Affinage is a French term that describes the aging and maturing of cheese. During this period of ripening, cheese develops its final set of flavors and textures. Each cheese has its own set of requirements. Temperature, humidity, and treatments such as washing, brushing, or turning all come into play.
In a workshop at the recent Midwest Craft Brewers Conference held at the University of Wisconsin Stout, beer and food writer Lucy Saunders introduced an extension of the affinage concept that hooked me at first bite – aging cheese on hops. She fed us pieces of goat cheese and butter that both had a delightfully bright citrus and floral aroma and flavor, which really stood out from the untreated sample. Saunders used dry hops for her demonstration, but this being hops harvest season it seemed a good time to try it at home with fresh.
I have two bushy bines of Cascade hops intertwining on top of the pergola in my back yard. They are prolific cone producers, but as I haven’t brewed beer at home in over three years they are mostly ornamental. They look pretty through the summer and then dry on the bine to provide some winter interest in my perennial garden. Armed with this new idea though, I decided to put some of them to use.
The process is simple. Line the bottom of a container with hops. I used plastic, food-storage containers. Using fresh hops I got the best results by tearing and rubbing the cones to crush the lupulin glands for better release of the aromatics. I surmise that you might want to do the same using dried cones. Once the hops are in, cover them with parchment paper. Cap that with the cheese, seal it up, and pop it in the refrigerator. Saunders recommended leaving it for no more than five to seven hours, but I achieved good results leaving it over night before removing the hops.
I have tried this technique with butter, chèvre, and sharp cheddar. All three were delicious. Lighter flavors work better, as the hop aromatics, though obvious, are easily overwhelmed. Chèvre worked the best. The flavor is light and the lactic acid tang of the cheese melds nicely with the citrusy side of the hops. It’s great spread on crackers and crusty bread, but I also enjoy it on sliced, fresh tomatoes. The butter brightens a batch of popcorn with a subtle hoppy zing and is also tasty spread onto a chunk of crusty bread. The cheddar is good eaten all by itself. Its stronger flavor yields a subtler, but still noticeable effect. It’s reminiscent of pairing the cheese with a refreshing American pale ale.
Hop aging cheese is easy to do and so tasty. There is no good reason not to do this. Maybe next time I’ll try some non-American hop varieties.
What other goodies could I infuse with the zesty aromas of hops? Hmmmmm….
Step 1: Line the container with torn-up hop cones.
Spring is finally here and the hops in my back yard are crazily sprouting. It can take three years for hops to really establish and mine are in their third year. These bines were pretty productive last year. The sight of bright green cones dangling from my pergola was beautiful. This year the early shoots are much more vigorous and numerous that in the past, cure so I am expecting great things from them come September.
When growing hops it’s common practice to snip off the first growth and go with the second. The initial bines grow super fast and can end up hollow and weak. They can be less productive and less able to withstand the winds that can whip them around on their string trellises. I’ve not snipped mine for the past two years, but with them coming on so strongly this year, I decided to do it right.
Now, I hate to see anything go to waste. I could have composted the sprouts in my backyard bin, but lately I’ve been reading quite a lot about eating them. I’m an adventurous eater and I love to cook, especially new vegetables. And hop shoots supposedly taste like asparagus, one of my absolute favorite veggies. Why not give it a go?
One recommendation I have read was simply to sauté them with a little garlic and butter. This sounded quick, easy, and delicious, so that is the route that I chose. I clipped my bines, chopped them into smaller chunks and got to work melting butter and chopping garlic. Into the pan they went.
I had let a couple of the bines get a bit too long, I think. They were woodier and more fibrous than the shorter shoots. In order to soften these up a bit I opted midway to braise. After tossing them in the garlic butter for a few minutes, I added a quarter cup of water, covered the pan, and lowered the heat. I let them simmer there for five minutes and then cooked off any remaining liquid. I added a bit of salt and pepper and they were done.
The bright green shoots looked great on the plate. I served them with a mashed mix of red and sweet potatoes and simple grilled chicken thighs made the way my dad used to make them – cooked over coals and brushed with a butter/Worcestershire glaze.
Those who say that young hop shoots taste like asparagus are right. They are lightly sweet with that vegetal/chlorophyll flavor that makes asparagus oh-so delicious. From the texture of the raw shoots, I expected them to be more fibrous and prickly. With the exception of the couple that I let grow a little too long, they braised up nice and tender. And not a prickle in the bunch. The tougher ones though did suggest that it’s better to cook them earlier than later. I would recommend not letting them get more than four or five inches long before you snip and eat.
I only have two plants, so cooking hop sprouts is a one-meal deal for me. But I can say with confidence that I will do it again next spring.
Not all that long ago beer dinners in the Twin Cities were a rarity. Now you can hardly turn around without tripping over one. Despite their current ubiquity, thumb there is still something deeply satisfying about sitting down with friends to a fancy meal paired to great beer. I’ve interviewed hundreds of brewers, treatment but I still love listening to them introduce their beers and brewery with each new course. The chef emerging from the kitchen to explain each dish just adds to the elegance of the affair.
It’s especially exciting when the dinner is the brewery’s first, troche as was the case at Fire Lake Grill House in downtown Minneapolis last Tuesday. Five-month old Insight Brewing was feted in a five-course meal prepared by Chef Jim Kyndberg and his crew. Founder/brewer Ilan Klages-Mundt was on hand to unravel each beer and tell the tale of his world-wide journey of brewery apprenticeships. It’s really no secret that I’m a fan of Ilan’s beer, so I was excited to be able to attend.
Fire Lake is really trying to ramp up its attention to the local beer scene. They have held beer dinners in the past with Lift Bridge Brewing Company and Big Wood Brewery. In addition to showcasing Minnesota beer, these beer dinners allow the kitchen staff to flex their culinary muscles a bit. The menus feature dishes that wouldn’t ordinarily appear on the Fire Lake menu. One thing that impressed me is that Chef Kyndberg assigns a dish to each member of his lead kitchen staff. The dishes don’t all revolve around him.
It is clear though, that they are fairly new at this. I chuckled a couple of times listening to Chef as he talked about the difficulty of pairing beer with food – especially dessert. In my own experience, beer presents so many options to go with any dish that the difficulty is often choosing which direction to pick. Some wine sommeliers will even admit – at least in private – that beer is the more food-friendly beverage. And dessert is my favorite course to pair. But if the broad flavor palate of beer is not as familiar, I can understand having to put some extra thought into the pairing process.
That said, they did a good job. The food was excellent and the pairings were generally good. On a couple of dishes they were extraordinary. The ambience of the private room was elegant and yet congenial. I do think that we were over poured. (Did I really just say that?) There were five beers and the pours were big. I had a pretty good buzz going by the time the dinner ended. Fortunately I had taken the train downtown. It might have been an Uber night otherwise. Also, brewer Ilan’s name was misspelled on the menu card. It seems important to me to get your guest of honor’s name correct. That attention to detail matters.
On to the pairings!
Starters – Paired to Lamb & Flag Bacon Wrapped Quail Legs, Pork Belly and Scallop Skewers, Bacon Popovers in Beer Cheese Soup. Not bad, but the smokiness of the quail legs and the scallop skewers overwhelmed the light, English bitter a bit. The bitterness of the beer clashed. A maltier brew would have paired better. The popover pairing, however, was brilliant. The smoke was there, but tempered by the beer cheese soup. The beer’s bitterness cut through the creamy soup. The popover dough and bacon brought out the beers subtle malt.
Fish Course – Paired to Yuzu Pale Ale Miso Marinated Char, Furikake Rice, Red Curry Broth This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The fish was perfectly prepared and the curry sauce had a flavorful, spicy zip. The impulse to use the Yuzu fruit infused pale was understandable. I probably would have gone there too. Unfortunately the beer’s bitterness amplified the curry spice to the point that the delicate fruitiness of the yuzu was overpowered. The very thing that makes the beer special was lost.
Poultry Course – Paired to Curiosity IPA Applewood Smoked Beer Can Chicken, Chipotle Rub, Black Bean Salsa Best pairing of the night. The dish was delicious. The spice was just right. Acidity in the salsa offered a bright, cutting contrast. Curiosity is perhaps my least favorite beer from Insight. It’s not bad, but it’s kind of just another IPA. Nothing special. The dish really brought out its best points. The fruity hops really popped. Its relatively modest bitterness didn’t over-amp the spice. The combination brought out the chipotle smoke.
Meat Course – Paired with Saison de Blanc Pretzel Crusted Pork Rillette, Gribiche Sause, Pickled Carrots and Beets Saison de Blanc is a Belgian-style saison made with Sauvignon grape must. The dish had the feel of Provence that worked well with the farmhouse ale. Herbal and herbal notes spoke to one another. The acid from the wine grapes cut through it all. The really magical part for me though was the acid/acid mix of the beer with the pickled vegetables.
Dessert – Paired with Door County Cherry Saison Lefse and Dark Chocolate Stout Sauce, Mascarpone, Apricots Door County Cherry Saison is Saison de Blanc with a pound per pint of tart, Door County cherries. The dessert was like an upper-Midwest tiramisu. You can’t go wrong with chocolate and cherries and between the glass and the plate there was plenty of both. The beer had enough acidity to cut through it all and the apricots added a nice touch to pull out some of the other fruity notes of the base saison. This was the second-best paring of the night.
Cheers to Insight and Fire Lake for a successful and enjoyable night.
Can I veer into beer and food? You wrote the book that I refer to almost every day, The Brewmaster’s Table. How did you get interested in beer/food pairing to begin with?
Doing it. From day-one when I started doing professional brewing in 1989, the beer dinner was always one of the main ways that you got your beer out in front of people. And as the whole Food Network thing developed and you had chefs being made into rock stars, it kind of occurred to me that at the time that people didn’t necessarily respect craft beer. They didn’t understand it. But people respected chefs and they respected food. So if you tied craft beer to food and people saw how well the beer worked with the food, the kind of glow of respect that the food got shined onto the beer. I think it’s kind of changing these days in that we don’t always need the food to reflect that glow upon us. The beer has its own thing.
Brewmaster’s Table was written from a point of view of not only information, but also pure utility. I’m having pork chops. I’m doing it with this and this. I’m going to have a soft drink, or I’m going to have wine, maybe some people drink cocktails with dinner, or sake or whatever else. But basically most people are going to have a soft drink of some sort, or wine, or beer. So assuming that your choice is beer, beer has a much broader range of pairing ability. Well, what should I do?
And I’d watch people shop for beer and they’d walk up and down the aisles. They clearly didn’t know what was in the bottles and what to do with it. I think the questions that people have are pretty straight-forward. You know, the number one question asked of sommeliers is not, “What is the loam content of the soil in the Loire valley?” They want to know red or white with chicken? What’s the best wine to have with thanksgiving dinner? People want to know basic things. What is it? What does it taste like? Who made it? Why is it interesting? What do I do with it? And then around that you can build something which is interesting and entertaining.
Over the years I’ve done about 700 or 800 beer dinners in over a dozen countries, everywhere from little neighborhood restaurants to some of the most expensive restaurants in the world. Beer belongs at all these places. And we want to demonstrate that beer is an everyday luxury. It’s something that almost everyone can afford. A decent beer will cost you often less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And so really, it sounds grandiose to say it, but every day can be made better than it would have been otherwise.
What makes a great beer/food pairing? What is it about a particular combination that makes you say “wow?”
Well I think beer has a particularly superior ability to do harmony. Wine is largely contrast based. You have steak and you have a glass of cabernet. The flavor of the steak does not actually have anything to do with the flavor of the cabernet. When you’re putting the cabernet with the steak, what you’re essentially doing is putting almost like a fruit sauce on the steak. And that works in a kind of contrasting way. You have caramelization and salt, the flavors that are in the steak, and then you have this opposite flavor from the wine.
In the case of beer, you can do contrast and harmony at the same time. I can bring a roasted flavor or a caramelized flavor that harmonizes with the flavors in the steak, and some bitterness, some sweetness, and some fruitiness to do the contrast part. And that’s what makes what I call the flavor hook, that part of the beer’s flavor that grabs onto part of the food flavor. And so often with the best pairings, the beer is interacting with the food in two or three different ways. It’s doing contrast, and harmony, and various accentuations. You definitely are looking for 1 + 1 = 3. 1 + 1 = 2 is easy. It’s really about getting to that third thing where something is greater than the sum of the parts.
Good beer in general is becoming more and more accepted and popular. The concept of beer and food pairing is becoming accepted. Or to take it even further, beer and food pairing is now being thought about…
What’s happening is that it’s mainstreaming. It’s becoming mainstream. If you looked at 2011’s biggest trends in national restaurant news you will see beer and food pairing. And so something which sounded exotic 10 or 15 years ago is becoming routine. And that’s something that I have been saying. Craft beer is not a trend or a fad, it’s simply a return to normality. We’re like one-third or one-quarter of the way to getting back the level of variety that we used to have going back a hundred years and that we’ve largely forgotten about. We had thousands of breweries and we brewed every kind of beer in the world. And now we’re just kind of regaining all of that stuff. We used to have a fascinating food culture that brought in everybody’s immigrant roots. That kind of got paved over in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Everybody said, “Okay, I want to be an American. I’m going to eat meat and potatoes.” And now everything re-differentiates. You see that in what’s happening in the supermarket. You go to Whole Foods and there’s a whole wall of olive oils. There used to be one olive oil or two olive oils. It’s like everything. As things that used to seem exotic become normal it’s a good thing for everybody. There’s more choice. Now, more choice also means people get waylaid or confused. It’s that thing where you walk in and there are a thousand things to choose from. Well which one do you choose? A little bit of information gives somebody the ability to go in and say, “Okay, I’d like to have that.” Otherwise you’re just looking at a wall of stuff.
That’s what happens to me when I go into the beer store.
At least you’re coming at it from the point that you know almost too much. You look at it and you can see how each one of these might be fun. That’s the other hard thing.
What about pairing beer and cheese?
The tricky thing about beer and cheese tastings is that the cheese in a moving target. You say stilton or something like that, but there’s a pretty wide range of what that cheese might be like. So any kind of information you can get on what kind of condition the cheese is likely to be in that day is helpful. Or if you know that a particular place likes to push their cheeses all the way out to their ripest point or you know that they tend to serve their cheeses fairly young, you can work with that to figure out how your pairing is likely to go.
Also, the funkier they get the harder it can be. So that part is always tricky. I try to ask as many questions as I can and also get my samples as close to the actual date, like if I can get my samples two days before we’re going to do the actual tasting. And I ask if it’s coming from the same wheel and the same place etc. That’s your best shot, because there’s only so much that’s going to change in a couple of days. But if you taste it three weeks beforehand or a month beforehand, well…
And I have my go-to pairings that, when I don’t have information in advance, I know a lot of cheeses pretty well so I can say, “These are the five sets we’re going to start with.” And I try to mix the various types. I would like one goat, at least one sheep, one washed-rind, one blue, and one cooked, firm cheese – cheddar type or usually a gruyere. That’s six. That gives you an opportunity to talk about the differences in milks and how the beers are interacting. Say with a saison or a Belgian witbier, how the beer interacts with the tangy quality that goat cheeses have. So I have favorite pairings when it comes to that.
And there are cheeses that I know are likely to be available even though they are good artisanally-made cheeses. For example, you have Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog. You know you can find it in a good cheese shop. You know you can get it even at Costco sometimes. So a person that has a Whole Foods somewhere near them is going to be able to get it. Then if we need to get more esoteric we can. You can teach people about what is wash-rind cheese. Now, as you have the flourishing of beers with Brett character, you know wash-rind cheeses go great with Brett. So you get a chance to tell these tales together.
When I’m doing events I like to help people figure out what kind of beer they gravitate towards. I focus it around ingredients, malt, hops, yeast. How do you approach this?
I do it somewhat differently in that kind of tasting. Like the cheese, I tend to cover ranges of flavor. I want you to understand the two main kinds of wheat beer, because I think they have great utility. You can drink them with so many different things. I want you to understand pale ales and IPAs. Bitterness. I want you to understand caramelization, roast, yeast character, usually represented by some of the Belgian beers where you have a lot of yeast character. I like to serve something with some vintage character.
So a typical beginners tasting might start off with a Belgian wheat beer, then go to weissbier. Then do a real pilsner and start talking about lagers. An IPA. Some sort of Belgian Abbey ale. Maybe a stout or imperial stout. And then a barleywine. Hopefully in there, if we have room to do it, one lambic so that we can show that end of things. Other variants that you can throw in there are like a saison, etc.
I can say that the one thing I have learned over the years, which should not have been a surprise, but was a big surprise, is never talk down to anybody. I can’t tell you how many times I have served Black Chocolate Stout, a big 10.2% imperial stout, to the little old lady, she’s 82 years old, she’s got a blue rinse, and she’s tasting it and saying, “Well I like this one the most. I’ve been looking for a beer like this for a long time.” And I’m like, “Wait, you have been looking for a beer like this? A 55 IBU, black, blow-your-head-off imperial stout. This is what you’re really into?” She’s like, “I don’t usually drink beer very much. I don’t really like beer. But this stuff is awesome.”
I came to realize that just because somebody came in saying that they don’t even like beer or that they’re a Coors Light drinker, or whatever else, doesn’t mean that you can’t have them walking out of there loving Schlenkerla Rauchbier. You have no idea what they are going to like, and neither do they. Your job when you are doing a tasting is to show them. “Here it comes. This is what you are about to taste. Get ready. And now we’re going to talk about the culture and the flavor and whatever else. And if that one is not for you, great.” But I don’t make the mistake any more of not putting stuff in front of people because I think they can’t handle it. Basically what you find out is that almost everybody can handle almost everything as long as you tell them what they are about to taste. My goal is that I want to go all the way there in a couple of hours. And maybe the end of the tasting will be a J.W. Lees Harvest Ale from 2005. My goal for the tasting is that I want to completely blow your mind. I want you to walk out of the room dazed and confused if you have never really come to beer before, and to walk out saying correctly, “I’ve been missing something. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Here’s the way I like to put it. Every enthusiasm you have, at some point there was a single moment of introduction. It might have been that you love baseball and your uncle took you to your first baseball game. You love jazz because somebody played you your first Miles Davis record. In that one moment, a little door opens up. On the other side of that door is a better life. And that’s a real thing. It’s an absolutely real thing. You will meet those people ten years later and they will tell you what you did for them. “That one day, in two hours, you changed my life.” And that is absolutely real. And that is the thing that we are here to bring to people. My job is to be the guy that opens that door up. And you’ve got to walk through it. That’s a great thing to be able to do. It may not be rocket science or brain surgery. But you know what? It’s at least as important. You’re going to make peoples’ lives better every day. If they love jazz, they can listen to jazz every day for the rest of their live. But if nobody every plays them the record, guess what. You’re not going to hear it. And the rest of your life you don’t get any of that. You lose that. People think we’re just going out slinging beer, but no, it isn’t that. You see how happy it makes people to have enthusiasms for things. To enjoy dinner every day a little bit more, hell, what else do you want?
Last Friday night I teamed up once again with sommelier Leslee Miller of Amuseewine.com and Chef Mike Shannon at Cooks of Crocus Hill for one of our quarterly beer and wine pairing dinners. The theme this time was BBQ. The four course meal included everything grilled from romaine lettuce to knife and fork Manchego burgers. While all of the beer and wine pairings were pretty darn good, malady a couple of my beer pairings really stood out to me.
Salads often have so many different things going on at once that it can be difficult to decide where to start. One of my salad-pairing rules of thumb is to pick an ingredient or flavor and just go with it. The pairing Friday night of Schell’s Pils with grilled romaine salad was a perfect example of how this works. This salad (the recipe is below) consisted of grilled romaine hearts, prescription blue cheese vinaigrette, fresh basil and oregano, and crisped prosciutto. In a case like this do you go with the toastiness that grilling will bring to the lettuce, the lightly acidic blue cheese dressing, the fresh herbs, or the prosciutto?
I opted to pair to the basil and prosciutto. The spicy hops of a pilsner often remind me of licorice are totally at ease with fresh basil. And how could I miss with pilsner and prosciutto? If the blue cheese wasn’t too funky the pilsner hops would complement it as well.
My first bite of salad was only lettuce. I really thought I had made a mistake with this pairing. The bitter beer accentuated the bitterness in the romaine creating a not altogether pleasant taste. The next bite though got to the targets of my pairing. The fresh basil and prosciutto sang with the beer and pulled the whole pairing together. The salty meat took away the unpleasant bitterness and allowed the basil and hops to come forward. The mild blue cheese dressing set the whole pairing off.
Another basic pairing rule of thumb is to keep the drink just a little bit sweeter than the desert. But while rules can be helpful, they are not iron-clad. Sometime rules should be broken. The desert course on Friday night was grilled peaches topped off with a Grand Marnier whipped cream. A light brown-sugar cinnamon glaze added a bit of additional sweetness. I paired this with Lindemans Pêche, a sweetened peach lambic. This beer is not as sweet as the desert, but sweet enough to stand up to it. It has the added bonus though of higher-than-normal levels of acidity. It matched the acidity in the peach one to one. I find that Pêche has more residual barnyard lambic funk than the other Lindemans flavors. This added an earthy base that brought some additional depth to the pairing.
Recipes by Chef Mike Shannon, Photos by Nicholas Kolnik
Prepare grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Whisk first 4 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Add peach halves; toss to coat well. Place peaches, cut side down, on grill. Grill until slightly charred, about 1 minute. Using tongs, turn peaches over.
Using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip cold cream to medium peaks. Spoon some into each halve and serve.