Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Cheese 101 by Katie Carter

In this column, I will be writing about real cheese. I do not care much for the processed, factory made “cheese food”. My passion is for authentic cheese made with fresh milk using traditional techniques. This kind of cheese is described as artisanal, meaning it is made by a skilled artisan. It is a fascinating subject that I know you will enjoy, too.

Cheese, simply put, is a food made from the coagulated proteins of milk. Tasty and nutritious pressed curds, basically. Throughout this column, I will show you that cheese is also more than that. Cheese is now a science, an art form, and an important culture. Every cheese is unique and every cheese tells a story.

Jersey Blue cheese being made (photo by Katie Carter)Cheese was not invented by mankind, it was discovered. Milk is our first food but babies do not simply digest the milk; newborn stomachs actually turn that liquid nutrition into a more substantial form by coagulating the proteins and creating a semi-solid food. This food is digested slower and nutrients are absorbed better, increasing the baby’s chance of survival. This is also the case with the ruminant mammals we domesticated, which is how we discovered cheese.

Stomachs of young farm animals were once used for transporting milk long-distances. Enzymes within the stomach (chymosin, pepsin, and lipase) coagulated the milk during its journey and upon arrival, a wet, chunky mass was discovered. That is one theory of how we discovered cheese. Another possibility is that harvested milk was left by the fire one night and the warmth slowly coagulated the milk. The milk in both of those cases was most likely consumed, despite its odd appearance, and we realized that those chunky or gel-like forms seemed to keep us full for a longer period of time. Notably, it was also recognized as much gentler on our stomachs, as the people of the Neolithic times were most likely lactose intolerant and cheese contains very little lactose. Cheese became an important part of many early cultures, as it provided a long lasting form of vital nutrition.

Cheese has evolved since those early days of domestication. We now have thousands of varieties, yet the basic process of cheesemaking is the same today. We still coagulate milk using either enzymes, acid, or heat. Once the milk has coagulated and is in a gel-like state, it is cut or drained to release the liquid that is trapped in the protein matrix. This liquid is called whey, the solid pieces remaining are called curds. The curds are compacted together in a form and salt is applied in various ways. The cheese is aged for some time or consumed soon after production. It’s a simple craft that has spawned, over millennia, countless types and endless variations. Styles produced today include fresh, soft ripened (bloomy rind), washed rind, pasta filata, semi-soft, firm, blue, and flavored. Cheesemakers utilize the milk from goats, sheep, cows, water buffalo, donkeys, yak, moose, and even camels.

Cheese is constantly evolving. Right now, we are seeing a great revival in the cheese world. Traditional recipes lost to mass production are being rediscovered and innovation and creativity are blossoming. Cheese production and appreciation are growing even where cheese has never been a part of traditional diet, such as Japan and China. It is a great time to be a cheese lover! In this column, I will show you how to build a perfect cheese plate, tips on how to serve and store, and what to pair with your cheese. We’ll also get into the fun and geeky details of all sorts of cheese subjects- from the raw milk debate to the latest in cheese trends.

Until then, why not prepare a cheese plate at home? The following are some options that are tasting great this week. Keep in mind that cheese is alive, seasonal, and changes from batch to batch depending on various factors, such as the animals’ diet, time of milking, or the weather. That’s what makes artisanal cheese so special. Also, every palate is unique so you may not taste, for example, the “nuttiness” I describe. But that’s why cheese is fun, nobody is wrong in what they taste. Feel free to discuss the particular flavors and opinions of any cheese in the comments section.

Robiola Due Latte
A soft ripened cheese made with pasteurized sheep and cow’s milk from Piedmont, Italy. This is great option if you’re looking to move beyond typical Brie. The small, square shaped cheese is covered with a thin layer of bloom (edible white penicillium mold) that encases a very soft, elastic paste. It has a slightly earthy aroma and hints of a dairy farm. The flavor is mild, rich, and milky with just a bit of mushrooms.

Tomme Aydius
This unpasteurized (raw) goat’s milk cheese hails from the Valle D’Aspe in the French Pyrenees. The rind is a pretty pink hue, due to the frequent washings of the cheese, which encourages the growth of a specific (and completely edible) bacteria. The paste is firm with occasional holes. This a goat cheese for those who are skeptical of goat’s milk cheeses. While it does have a very slight flavor of goat’s milk, it is more herbaceous and nutty than anything else.

Made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk on a small farm in West Midlands, England, this aged, firm cheese is made in the style of the classic sheep’s milk cheeses of the Pyrenees. The aromas are biscuity and slightly lanolin-like, while the flavor is rich and nutty with a slight sweetness. It’s appearance is unique; the final cheese looks like a flying saucer due it being formed in colanders.

Jersey Blue
This is my all-time favorite blue cheese. This modern beauty is made with unpasteurized Jersey cow’s milk by a very skilled and innovative cheesemaker, Willi Schmid. It is handcrafted in a small village in Switzerland, about an hour from Zurich. The organic milk is from a tiny herd of pampered cows that graze happily on very diverse and lush pasture. The cheesemaker uses a special technique to create this blue — it is not pierced as most blue cheeses are; this cheese is literally ripped apart in order to aerate the interior to allow the mold to grow. The resulting cheese has a gorgeous marbled pattern. Rather than overpowering it, the blue penicillium roqueforti mold compliments the rich and creamy cheese.

What are your favorite cheeses right now? Share in the comments section!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Holiday Shopping for the Beer Geek in Your Life by Nick Anderson

First off, I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. I’m writing this before the holiday, so I’m going to be positive and say mine went well and hope that by the time this is posted I’ll be sufficiently recovered from the festivities to feel human again. Now that we’re past Thanksgiving, thoughts turn to holiday shopping. One of the true perks of my job is helping folks find the right beer to give to friends, family, and loved ones during the holiday season. It can also be one of the most difficult parts of my job.

A bit of advice for those shopping for beer geeks:
If you’re looking to wow someone with a special beer, you need some basic knowledge of what it is they like. This can be as simple as knowing what some of their go-to beers are or as complex as asking them to make a list of beers they’d like to receive as a gift. Yes, I know asking someone for a wish list doesn’t sound complex, but trust me here — ask a beer geek for one and it will become complex. That’s just our nature; we can’t help ourselves.

Because of the fact that buying a beer gift is literally a matter of taste, knowledge is power. The most important thing may be your level of knowledge regarding craft beer; the less you know, the more guidance you should seek from the gift’s recipient. I can say personally that I much prefer someone to ask me directly what I may like to get as a gift if they’re planning on gifting me beer or wine. This helps to alleviate confusion for the gift giver and lets the person getting the gift know how much “getting it right” means to them. That kind of regard is the real gift anyway.

This brings me to my bigger point, which is something I try to say as much as possible every holiday season to those shoppers who fret and over-think their gift purchases: If you’re getting a beer geek some beer as a gift, they shouldn’t care what it is as much as they should appreciate that someone went to the trouble in the first place. If someone gets me a sixer of something they know I haven’t had before and I happen to be intimately familiar with it, I don’t get disappointed — I have a couple beers with my friend and enjoy the moment. If anyone ever disapproves of your gift to them or makes you feel anything less than appreciated for it that should tell you as much about them as you need to know.

Enough preachy, I want to know what you all out there would like someone to get you as a gift this year. I’ve got a few beers I’d love to get as stocking stuffers and I bet a lot of you out there do too. Also, if you have any advice for those buying beer gifts let’s hear it. Until next time.


New Zealand Surprise by Nick Anderson

Even though some people like to assume that I’ve sampled every good beer on this green earth, I can still be pleasantly surprised by a brew.

Just the other day, a distributor brought by Chris Knight, a representative of New Zealand’s MOA Brewing Company. I hadn’t heard a lot about MOA, but am always curious to try different things so we sampled a couple of their beers. The first one we tried was MOA’s Pale Ale, which uses New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops along with that stalwart of American Pale Ales and IPAs, Cascade.

With MOAs bottle conditioning bringing a focused carbonation, both of the hop varietals show their best aspects with floral, tropical, and earthy notes. It was a good start and I enjoyed it a lot, but it was the next of their beers that caught me off-guard. St. Josephs is a Belgian-style Tripel that uses good amounts of Belgian yeast and candi sugar to somehow create something that had the smoothness of a classic Belgian with shockingly intense cherry and eucalyptus notes.

For all of the power of the Belgian yeast in St. Josephs it doesn’t cross the line into cloying territory. I don’t get blown away by a beer often, but St. Josephs did it mostly because that was the last thing I was expecting it to do. Look for MOA beers to be available in the area soon.

People like to assume that because you work in a field, or have an interest in something, that you know everything there is to know about it. I personally can’t even keep track of how many times during the average week I hear something like “I don’t know, I’m sure you’ve tried every beer out there” in conversation with someone at the shop.

While I’ve been at this for some time and have been fortunate to try many different beers and wines, this certainly doesn’t mean I’ve tried everything or even a fraction of everything. I often find myself saying “It’s a big world out there” when chats swing in this direction, and that’s true. Part of what I love about my job is that the next beer you haven’t tried before is always around the corner; it’s part of what I think makes beer great.

There is an aspect of perpetually discovering new things that I don’t get to talk about a lot, and it’s more subtle than simply losing interest. I’m talking about leaving yourself open to being surprised; keeping yourself from allowing years of accumulated tastings and knowledge to create a mindset that says there is nothing new under the sun.

As we get older, our palates change — to decide on a favorite style or specific beer as a young person to the exclusion of everything else is not only narrow-minded, but ignores the breadth of options in the world. We all have lifelong favorite, and I’m not encouraging abandoning them; what I’m saying is that if there are really no more surprises, no chance of being struck out-of-the-blue by a beer, then why bother?

Every new beer we try is an opportunity to find a new favorite. Keep yourself open to possibilities and you’ll find those unexpected treats out there. What was the last beer you had that took you by surprise? Let’s hear about it in the comments. Until next time.

Fresh Hop Beer Season by Nick Anderson

Autumn is the season of the harvest and with hearty, earthy dishes hitting tables all over the country it stands to reason that breweries would take advantage of the harvest as well. With hop farmers around the U.S. harvesting their crops as summer ends and autumn begins, we’re once again seeing the short but tasty wave of Fresh Hop or Wet Hop Ales. These beers offer a short window for the enthusiast to experience a vibrant, complex hop experience that can be less aggressive than you might assume.

Sierra Nevada is largely credited with bringing the Wet Hop Ale to the public’s attention. Starting in 1996, Sierra has released a so-called Harvest Ale every year, using hops sourced from Washington’s Yakima Valley that are harvested and shipped same-day to their Chico, California brewery. Sierra Harvest Ale was such a hit that a few years back they started making one using fresh hops from New Zealand’s spring harvest. The original was renamed Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale, and is currently on shelves. Keep an eye out for Sierra’s Estate Harvest Ale as well; arriving soon using fresh hops and barley from Sierra’s own crops at Chico.

Other popular Wet Hop Ales include New Holland Hopivore; Terrapin So Fresh and So Green, Green; and Sixpoint Autumnation, of which the latter two for 2012 will feature the ever-growing in popularity Citra hop. Terrapin’s Fresh Hop Ale is a punchy bass line built to allow the melody of the featured hop to sing out; Sixpoint takes a different and very interesting tack. Autumnation is not only Sixpoint’s Wet Hop Ale; it’s also their Pumpkin Ale. Using fresh pumpkin and ginger every year, Sixpoint leaves the fresh hop varietal to be used up to their fans via a poll. The result is a beer with subtle gourd and spice notes with a lot of hop flavor, but not a ton of aggressive bite.

Here lies the inherent dichotomy of Wet Hop beers; while one might expect fresh hops straight off the vine to be more intense and more biting than the dried hops and pellets commonly used by brewers, but in actuality wet hops aren’t as intense in mouthfeel. Rather, fresh hops tend to impart a greater spectrum of hoppy flavors into a beer with those flavors coming through with greater clarity and subtlety. Even for those who normally aren’t fans of ‘hoppy’ beer, Wet Hop Ales can be a delightful and enjoyable surprise.

That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of hop bombs in the Fresh Hop bunch. Particularly favored by hopheads is Founder’s Harvest Ale, a limited treat that flies off shelves almost as soon as it arrives. Founder’s Harvest has a rich, sweet citrus character to go along with its earthy, piney fresh hop notes. Also worth looking for this season is Warrior IPA from Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Company. Despite its name, Warrior isn’t the only variety of hop used; there’s a fair amount of Cascade as well along with varieties from Left Hand’s property along with those from local fans of the brewery. Built to be well-balanced and drinkable, Warrior’s 69 IBU (International Bitterness Units) pack quite a punch.
If any of these beers aren’t on shelves in the area as of press time, they will be soon. Ask your local shop or bar for them if you’re curious and get in on the fresh hop phenomenon.

Until next time.


Developing Your Beer Palate With Wine

This week we’re going to delve into one of my favorite topics: how knowledge of wine can affect your approach to beer, and vice versa. More specifically, what we as beer drinkers (or beer geeks, if you will — that’s how I self-identify, anyway) can take away from wine while at the same time not becoming overwrought with the pretense and snobbery too easily observed in wine (some stereotypes exist for a reason, after all).

About a week ago I read an interesting post on the blog Fuggled. The author had just returned from visiting Virginia’s wine country and overheard some chatter about how beer was becoming the “new wine,” but wouldn’t really be there until breweries and tasting rooms became less industrial and “more like wine.” The author is rightly concerned that the increasing prices of many craft beers and dearth of super high-end “cult” bottles out there will drive beer into a direction far from the communal, everyman beverage it has always been. I’ve myself have been mildly worrying for years about the growth of a cottage beer “tastemaker” industry similar to the one that all too often hobbles those looking to learn more about wine.

In defense of wine, though: more than the “wineification” of beer culture, I fear that those looking to make their name as “palates” when it comes to beer don’t have enough of a wine background to properly analyze what they’re trying. As an avid wine drinker and professional but first and foremost a beer geek, I can’t stress enough the importance of wine knowledge (by which I mean tasting as many as possible and understand why they do/don’t work for you) in literally refining the palate. My boss has a super-sharp focus on brettanomyces and as a wine guy, he understands it as a fundamental flaw in wine. While this means he is in no way a fan of the traditional beer styles that use brett to great effect, it also makes him sensitive to it in beers where it shouldn’t be present. Trying hundreds of wines every month, more than anything else in my opinion, trains you to spot flaws and appreciate the difference between something being “off” and something that is simply “bad.”

I say all of that so I can say this: the day after I read that blog post, I had this conversation on Twitter with The Barley Blog, a fine writer and reviewer of craft beers. He’d just had to dump a beer because of a spoilage or infection issue in the bottle. I offered my sympathies and he responded that he “(c)ouldn’t hang with the off flavors,” that he’d “…tried but just couldn’t do it.” Here, I think, is where beer needs to learn from wine: over on the wine side when we spot a flaw, be it TCA (aka cork taint, aka “corked”), volatile acidity, brettanomyces, or anything else we call it and move on. We don’t stick to the beverage — we acknowledge the flaw and go to the next one. No one wants beer to become as gentrified and provincial as wine is, least of all me. But overlooking fatal flaws in beers for the sake of ‘the old college try’ does no one any favors.

This will over time prove to be more difficult for beer, in light of the many styles where what in other beverages would be considered a flaw is accepted, but that only means our palates have to be that much sharper and more aware. It also means we have to be more honest: no brewer or winemaker wants to hear that they’re product is flawed. Saying someone’s stuff is “bad” is easier — that only means you didn’t like it. To look someone in the eye and tell them something about the most basic elements of their production is wrong is tough. The more we turn a blind eye, however, the longer it takes for things to get better. So next time you pick up some brett in a beer it shouldn’t be in, or get an infected or spoiled bottle, call it out — get online and shoot someone an email, post something on the social media outlet of your choice. And please, just pour it out. Life’s too short for bad beer.

Until next time.


Ready for the Football by Nick Anderson

Much to the chagrin of my wife and most of my friends, I’m a pretty big sports nut, and despite being a long suffering local sports fan there’s no anticipation quite like the feeling right as another pro football season starts. Maybe it’s the intensity of the game or the short schedule compared to other sports, but there’s an edge to the beginning of football season that gets me just a little extra charged up, and I know I’m not alone in that.

Just watching a few minutes of a game lets you know, through the sponsorships and overwhelming number of ads, that macrobreweries are the beverage of choice for the football fan, but that’s not always the case. There are a lot of us who love more than a couple beers during a game (and more often than not before or after one as well), so here’s some recommendations for this season. Enjoy these at your next tailgate or with some great snacks in front of the TV at home.

Devil’s Backbone Striped Bass Pale Ale: Recently released, this special-run Ale from Lexington, VA is a perfect late summer/early autumn beer. Striped Bass Pale is super-clean with a focused, earthy hop character. I hesitated to recommend this as I don’t know how long it’ll be around, but it’s too good not to. Not to mention proceeds go to help out the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Oskar Blues Mama’s Lil’ Yella’ Pils: It’s very easy to get branded as “that guy” when you bring craft beer to a tailgate or a friend’s house for the game. This crisp Pilsner-style from Oskar Blues is a perfect beer to avoid this: essentially one of those beers you see TV ads for, made by someone who gives a damn, Lil’ Yella’ is familiar enough that anybody who snags a can from the cooler can enjoy it, but made to a standard that makes it obviously a craft beer.

Port City Monumental IPA: Alexandria’s Port City Brewery is on a serious roll right now. Their Monumental IPA is well-balanced, with assertive but not overly aggressive hops and a nice malty character. Bring this one out for those who want to try something different but can be overwhelmed by intense hops.

Abita Pecan Harvest Ale: This year’s Pecan Harvest Ale hasn’t arrived yet, but when it does its mix of fine malts and nutty tones makes it a perfect match for pretzels, nuts, chips — you know, all the stuff you put out on the table when you sit down for a Sunday’s worth of action. Abita recently shut down temporarily with Hurricane Isaac bearing down on the Gulf Coast, but hopefully this unique and tasty seasonal Ale will be on one of their first truck out once they’re back up and running.

Founder’s Breakfast Stout: This is a beer that’s back on the market as of this week, but will be around throughout the season and into the playoffs, meaning during the winter where we have many a Sunday matchup played under ‘football weather.’ The combination of chocolates, coffees, and flaked oats in the Founder’s Breakfast Stout give it a bold flavor and while at 8.3% ABV it may seem a bit too strong for some, the feel isn’t nearly as heavy as you might think. This is a great brew for getting your winter grillout going or for taking the edge of a winter chill.

Until next time

Cheers! Also, hail!

King of the ‘Gypsies’ by Nick Anderson

Very soon we’re going to have to devote an entire column to the relatively recent phenomenon of the ‘Gypsy Brewer’; beers produced under labels without their own brewery or brewpub. By opting out of the costs associated with owning and running their own facility, Gypsy Brewers are freed to explore their own interests more, and to very quickly turn a passing thought into a product hitting store shelves and bar taps. Some of the most exciting beers being produced today are made by these Gypsy Brewers, and as their ranks and influence grow, so does the importance of the palate and outlook of one Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the spear’s head of the Gypsy movement and mad genius behind the Mikkeller line of brews.

While working as a math and physics teacher some eight years ago in his native Denmark Bjergsø started to experiment with homebrewing, with the thought that it would be cheaper to drink his own beer than the craft beer he’d been trying and rating for four years beforehand. In 2006, along with fellow homebrewer Kristian Klarup Keller (who later left the business to take an editorial position at the Danish music magazine Soundvenue), Mikkeller beer launched with the aim of bringing the fearless, bold, and imaginative beers found in the American beer scene to the “if it’s cheap, it’s good”-minded Danes. Soon, Mikkel’s inventive beers started finding an audience here in the U.S., and the label took off, along with the idea of the Gypsy Brewer.

With so many beers made under the Mikkeller label and their sometimes scarce production, it’s hard to pick out some to recommend. Some favorites of mine include Beer Geek Breakfast, an Imperial Stout that many of us beer geeks were introduced to Mikkel’s beers through. I’m partial to the yearly release of Jackie Brown Ale as well—its American Brown Ale influence is apparent with a great balance of roasty malts and sharp, yet subtle hops. I Hardcore You, made with Scotland’s BrewDog, is a big IPA that stands up to the baddest hop bombs American breweries have to offer. So far in 2012, we’ve been fortunate to see some great Mikkeller beers for the first time: Czech Pils and Dream Pils, BooGoop (a wheat-malt based Barleywine made in collaboration with the gang at Indiana’s Three Floyds Brewing), Black Hole Stout, and my personal favorite Big Worse Barleywine. Big Worse has the richness and cohesion of flavor you’d expect from a cellared Barleywine, but it’s young and all of those flavors come through with a vibrancy that is simply not possible with an aged beer.

Other Gypsy Brewers have emerged in the wake of Mikkeller’s success — not the least of which being Mikkel’s twin brother Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø whose Evil Twin beers have emerged as bold beer geek favorites; and Baltimore-based Brian Strumke’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales, whom I consider one of the best brewers working in the U.S. today. But it’s the unexpected reach of Mikkeller that has made it all possible for those who are looking for a different path as craft brewers. Those are different stories for another time, however. If you’re in the neighborhood this Saturday, come by to check out a special tasting of new Mikkeller arrivals featuring the beers of his Lambic-style program along with the massive Black Stout. If those aren’t to your liking, we’ve got a great selection of other Mikkeller beers to choose from.
Until next time.