Across the country, creative cheese professionals are helping upgrade the image of pub food. Who would have thought you could sell beer without burgers? But in some new beer-centric establishments, artisan cheese platters are getting top billing.
I experienced this trend most recently and compellingly in Portland, Oregon, where rock-star cheesemonger Steve Jones is designing the cheese plates for patrons of The Commons, a small craft brewery. Jones has opened a petite kiosk called Cheese Annex inside this hip urban brewpub, and there is not a burger or fried thing on the menu.
Jones is best known in Portland for Cheese Bar, his casual restaurant with a small, cheese-themed menu and retail cheese counter. At The Commons, the menu is even more tightly focused: cheese and charcuterie boards, a soup, fondue, a grilled-cheese sandwich and a daily-changing salad or two.
I ordered the braised green beans with goat cheese, the Northwest Cheese Board and small pours of two brews: Field & Furrow, a lemony saison with coriander; and Oatmeal Stout. What a perfect lunch. The three cheeses were all new to me and all noteworthy. Top to bottom in image above:
- Cascadia Creamery Cloud Cap (Washington), an impressive raw cow’s milk cheese in the style of Caerphilly
- Fern’s Edge Mount June (Oregon), a mellow aged goat cheese with Gouda-like creaminess and sweetness; perfect with the stout
- Ancient Heritage Dairy Hannah (Oregon), a firm aged wheel from a blend of cow’s and sheep’s milk, with a natural rind, a cultured-butter aroma and lactic, sour cream finish
At other leading brewpubs, like San Francisco’s Thirsty Bear, the kitchen makes the pairing for you. I love the refined simplicity of Thirsty Bear’s presentations: a short pour of beer, expertly cut cheese, toasted almonds, crisped baguette.
Everybody knows about burgers and beer. But these new menus give pub customers a chance to explore the less-familiar affinities between craft beer and fine cheese.
To complement its bounty of craft breweries, Portland now has a small-scale urban creamery: Ancient Heritage Dairy, which relocated from country to city earlier this year to be closer to customers. In a light-filled corner building in Southeast Portland, cheesemaker Paul Obringer is making and maturing about 600 pounds a week of cow’s and sheep’s milk cheeses in a range of styles. My favorite is Hannah (see above), available at Cheese Plus in San Francisco. Both Cheese Plus and Little Vine in San Francisco also carry the creamery’s Willow Creek, a creamy, yeasty wine-washed wheel that I also enjoyed. In the video, creamery assistant Sarah Johnson flips fresh wheels of Hannah. The curds have only been draining for about 15 minutes, but they have already knit together enough to flip.