Why can’t we have Oktoberfest all year? I love those malty Oktoberfest brews, and they’re awesome with cheese. If you haven’t picked up a mixed six-pack to enjoy this month in your backyard beer garden, get on it. These once-a-year beers are always gone before the month is. And I have the perfect cheese plate to go with them.
By tradition, Oktoberfest brews are lagers made in the Märzen style: malt forward, with little hops aroma and low bitterness. They tend to be mid-range in alcohol, around 6 percent, and have a rich golden to auburn color. The first sip is all malty sweetness, but the finish is dry.
Aged cheeses with a nutty, brown butter or pale caramel scent are a slam-dunk with Oktoberfest beers. The two pictured above are on my radar right now for different reasons, and they could not have been more compatible with Sierra Nevada’s easy-to-love Oktoberfest.
When I ordered Valley Ford Cheese Company’s Estero Gold for a class recently and the distributor sent me Estero Gold Reserve (above, right), I was a little annoyed. I was concerned that the extra-aged wheel wouldn’t go with the wine the host was pouring. In fact, the pairing was fine, but the big discovery for me was the cheese. Aged for 18 months, a year longer than the regular Estero Gold, the Reserve was firm yet creamy, with a concentrated, mellow sweetness, a nutty aroma and an astonishing egg-yolk color. Definitely Oktoberfest-worthy.
Valley Ford is a century-old dairy in coastal Sonoma County, California. Karen Bianchi-Moreda began transforming some of her family’s Jersey milk into cheese about 10 years ago, starting with a home cheesemaking kit and blossoming from there. Guided by a taste memory, she created the raw-milk Estero Gold, modeling it after the hard cheese that was always on the sideboard, under a dome and next to the wine carafe, in her Italian-immigrant grandparents’ home. Now her son, Joe, has taken over the cheesemaking, after studying dairy science at Cal Poly. Bravo, Joe.
At under $20 a pound, Le Maréchal (above, left) remains one of the best buys in any cheese case. I find it frequently at Whole Foods. Produced in Switzerland from raw cow’s milk, the young wheels are coated with herbs and matured for about five months. It feels like silk and has a generous aroma of brown butter and roasted nuts, pitch-perfect with Oktoberfest brews. I have no clue how Swiss cheesemakers produce such consistently delicious wheels and get them to the U.S. at such a reasonable price, and I don’t understand why this cheese isn’t better known.
In Northern California, look for Estero Gold Reserve at Cheese Board (Berkeley); Calmart (Calistoga); Good Earth (Fairfax and Mill Valley); Freestone Artisan Cheese (Freestone); Big John’s Market (Healdsburg); Oxbow Cheese (Napa); Oliver’s Markets (multiple Santa Rosa-area locations) and in San Francisco at Cheese Plus, Cheese School of San Francisco, Cowgirl Creamery (also in Pt. Reyes), Mission Cheese and Rainbow Grocery.
If you can’t find Estero Gold Reserve, consider Vella Dry Jack Special Select for your Oktoberfest board. If you can’t find Le Maréchal, substitute Comté, an aged Gruyère, Alp Blossom, Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise or Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Cheddars are also a pleasing partner for Oktoberfest beers.
Text some friends, make your cheese board, grill some sausage, toss a salad. Not that you need an excuse to party, but Oktoberfest is a good one.