrel in a way that…makes it highly interesting,” said Matthias Neidhart, founder and owner of B United.

Mr. Neidhart is among a small, but growing cadre of respected artisan brewers using pre-used wooden barrels, in the belief that the residual flavors and lingering microflora from whatever liquid they previously held can enhance a beer’s aroma and taste.

Those elements don’t transfer from wood to beer automatically, brewers said, but are teased out during a secondary fermentation process involving wild yeast.

“Barrels that once stored a Syrah or Chardonnay to maturity can bring out so many more complexities in flavor,” said Zach Mack, co-owner of the Alphabet City Beer Co., an East Village bar that offers more than 350 varieties of craft brew.

The enthusiasm for barrel aging was first rekindled nearly a decade ago, when brewers discovered that aging beer in bourbon barrels could add tasty vanilla overtones to their porters and stouts. More recently, some have begun expanding their container repertoire, using barrels that have held everything from Sauternes and Scotch to brandy and rum, seeking flavor notes that range from sour to tannic.

New York area brewers are among the leading-edge wood-barrel users.

Garrett Oliver, brew master of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” said he is partial to bourbon barrels, which are typically made of virgin American oak and used only once before being sold. His brewery’s facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard currently houses more than 2,000 wooden barrels for aging beer.

“Bourbon wood is quintessentially American, and that’s a big appeal for me,” said Mr. Oliver.

Brewmaster Ben Neidhart in the Zymatore room with barrels used to age beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

Matt Monahan, co-owner of Other Half Brewing Co., which opened in January in Gowanus, prefers wine barrels. “If you age a beer in a bourbon barrel, it tastes like bourbon,” he said. Other Half is currently using barrels that once housed Zinfandel, Sauternes and even the cult California Cabernet Opus One.

Wooden barrels aren’t exactly new; for centuries, beer was stored and aged in them. But after Prohibition, the American brewery industry dramatically consolidated, and growing companies seeking larger-capacity storage with greater sterility turned to massive stainless steel tanks.

The return to wood-barrel use comes at a time of greater experimentation among craft brewers with more traditional, less industrialized materials and techniques. Some Pale Ale makers, for example, are using techniques like “dry hopping,” popular in the 19th century as a way to stabilize beer and enhance its flavor, by adding hops during the beer’s secondary fermentation.

Wooden barrels usually slow down the aging process. Basil Lee, co-owner of Finback Brewery, which opened in January in Queens, said his company ages beer in both bourbon and wine barrels and chose its 13,000-square-foot space because it had room for longer-term brewing projects.

“I have tasted beers where you wished that they had aged more,” he said. “We sought out a space that would enable us the freedom to age beers for a year or two if necessary.”

Many large-production commercial beers typically age for one month; some lagers take up to four, experts say.

Mr. Neidhart of B United said slower barrel aging allows natural processes to take their course, rather than artificially helping them along with, say, rigorous climate control.

“Conventional brewing is all about controlling the process,” said Mr. Neidhart. “We are trying to return the control to nature.” He ages some of his clients’ beers for two or three years.

“Clients ask us when their beer will be ready and we tell them we don’t know,” he said.

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds two bottles of Zymatore beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

For all the effort, Mr. Neidhart said his barrel-aging program accounts for just 2% of his business, moving over 400,000 case-equivalents of beer annually.

And to be sure, barrel-aged beers are still a niche part of the $14.3 billion annual U.S. craft beer market. But their influence is spreading nationally. California craft breweries like The Bruery and Firestone Walker Brewing Co., for example, have recently launched extensive barrel-aging programs.

In New York, drinkers can find them in beer bars like Proletariat, Terroir and Owl Farm.

And some are beginning to show up in local restaurants. Other Half, for example, is brewing several barrel-aged beers exclusively for Roberta’s, a popular Williamsburg eatery. That is because barrel aging not only adds to overall complexity, said Mr. Monahan, but also tends to soften a beer’s finish over time, helping raise its food-friendly quotient.

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Recent Beer and Cheese Pairing Highlights September 13-18

Slyboro Hidden Star

Yes, I was away. I went to Chicago for a long Labor Day weekend to cover a jazz festival and drink lots of beer; I also introduced my family to two wonderful goat’s milk cheeses, Kunik and Pantaleo. Upon my return to Westside Market East Village, the beer and cheese pairings felt kinda similar to what I had been doing before I left, then last Sunday, my cheese department colleague, took on a new tack. Rather than give me one piece each of three different cheeses to work with, he gave me three pieces of the same cheese. That created a new range of possibilities and focused the narrative somewhat.

On Sunday, he gave me three pieces of an Italian Asiago Fresco. Most Americans know Asiago as a aged cheese that’s a little more blunt and less sweet than Parmigiano Reggiano, a good cheese to grate into a mac and cheese with some mozzarella and fresh tomatoes. Asiago Fresco is different; it has a supple, creamy texture and lots of herbal notes ranging from basil to anise. I knew that I would need to explain the cheese to a lot of the clientele so I paired it with beers that were easily discussed. I went with India Pale Ales, hoping that the texture of the cheese would pair well with the florals overtones and resinous finish of the beer. It worked for Cambridge’s The Audacity of Hops and Singlecutt’s Does Anyone Remember Laughter.

Both pairings resulted in memorable comments from the clientele. NYU is back in session, so I’m cautious about sampling to anyone I think is under 23. But two of the people I judged to be just legal enough not to card, had amazing beer bonafides. One was a young man who is not only a homebrewer but has begun to grow hops on the roof of his apartment building. The other was a young German woman. After she and her boyfriend tried the Singlecutt, thrilled at sampling some NYC brewed beer, they began examining the Becks/St. Pauli Girl section of the case. I pointed them to the single bottles where we have Weihanstephaner, Schneider-Weisse and Mahr’s. When she saw the Mahr’s, she smiled broadly and told me she had interned there. She was the assistant brewmaster for a new brewery in Germany. That was a cool way to end the day.

Monday’s cheese was the Ford Farm Traditional English Cheddar, another cheese with significant talking points as it’s much more complex, grassy and earthy than conventional North American cheddars. I paired it with the Slyboro Hidden Star cider, a classic pairing that always goes over well.

I don’t remember Wednesday’s cheese but the beer itself was remarkable. It was the Stone Stochasticity Project Hi-Fi/Lo-Fi Mixtape, a beer from the Southern California based brewery that blends barrel aged ale with newly brewed ale. The result is a beer that has some of the bright hoppiness of a new ale and some of the depth, roundness and richness of a barrel aged beer. I assumed that they are using new American oak since the bottle offers no other information on the barrel. Anyway, that’s a mouthful and a half, and I’d avoided sampling the beer because of that. The store manager, my partner in crime on the beer program, asked me to sample it. Voluminous talking points or no, the beer is tasty and boom! 90 minutes of sampling moved ten 22oz bottles of the stuff.

I was also asked to sample the Stone Farking Wheaton Woot Stout, a collaborative beer that checks in at 13% ABV. It has very rich dark chocolaty overtones and it paired wonderfully with the nutty, grassy Schweizer Berggunuss from Caroline Hostetler. I was initially wary of sampling a high ABV stout on a warm Friday afternoon, but it worked out great. It’s a beer savvy neighborhood. No sense in underestimating the clientele.

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