Beer LOVES Cheese
At long last, the perfect pairing of two Vermont staples
Vermont Life Magazine By Melissa Pasanen
Photographed by Jim Westphalen
In the corner of the basement cheese-aging cave at Mt. Mansfield Creamery in Morrisville sits a single open bottle of Rock Art beer. "It's for the cheese, not the cheesemaker," jokes Stan Biasini as he starts pulling some of his Inspiration cheeses from the shelves, turning them and carefully wiping them down with a mixture of salt water and the beer. "This cheese was complex and it paired really well with beer so I thought it might taste good made with beer," Biasini, 51, explains. "It gives the cheese a nutty finish, an added twist. And people like it; they ask for the cheese made with beer."
Even though Mt. Mansfield has only been in business since June 2009, its beer-washed, Corsican-style tomme is already a favorite of local tastemakers. "I love the cheese," says Donnell Collins, executive chef and co-owner of Leunig's Bistro in Burlington. "The Rock Art wash on the rind catches the eye of a lot of our younger clients and it just puts the cheese on a whole other level. I think it makes it nuttier, earthier. It's like you can almost taste the hops. It's totally different from any other cheese out there." Success has both thrilled and slightly stunned Biasini, who grew up around Utica and originally trained as a chef, and his wife, Debora Wickart, 46, a Vermont native who has raised cows since she was a teenager. The family started their cheese business to supplement low liquid milk prices and tide them over until the economy improved and their rug installation business rebounded. "The demand is really overwhelming," says Wickart with both a sigh and a smile as she sweeps the barn after the morning milking.
This happy marriage between one Vermont cheese and one Vermont beer is more than just a delicious bite. It represents the parallel and complementary growth of artisanal cheese and craft beer within Vermont and across the nation, as well as the significant contributions these two taste-based entrepreneurial niches have made to Vermont's reputation and landscape. Nationally, there has been a return to handcrafted, small-batch food and drink as consumers search out unique authenticity versus generic corporate sameness. "Cheese and beer are among the artisanal foods that were most ruined by our industrial food system during the 20th century," notes Garrett Oliver, longtime brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor-in-chief of the forthcoming "Oxford Companion to Beer." "They were wonderfully pleasurable foods that were made into 'food facsimiles.' Now that we're in recovery from that era, we are returning to normal, and it's natural that beer and cheese should lead the way." Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery
In Vermont, it all started in the early to mid-1980s when pioneers like Shelburne Farms, Allison Hooper and Bob Reese of Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, and Marian Pollack and Marjorie Susman of Orb Weaver Farm began making handcrafted cheese. Around the same time, the late Greg Noonan spent three years lobbying the Vermont legislature to legalize brewpubs before opening the Vermont Pub and Brewery, the East Coast's third brewpub, and Stephen Mason and Alan Davis co-founded Catamount Brewery, one of the original New England microbreweries. "Vermont was one of the first places in the eastern United States where the craft-brewing renaissance took hold," Oliver elaborates, "and I think it's not a coincidence that it's one of the few places in the country that never entirely lost the culture of real cheesemaking. Vermont cheddar is a touchstone for American cheesemakers."
Vermont now claims the highest per capita number of cheesemakers (more than 40) and breweries (more than 20) in the country, draws sell-out crowds annually to the Vermont Brewers Festival and the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, and earns top national awards for both its cheeses and beers. In 2004, the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) at The University of Vermont was established as the nation's first and only comprehensive center devoted to artisan cheese education, research and technical services.
The state is a "beacon" in both fields, says Liz Thorpe, author of "The Cheese Chronicles," a cultural history of the new American cheese, and vice president of leading specialty retailer, Murray's Cheese. "Vermont is unusual and different from many other states in terms of cheese and beer diversity," she adds.
At a basic and tangibly tasty level, beer and cheese are slowly but surely nibbling away at the time-honored pairing of wine and cheese. Oliver often faces off against sommeliers during tastings in which the same cheeses are matched with both wines and beers. "Beer always wins," he reports. "Essentially, beer and cheese both come from grass," he explains. "Barley is a grass and wheat is a grass. It may sound outlandish, since there's a cow, a sheep or a goat in the middle of the cheese production process, but there is a flavor of the pasture in great cheeses. There are warm, bread-like flavors in real beers. There is a primal bond between the two foods that tastes natural on the palate." D.J. D'Amico, a senior research scientist at The University of Vermont and VIAC staff member, adds that beer lacks the acidity and tannins that can make wine a challenging partner. The carbonation also cuts the fat in cheese, he explains, "literally breaking the flavor open and exposing it to your mouth." Beer is also less risky from a price standpoint and less intimidating, especially to younger generations. "Wine works too," allows Thorpe, "but it's harder." Cheese and beer, she says, are "a case where one plus one definitely make three."
The crowd that pressed around the bar at Burlington's Farmhouse Tap and Grill last fall didn't need much convincing to enjoy bites of pungent Bayley Hazen blue cheese between sips of bourbon oak-aged oatmeal stout or Cabot's caramel-kissed clothbound cheddar with an all-American Imperial IPA. The beer-focused gastropub offers the best brews it can find both locally and globally along with a fully Vermont cheese list. For the fall event, dubbed "Beer Loves Cheese #1," the restaurant paired Hill Farmstead Brewery, one of the state's newest brewers but already attracting serious attention, and Jasper Hill Farm, the seven-year-old operation of the Kehler brothers, who have made waves nationally not only for their own award-winning cheeses but also for their ambitious project: a state-of-the-art cheese cave. Here they age cheeses from other regional cheesemakers like Cabot in an effort to support the state's dairy business, preserve agricultural land and build critical mass for New England artisanal cheese.
Shaun Hill, Hill Farmstead's owner and brewer, was on hand with Zoe Brickley, Jasper Hill's sales and marketing manager. The brewery and the cheesemaker are both in North Greensboro and share close ties, Hill explained, starting with the fact that he is a cousin of the cheesemaker's namesake, Jasper Hill. As relationships between breweries and cheesemakers go, Hill asserts, "None is as intimate as ours." After brewing at The Shed in Stowe and at Nørrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen, Hill, 31, returned to his family's seventh-generation homestead to start his own brewery, which opened in the spring of 2010.
Stan Biasini of Mt. Mansfield Creamery
Many of his beers are named for relatives, like the Imperial India pale ale called Abner after Hill's great-grandfather who raised 14 children where the brewery now stands. Hill also brews a custom Belgian lambic-style beer that captures wild yeasts from the Jasper Hill cellars and is used to wash their seasonal Winnimere cheese, a rich, oozy and often funky delicacy, which has even made it to Thomas Keller's Manhattan restaurant, Per Se. The practice, explains Brickley, goes back to the Benedictine monks who made similar styles of cheese and beer and used their beer, the most sanitary liquid available to them, to clean the ripening cheeses. "The sweetness of the beer helps balance the subtle bitter notes of a washed rind," she says.
One of Jasper Hill's latest projects involves working through the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick to teach small dairies how to make more of the in-demand Bayley Hazen blue cheese. Efforts such as this have earned Jasper Hill support from various sources, including the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), which provides financial assistance to promising businesses. Over the years, VEDA has financed a number of cheese and beer enterprises like Magic Hat Brewing Company, Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, and Rock Art Brewery. "The food industry seems to be a niche in which we can really generate some traction," says VEDA's chief operating officer Steve Greenfield. "Those businesses benefit from the already established Vermont karma and the state gets added oomph when more products are out there." Greenfield also notes that these ventures also support critical sectors like tourism and agriculture and generate revenue from outside the state. Naturally, there will be business failures like that of the still-missed Catamount Brewery, as well as the risk that successful homegrown companies will be bought, as happened this past summer when North American Breweries purchased Magic Hat. "Definitely, when you create an interesting little brand," says Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, now topping $10 million in annual sales, "you have suitors."
Back in Morrisville, Matt Nadeau, president and co-owner of Rock Art Brewery, says, "I'm having too much fun right now" to sell. "It was never the goal to be on every supermarket shelf," he continues. "Craft beer is about fresh, local beer, not that your beer is in 30 different states on every shelf." The 14-year-old company broke ground last fall on a new building just down the road that will double the size of their brewery to 10,000 square feet, a huge leap from the original basement brewing operation launched by Nadeau, 44, and his wife, Renée, 41. Their first 220-gallon tanks with homemade foil jackets lined with bubblewrap are still in the brewery, dwarfed by newer tanks 10 times their size. "When we got started we could hardly keep one of those half full and now we've got five states waiting for beer," says Nadeau proudly.
Success, of course, brings its own growing pains from overexpansion to market demand outpacing supply. Rock Art experienced its biggest challenge in 2009 after Nadeau filed a trademark for his Vermonster American-style barley wine only to receive a cease and desist letter from Hansen Beverage Company, owner of Monster Energy drinks. Even though lawyers believed the huge corporation had no case, they also cautioned that he could lose his whole business in a David versus Goliath battle. "That didn't sit well with me," Nadeau recalls. "That's not what our Founding Fathers intended." Prompted by independent retailers who boycotted Hansen and public outcry fueled by media and the Internet, the giant backed down. "You're going to tell a Vermonter you can't use Vermonster?" Nadeau recalls. "Good luck. You just pissed off a whole state, a small but very vocal state." He is now working with Sen. Patrick Leahy on trademark law reform and hopes to effect change that will benefit small businesses nationally.
The Nadeaus started their basement brewery in 1997 with a conservative $12,000. Across town in his basement cheese cave, Biasini washes cheese with Rock Art beer and shares his similarly careful approach to launching Mt. Mansfield more than a decade later. With an Intervale Center Success on Farms grant, Biasini took a course with a highly regarded Vermont cheesemaker and consultant who told him that he'd need $100,000 to get going. Biasini did it for $6,000, and "I paid cash for everything," he recounts, showing off his steam kettle bought used online for $1,500 and an old gas station cooler for $500. His only employee is a retiree who offered to work for cheese and his cheese press is weighted with filled plastic gallon jugs. "A gallon of water didn't cost anything," he notes. To meet the growing demand for his cheeses, Biasini knows he must expand and is cautiously exploring his options. Despite Mt. Mansfield's early success, the cheesemaker observes as he gently stirs the morning's milk, "You've always got to remember that this may be fun, but it's a business."
Tasting Beer and Cheese Together
D.J. D'Amico, a senior research scientist at The University of Vermont, is also on the staff of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese and is a competitive home brewer. He frequently organizes Vermont beer and cheese tastings. Here are some of his recommendations, and you can find more @ vermontlife.com.
With these guidelines in mind, D'Amico suggests these pairings: