The Cheese Wars: Wine v Beer.
Wine you say? Think again. I only say that because when I walked through the doors to The Cheese Wars, a cheese and libation pairing competition between two ancient beverages-wine and beer, I was confident that wine would win, hands down; however, I was very surprised at how well cheese paired with beer.
Before touching, smelling, and tasting the first cheese in a 5 course cheese pairing, I gave a nod and a wink to Isaac Silva, aka “Cool Cat”. Isaac knows wine. He works for Oregon Brand Management, a locally owned company that provides sales and distribution for some of Oregon’s premiere wineries. He represents prestigious and well known wineries; such as, Beaux Freres, Broadley Vineyards, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, and Scott Paul wines, to name a few. He also works for Estelle Imports, out of Portland, which is made up of a small group of long time wine professionals who import and distribute biodynamic and organic small production fine wines from Europe and the Americas. With a great appreciation for wine, Isaac and I have a connection; we both know there’s nothing like pairing cheese with wine.
Representing the beer in The Cheese Wars was Matt Van Wyk, aka “Hero of the Hops”. Matt knows beer. He’s one of the brew makers at Oakshire Brewing Company in Eugene, and he’s been in the brew making industry for quite some time. Recruited to Oakshire in 2009 from Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery in Flossmoor, Illinois, he also worked at Glen Ellyn Brewing Co., Firehouse Brewing and Two Brothers Brewing all located in the suburbs of Chicago. He’s now been in the beer industry for over 10 years, and he makes some of Oakshire’s excellent year round beers, seasonal beers and interesting single batch beers available only on draft and for limited times. Eriel Hoffmeier, of Oakshire Brewing, aka “The Cheese Connoisseur” was truly impressive with her extensive knowledge of the cheeses selected for the event, which all came from Eugene’s downtown grocery store, The Kiva. Although Eriel was a neutral representative from Oakshire, Matt was on a mission to show us that cheese pairs better with beer than wine.
So the competition began. The first cheese up was an aged Australian Cheddar from one of the oldest dairies in the country, located in the southern part of Australia. This particular cheddar was white, 3 years young, and quite mild. The wine that was chosen to pair with the cheddar cheese was a sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley in France by Domaine des Roches Neuves: 2008 Samul Brut Bulles de Roche. Elegant with tiny rich effervescent bubbles, hints of lime and green apples, this sparkling wine had excellent acidity and a long finish. The acidity brought out some of the flavors of the mild cheddar, and the pairing was quite nice. The beer that was presented with the cheddar was Oakshire’s single batch Bruine de Brugge, meaning “Brown from Brugge”. I don’t know a whole lot about brown beer from Brugge, but this light bodied, fruity beer was all about cinnamon and cloves with a hint of spice on the finish – actually bringing the mild cheese to life and giving it more depth and complexity than when tasted on its own or with the wine. Surprisingly, my first pairing was a big win for beer.
The next cheese to be tried was a French cheese called Mimolette, also known as the cantaloupe cheese because of its bright orange color and grayish-beige rind. The grayish crust of aged Mimolette is the result of cheese mites…yes, cheese mites. Cheese mites are intentionally used because their actions enhance the flavors of the cheese, which mainly hold a hazelnut flavor. The beer pairing with the Mimmolette was Blind Date, which is another single batch series brew from Oakshire. Blind Date is a Belgian-Style Brown ale made with organic dates. Light in body, I noticed flavors of both dates and raisins with a hint of caramel and a dry finish. Although I thought the beer on its own was extremely delicious, the cheese didn’t enhance or deplete its flavors. The wine, which was a unique blend of three grapes from the Rhone Valley in France, Domaine Berthet-Rayne, the 2010 M&A Cairanne Blanc was rich and full bodied with slight mineral undertones. Scents of peaches and pears led to a harmonious creamy mouth feel that paired perfectly with the hazelnut-like flavors of the Mimmolette. This time, my vote was for the wine and cheese pairing.
Next in line was the cheese that I had been waiting for since I sat down – bleu cheese, but when Eriel revealed that this particular bleu cheese was a Danish Bleu, I knew I was in for a deluxe treat. Danish Bleu cheese is milder than your everyday bleu cheese, and it’s also creamier and saltier – a combination I love. Danish Blue is one of only two Danish cheeses that are PGI – Protected Geopgraphical Indication, meaning that they may only be produced in Denmark from Danish milk and at approved dairies that produce the cheeses according to the specifications laid down by the European Union. The wine that was chosen to pair with the bleu was a 2009 Chablis Cote de Lechet from Domaine Des Malandes in the Burgundy region of France. A Chablis is better known in the United States as a Chardonnay. There were muted scents of pear on the nose, and fruity flavors wrapped in a well balanced finish with hints of sea salt. This was a better tasting Chablis than most I’ve tried, but the saltiness on the finish combined with the saltiness in the cheese was a little overwhelming, so I was looking forward to trying the beer with the Danish Bleu.
The beer chosen by Mark was Oakshire’s Mountain Rose Gruit. I had never heard of a Gruit before The Cheese Wars, but this was one of the most interesting beers I’ve ever had, and because I loved it so much, I was sad to hear it was one of the single batch beers that is now sold out. A Gruit is an ancient-style of beer where there is no use of hops. Before hops were cultivated for use in beers, special blends of herbs and spices were used in beer for giving the beer some bitterness. So instead of using hops to add bitter, Oakshire used a combination of Mugwort, Dandelion root and leaf, Burdock Root, Licorice Root, Milk Thistle Seed, Blessed Thistle, Chamomile Flower, and Grapefruit peel. The name “Mountain Rose” came from the Eugene based organic herb company, Mountain Rose, where Oakshire sourced all of the herbs for the Gruit. The color of this beer was very much like the color of fresh brewed tea, and I learned that I prefer a less hoppy beer since this was an all time favorite for me. The fruitiness of the gruit with the saltiness and creaminess of the cheese was truly a sublime pairing that I would have never thought to put together before attending this event. Being one of the best cheese pairings I’ve ever had, my vote was for the beer on pairing #3.
The fourth cheese up was an English cheese named Cotswold, also known as Double Gloucester Cheese. Cotswold is found in most English pubs, and is dubbed as the classic beer cheese. The cheese is only made in Gloucester, England, and each spring this cheese is used in a downhill race called the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake, located in the Cotswold region of England. The race is considered to be dangerous due to the lengthy and steep hillside where the event takes place. From the top of the hill, a round of the Cotswold cheese is rolled, and competitors race down the hill after it. The first person over the finish line at the bottom of the hill wins the cheese.
Cotswold cheese is made by blending chives and spring onions, so it’s rich and tangy with a firm, dense texture. I immediately thought, this is going to be tough to find a wine that will pair nicely with onions; however, Isaac accomplished this very tough challenge. He chose a blended red wine from the Cotes du Rhone region of France by Dinaube Rabasse called Charavin Cotes du Rhone Rouge. Deep, dark purple color, with aromas of earthy ripe blackberries and cherries led to a big, bold tannic wine that was very easy to drink. The wine actually toned down the intense onion taste of the cheese making both the wine and the cheese a great combination. I was really impressed. The beer that was chosen was one of Oakshire’s summer seasonal brews: Line Dry Rye. Line Dry Rye is a pale ale with a slight honey-orange tint and citrus hop flavors. There was a hint of blackberry honey on the finish, but I may have been able to identify this only because Matt said that 48 pounds of blackberry honey was used in the production of this seasonal ale. Amazingly, the sweetness dissipates during fermentation, ending in a perfectly well rounded hoppy ale with really distinct flavors. The citrus flavors were delicious with the tanginess of the Cotswold, and I liked the beer and cheese pairing just as much as I liked the wine and cheese pairing. Round 4 was a complete toss-up; my vote was for both the wine and the beer.
The fifth and final cheese up for pairing was a Rustico Red Pepper cheese from Italy. This is a basic rustic Italian cheese made in the countryside outside of Rome that has the addition of red peppers, and I thought the red peppers actually enhanced the cheese without overwhelming it. A sweet Muscat from the Rousillon region of France was the wine chosen to pair with this spicy cheese: Domaine Vaquer-2007 Muscat de Rivesaltes. Ususally comprising of two varieties of Muscat, one about 500 years old and the other at least 100 years old, Muscat de Rivesaltes is considered one of the finest of the southern French Muscats. Stong aromas of orange peel and citrus zest led to creamy, intensely sweet apricot flavored wine. The sweetness of the wine combined with the spiciness of the cheese was a decent combination, but I admit, I am not a fan of sweet wines. I prefer bone-dry whites and reds. A super hoppy Oakshire Double IPA called the Perfect Storm was chosen for the beer pairing. This beer wasn’t aged because the brewmakers wanted us to taste the hops-they succeeded: this was a truly hoppy, very hoppy, beer. To me, this beer had more scents of malts than hops, but in the mouth it was all about the hops. I absolutely loved the hoppiness of the beer with the spicy cheese, but it’s hard for me to describe why – it was just really darn good. So, my final vote was with the beer.
3.5 votes for the beer, 1.5 votes for the wine. I couldn’t believe that wine and cheese loving me had actually voted for more beer and cheese pairings than wine and cheese pairings. I went over my answers several times to double check them, and indeed, the beer had won The Cheese Wars. I learned that beer is very versatile with a many number of different flavors, and I’m looking forward to expanding my horizons and exploring the world of beer. Of course, I will always enjoy cheese and crackers with my favorite wines, but don’t be surprised if you see me out and about with a pint of Oakshire in one hand and a slice of cheese in the other.
Kudos to Mike and Jeff of 16 Tons Beer & Wine for creating a fun-filled, educational and affordable event (best $20 I ever spent!) that was hosted by savvy experts that obviously love what they do. Mike and Jeff are already planning future Cheese Wars, so don’t miss out on the next Wine versus Beer competition to see which ancient beverage you think should win!
Julia – Writing about Eugene’s Wine (& Beer) Scene