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FEB/MAR 2005 | COLUMN | ECKHARDT

Beer And Cheese In Seattle
By Fred Eckhardt

Last September, Pyramid Brewing's Chairman George Hancock contacted me, in his capacity as president of the Washington State Brewers Guild, to conduct a beer-and-cheese tasting for the guild at Beecher's Cheeses in Seattle's Pike Street Market. Beecher's cheese-maker, Brad Sinko, makes cheese three mornings a week in a day-long process using 1000-gallons of hormone- and antibiotic-free milk. This, in full view of the public.

It was to be my fourth long-range tasting of the year (Beer and Chocolate in Tokyo, GBBF in London, and Dixie Cup — beer and junk food — in Houston). Yes, I know that Seattle is not all that far from Portland. The difficulty in these long-distance tastings is that I usually end up with elements I have never tried paired with beers I have not sampled. In this case, I tried to ensure that we would sample as wide a range of beer styles and brewers as possible, with the same goal for the cheese selections.

Because Seattle WAS so close, I wanted to include certain Washington brews with which I was familiar. I was less certain about the cheese selections, partly because I didn't know how well Beecher would accept competitor cheeses in their shop, especially since I was most interested in Washington cheeses, notably those of Sally Jackson of Oroville. Sally Jackson has a two-fold reputation.

First, she makes three superb cheeses (one type only, but done with unpasteurized bovine's milk, sheep's milk or goat's milk). If we could get them, it would make a wonderful comparison among the three major cheese milk types, since hers are each produced in much the same fashion, each finished out carefully by wrapping in homegrown chestnut leaves.

Second, Ms. Jackson's reputation is quite severe among cheese merchants. Apparently she does not deal gently with either fools or folks who are slow to pay her bill — and she hates the telephone. She sounds like my kind of lady: a real curmudgeon. She and husband Roger make the cheese over a wood stove on what seems to be a rather primitive farm 4,200 feet above the Okanagan Valley, near the British Columbia border with Washington. They were only electrified in 1995.

According to Laura Werlin, The New American Cheese, New York, NY, 2000, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Ms. Jackson "heats the milk over the stove, adds a starter and rennet … breaks [the curds] by hand before draining. … She salts them the next day and wraps them in their precious chestnut leaves the third day." She does all this with "an intuitive sense about flavor." But I digress.

In any case, I knew just the beer for these three cheese tidbits: It would have to be Skagit Brown Ale, 4.5% abv, from Charlie Sullivan's Skagit River Brewing in Mt. Vernon, Wash., some 60 miles north of Seattle. Only about 30 of Washington's 80 or so breweries are members of the Washington Brewers Guild. That's really sad, because membership in the various states' brewers guilds is just about the cheapest way a small craft brewery can promote its beers.

George Hancock agreed to find my beers, and Beecher's Kristen Downing was to manage the food and cheese for the tasting. I wanted something from at least one of Everett's two brewers, since I grew up in that town. I also hoped to use Dick Cantwell's Elysian Saison Elysée, a Belgian style brewed about 20 blocks up from the Pike Street Market, to be paired with a lovely California cheese: Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog from McKinleyville. This soft, blue goat cheese demands Belgian beer for company. I also desired a beer from Ed Bennett's Bellingham Boundary Bay Brewery, one of my favorites. Also expected was something from the nearby Pike Brewery.

Cheese-maker Brad Sinko would explain the process, and Beecher's would serve a light food accompaniment: onion soup and a Caesar salad buffet.

With all that in mind, I set up the program, citing what I wanted, what I would like, and what I would put up with. In order served, here is what was requested and what was served:

1. Golden or pale ale or Belgian-style wit with a Havarti cheese. We got Boundary Bay Blonde Ale, 4.5% abv, with Willamette Valley Havarti from Salem, Oregon.
2. German or Bavarian-style lager with a small pretzel-apple slice-cheese "sandwich." We got Pyramid Coastline Pilsner Lager, 5% abv, and Beecher's Cheddar in the pretzel sandwich.
3. A pale ale with smoked Gouda. We got Seattle's Rock Bottom Pale Ale, 5% abv, with Pleasant Valley Smoked Gouda from Ferndale, Washington.
4. The Skagit Brown Ale and Sally Jackson's chestnut triple cheese array. While she didn't have the sheep's milk variety on hand, it was nice to check the difference between goat's milk and cow's milk cheese.
5. The Elysian Saison, 6% abv, and Humboldt Fog combo was served exactly as requested.
6. A good robust porter with one of Beecher's cheddars turned out to be Elysian Perseus Porter, 6.8% abv, with Beecher's Spiced and Peppered Cheese.
7. An American-style IPA paired with warm Brie or Camembert on a baguette slice became Everett's Scuttlebutt Gale Force IPA, 7% abv, served with a warm American Camembert.
8. Pyramid Snow Cap Ale, 7.3% abv, with George Hancock's choice of an English Stilton cheese. We couldn't get the cheese George wanted, but Beecher's Brad's Blue was an excellent local alternative.
9. DESSERT: All this was followed by a grand finale with a stout ice cream float. OK, not cheesy, but delicious: Pike Street XXXXX Stout, 7% abv, mixed with Madagascar Vanilla Ice Cream. It was a great finish to a fine tasting.

The first question I was asked as we began the tasting (No. 1 above) was: Why this pairing? I explained, as I have above, that while I was sitting in Portland I had to choose the items more or less generically, starting with lighter, paler and simpler, and moving to heavier, darker and richer.

After the tasting we had a vote to see which was the most popular combination. Everyone had a vote. The Skagit Brown/Sally Jackson tied with the Elysian Saison/Humboldt Fog for third, Boundary Bay/Salem Havarti was second, and the Pike Street XXXXX Stout float was voted best of all.

Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, Oregon, and drinks all manner of alcoholic beverages, accompanied by sundry junk food, chocolate, cheese and almost any other combination put before him.

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