Beer in the Creamery
Cheesemakers are utilizing craft beer far beyond happy hour
Beer is ubiquitous in the creamery. But in most cases it is simply a tool for lubricating hardworking cheesemakers—there is much truth in a dairy version of the old vintner’s maxim: It takes a lot of beer to make great cheese. Some American cheesemakers, however, are using beer for more than personal libation, in the process creating some of the most distinctive American wheels, uniquely expressive of their own sense of place.
Like people, cheese requires a degree of maturity before it encounters alcohol. Aside from the odd garish curiosity, beer has no place in the initial stages of cheesemaking; the milk will be acidified, coagulated, drained, salted, and molded before meeting with any brew. Instead, beer is a tool of the affineur, used as part of a program of washing or soaking to coax forth the desired rind development and breakdown of the paste.
Beer and cheese are living entities: fermented products derived from grass, their characters shaped by yeasts and bacteria of bewildering complexity. For the greatest impact on the flavor of the cheese, the beer must be unpasteurized and still teeming with its own population of brewer’s yeast. “[With] pasteurized beer,” notes French dairy technologist Ivan Larcher, “you collect only direct beer aromas (hop, alcohol, bitterness, and pigments) but if it is a living beer you also collect the yeasts on the surface of the cheese and they will begin a second development cycle, producing new flavors.”
Sometimes primary beer flavors are exactly what the cheesemaker desires. In Antigo, Wisconsin, Sartori cheesemaker Mike Matucheski has taken to soaking BellaVitano cheese in New Glarus Brewing Company Raspberry Tart beer. A longstanding beer enthusiast, Matucheski was inspired to experiment by a chance encounter with beery cheeses at the 2007 American Cheese Society Conference in Burlington, Vermont. Convinced that he could do better, Matucheski decided to soak the hard cow’s milk cheese in Dan and Deborah Carey’s glorious Wisconsin fruit brew and created Raspberry BellaVitano. The beer features fresh raspberries subjected to spontaneous fermentation in large oak vats; after being soaked in the beer, the rind of the cheese turns a beautiful berry red. But that’s not all: the bright acidic fruit finds a match in the sweet, almost pineapple-like flavors of the cheese.
As brewing and dairying have long and distinguished histories in the upper Midwest, partnerships are only natural. Indeed, beer and ice-age geology are the two forces that have heavily shaped Faribault Dairy in Faribault, Minnesota. Retreating glaciers deposited thick layers of sand that eventually became the rock formation now known as the St. Peter Sandstone. In the 1850s, the Fleckenstein Brewery excavated an extensive network of caves into the sandstone for brewing and aging beer. Prohibition closed the business, but the caves have been used since the late 1930s for the production of blue cheese, with sporadic changes in ownership and a ten-year hiatus before the present owners restored the site in 2001.
Faribault’s cheesemaker, Jeff Jirik, is convinced that he has a secret weapon in the indigenous microflora that has accumulated throughout generations of brewing and cheesemaking. When a mutual acquaintance suggested that Jirik shared a gastronomic outlook with Mark Stutrud, the founder of the Summit Brewing Company in nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, Jirik leapt at the opportunity for collaboration. The result was Winter Blues: a version of Faribault’s cow’s milk St. Pete’s Select washed in Summit Winter Ale. Jirik takes wheels of his St. Pete’s Select at about 90 days old—just as they are nearing maturity—and subjects them to a beer-brine washing regime for around a month. Jirik is quite pleased with the impact that the British-style robust winter brew has on his cheese. “The whole,” Jirik says, “was greater than the sum of the parts.”
In Greensboro, Vermont, Andy and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm have taken the collaboration between brewer and cheesemaker to the next level: local brewer Shaun Hill was actually involved in the production of Winnimere before any cheese was made. A sensuous, oozing, soft cow’s milk cheese, Winnimere is the result of many conversations about how best to harness the dairy’s native microflora. Hill’s connection to the Kehlers goes back generations—Jasper Hill was his grandfather’s brother. Shaun Hill was also part of the Winnimere project well before his own Hill Farmstead Brewery was anything more than a distant dream. The beer for the wash used to be brewed in the Kehlers’ cheese barn, using the same water given to thirsty cows.
Winnimere is strictly seasonal, made only from October through April, and the beer for the wash is brewed before the season’s cheesemaking commences. Hill uses a spontaneous fermentation process, rather than cultivated yeast, in his brewing—a significant difference in methodology. And when Hill went to spend a couple of years honing his brewing skills in Denmark, Winnimere was washed in different beers for different markets. In the Northeast, it was Brooklyn Brewery’s Local 1; in the Midwest, Goose Island’s Matilda; and on the West Coast, Russian River Brewing Company’s Salvation. All are distinguished Belgian-style ales with moderate levels of bitterness. And yet, for Jasper Hill cellar manager Emily Daniels, “there was a far greater difference [in taste] from batch to batch than there was within a batch between cheeses washed with different beers.”
Now that Hill has returned to start his own brewery, Daniels feels that his wild yeast has captured a clear sense of place in the cheeses. “They have more complexity,” he says. The local ambient yeast ferments the beer and then the beer encourages the growth of more complex colonies of yeast, bacteria, and molds on the cheese. It is, after all, the perfect synergy.
Written by Francis Percival
Photos: courtesy Faribault Dairy, Summit Brewing Company, Kate Arding, New Glarus Brewing Co. and Jasper Hill Farm