One of the trends I’ve spotted in American cheeses recently is the growing use of beer to wash cheeses. You have probably tasted Epoisses, the Burgundian cheese brushed with marc de Bourgogne (grape-pomace brandy), and Spain’s Murcia al Vino (also marketed as Drunken Goat), which is steeped in red wine. Oregon’s Rogue River Blue ages in grape leaves soaked in pear brandy. And then there’s the irresistible Tome d’Aquitaine (aka Clisson), a French beauty bathed twice: first with Muscadet, then with Sauternes.
Whether made with wine or beer, the boozy brine produces a moist, salty surface. Some microbes can’t handle that; others love it. The salt-tolerant yeasts and bacteria that proliferate on the rind will help ripen the cheese and instigate those smelly aromas.
I don’t know if coating cheese with beer has lengthy precedent, but you can imagine that Belgium’s Trappist monks tried it. They made both, after all. Now domestic cheese makers are experimenting with local craft brews as a way of creating signature wheels with more “taste of place.” Jasper Hill’s Winnimere comes to mind, along with Haystack Mountain’s A Cheese Named Sue. Both creameries—the former in Vermont, the latter in Colorado—use beer from a neighboring brewery.
The lovely Lorelei (pictured above) from Oregon’s Briar Rose Creamery strengthens the case for beer washing as a legitimate technique. In the hands of cheese maker Sarah Marcus, it is not a gimmick. Marcus washes the young squares almost daily for a couple of weeks with brine flavored with Black Butte Porter from Deschutes Brewery (delicious choice).
“I initially started with an IPA, but it wasn’t doing anything,” says Marcus (at right). “I said, ‘Let’s go with something with more legs to it.’” The malty porter contributes some color and a touch of sweetness, she believes. I get more of a meaty, yeasty, mushroomy aroma than any beery notes, but I didn’t speak to Marcus until after I had devoured the cheese. “If you nibble on the edge,” she told me, “that’s where you get the huge malty burst.”
This little square goat cheese—it weighs about 10 ounces—resembles a mini Taleggio, with a tacky, buff-colored rind finely dusted with white mold. The creamery releases Lorelei at three weeks, when it is just starting to soften under the rind, but my sample was clearly more mature. As you can tell from the image, mine had only a sliver of firmness at the core. Marcus estimates that the piece I tried was at least six weeks old, and frankly, I don’t think I would want it much younger. The ivory interior was supple, almost squishy; the aroma robust but not super stinky. Washed-rind cheeses often have a bitter or salty finish, but this one had no noticeable flaws.
Marcus names her cheeses after mythological figures. Lorelei, in German mythology, was a maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River after a lover deceived her. Then she got her revenge. “She’s a seductress,” says Marcus. “She’s one of those mermaids who sits on the rocks and lures sailors to their doom.” And, as Marcus intended, the cheesy Lorelei is a seductress, too.
Marcus recommends pairing Lorelei with a malt-forward beer, such as a porter or nut-brown ale. AleSmith Nut Brown Ale and Calicraft Brewing’s Oaktown Brown are among my favorites.
Look for Briar Rose Creamery Lorelei at Cowgirl Creamery, Little Vine, Mission Cheese and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco; Woodlands Market in Kentfield; Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa; Cheese Shop of Healdsburg; Freestone Artisan Cheese in Freestone; Feel Good Foods in Santa Cruz; Taylor’s Market and The Cultured and the Cured in Sacramento; Auntie Em’s, DTLA Cheese and Wheel House in Los Angeles; Antonelli’s in Austin; Scardello’s in Dallas; Foods of All Nations in Charlottesville, VA; and Fromagio’s in Anchorage.