Alcohol and cheese are a natural match — and I’m not just talking about pairing a smoked porter with a sweet, peppery blue, or a grüner with a Loire Valley crottin. There’s a whole world of cheeses whose creation involves being dunked, bathed and swaddled in booze.
European cheesemakers have a long tradition of washing young curds with their region’s libations — from the Trappist beer-bathed cheeses of Belgian monasteries to the wine-and-herb washes of Swiss alpines.
It’s more than a matter of infusing a cheese with the taste of a liquor. Indeed, the up-front flavors of the liquid (it’s called a “wash” in cheese-speak) often disappear after affinage, or aging, so you won’t end up with a “beery” or “winey” cheese . Rather, the alcohol’s yeasts, bacteria and sugars create a complex alchemy on the cheese’s surface, a microbial playground welcoming to other cultures.
The best known are the Brevibacterium linens, which impart red and orange hues and distinctive aromas — meaty, wet grass, broth, barnyard, even “gym sock” — to prized washed-rind cheeses like nose-searing Époisses or funky, custardy Taleggio. But not all washed rind cheeses are “stinky”; some range toward fruity, floral, pleasantly sour and yeasty; others might not even read as “washed” at first taste, so subtle is the influence.
Trailblazing American cheesemakers have taken this tradition and made it their own. We tasted our way through some of the region’s booze-bathed wheels, and here present our favorites.
1. Dandelion Dorset
Consider Bardwell Farm, VT (Bathed in dandelion wine)
Northeast mongers swear by Dorset, a Taleggio-style raw cow-milk classic — and now Consider Bardwell makes this booze-bathed riff. The vibrant color in the wheel’s creamline comes from a flowery wash: dandelion wine, an unusual vintage in which the bright blooms of this unfairly maligned “weed” are cultured with brewers’ yeast, then strained, bottled and left to age.
Dandelion Dorset doesn’t taste like the ubiquitous lawn flowers. Flavors are rich, meaty and savory, buttery and nutty with wet hay and barnyard. And the paste does take on the blossom’s saturated yellow; you’d be excused for thinking it had been dropped into food coloring.
Bedford Cheese’s Phoebe Connell says, “Regular Dorset is rich and yolky. The dandelion wash adds depth, cutting the buttery flavors with a green sweetness.”
Bedford Cheese Shop, $25/lb.
Meadowood Farms, Cazenovia, NY (Bathed in wild-fermented cider)
Veronica Pedraza, a restaurant-world alumna and former Saxelby monger, honed her skills at Sweetgrass Dairy and Jasper Hill before taking over cheesemaking at Meadowood Farms, where she uses the caves’ fermentation-friendly conditions to make something other than cheese: cider. She gets fresh-off-the-press apple cider from Critz Farm and lets her caves’ microflora work their magic. There the cider spontaneously ferments — no purchased yeast needed — and she washes her cooked, pressed sheep-milk cheese, Lorenzo, with it twice a week.
The results: a dense, smooth, pliant, moderately eyed cheese with an amber-gold rind. The flavor is buttery and full, a bit meaty and nutty, with grassy and lanolin hints. Lorenzo is also a stellar melter, softening and developing a buttery sheen as it warms for a grilled cheese or caramelized on top of potatoes and charcuterie. Wash it down with — what else? — hard cider.
Saxelby Cheesemongers, $31.99/lb.
3. Sozzled Pearl
Seal Cove Farm, ME, & Saxelby Cheesemongers, Brooklyn (Bathed in Bourbon)
For fans of corn mash and Kentucky spirits, there’s now a cheese made with bourbon. It begins its young life in Maine as Pearl, a Chaource-style goat-and cow-milk cheese, but the innocent little cheese travels to the big city to undergo a transformation at Saxelby Cheesemongers’ caves in Red Hook, where it’s wrapped in bourbon-soaked grape leaves and affinaged.
With a strong vegetal flavor at the rind, the grape leaves’ musty notes are distinctly in evidence, with a pleasantly bitter undertone and a tinge of bourbon bite. The paste itself is creamy and fudgy with tangy, fruity and grassy notes. “It’s not wicked boozy, though,” says Anthony Pepe, Saxelby’s cave manager. “I think the leaves impart a bit of brine to the cheese and the booze seeps in juuuuust enough to give it a little kick!”
Saxelby Cheesemongers, $12.99/ea.
4. Humble Herdsman
Parish Hill Creamery, VT, & Crown Finish Caves, Brooklyn (Bathed in hard cider)
Vermont’s new Parish Hill Creamery is helmed by legendary cheesemaker Peter Dixon, whose decades of experience have earned him a reputation as the “cheese whisperer.” Now he’s forged a partnership with Crown Finish Caves, a long-abandoned subterranean brewery tunnel in Crown Heights, converted into a state-of-the-art affinage facility. Dixon’s team makes the cheeses in Vermont and ships a good portion of their wheels to Crown Finish to be aged to perfection; they have wheels aging both in Vermont and Brooklyn, affording a unique experiment in the influence of location on the aging process.
Perhaps inspired by their setting, Crown Finish is experimenting with a variety of washes using beer and — fitting for craft cheese from the Northeast — hard cider. Dixon makes a cheese called Humble Herdsman, a semi-soft tomme, which he washes with his homemade, wild-fermented ciders — but Benton worked with Aiyana Knauer, beer buyer at Stinky Bklyn, to make a version washed with Virtue Cider’s RedStreak.
Comparing the two, Aiyana says, “I’ve found that the Virtue-washed wheels tend to be brighter, zippier and lighter in flavor, whereas Peter’s wheels lean toward more nutty, earthy and musky notes. They’re both absolutely delicious and I’d eat a half wheel of either, any day of the week.”
Stinky Bklyn, $25/lb.
Vulto Creamery, Walton, NY (Bathed in absinthe)
Jos Vulto, an inspiration to urban curd nerds, went from aging his cheeses under the sidewalks of Brooklyn to building a licensed creamery upstate and going legit. His Miranda cheese is a favorite among mongers and perhaps the most unusual on this list, rubbed down with a modern version of the “Green Fairy” of 19th-century Paris legends, absinthe. Specifically the kind made up the road from his creamery at Delaware Phoenix Distillery, which dilutes into the brine.
The raw cow-milk cheese comes in a distinctive rose-red little tower with ridged, concave sides and a frosty coat of white mold. The flavors are brothy, meaty and earthy, with nutty and grassy notes and a hint of barnyard; the absinthe wash lends complexity, subtle fruity and yeasty hints and a bit of sour and tang on the finish. Enjoy while reading Oscar Wilde.
Eataly, Bedford Cheese Shop, $18/ea.
6. Drunk Monk
Cato Corner, Colchester, CT (Bathed in beer)
Mark Gilman is head cheesemaker at Cato Corner, and his mother, Elizabeth, tends the herd. Their farmstead cheeses have long been prized at the Greenmarket and top shops across town, especially their stinky Hooligan, a raw cow-milk tomme that’s washed in a simple brine and earns its name when it hits your nose. But they often give their wheels other washes: Drunken Hooligan takes a grape must and red wine bath, while Drunk Monk gets twice-weekly rubdowns with beer.
“We wash the cheese with whatever the Willimantic Brew Pub has at the moment that is saison-style and not too hoppy,” says Mark. The results are moderately pungent, not as strong as the Hooligan, with a fruity finish and a delicious, balanced after- taste. Or as Eataly’s head cheesemonger Greg Blais more colorfully puts it, “Drunk Monk is a creamy, funky, possibly illegally odorous cheese that develops a wonderful yielding texture due to a generous beer bath.” You’ll chant this monk’s praises, and raise a grateful pint to those busy, beery bacteria.
Jasper Hill, VT, & Murray’s Cheese, West Village, NY (Bathed in hard cider)
Jasper Hill’s prized Vermont cellars are cheese-world ground-breakers, a massive, state-of-the-art underground aging, production and R&D center in Greensboro, modeled on the legendary cheese tunnels of France. Their Winnimere won Best in Show at the 2013 American Cheese competition in Wisconsin, and now they’ve partnered with Murray’s Cheese on another bark-wrapped beauty, the Greensward.
Originally created for the cheese cart at Eleven Madison Park, the Greensward is washed in a blend of hard cider, yeasts and salt.
Murray’s cave master, Brian Ralph, says they tried many ciders, domestic and international, before settling on Virtue Cider, which “lent all the attributes we were looking for: fruit, funk and medi- um acidity [that] helped meld a balanced complexity to the rind.”
Once washed, it’s wrapped in a spruce bark girdle and put through rotations in the Murray’s caves, whose carefully con- trolled temperature and humidity create a silky, custardy texture perfect for dolloping out with a spoon. The flavors are rich, milky and meaty, with bacon and caramelized onion notes and a distinctly woodsy infusion from its time in the bark belt.
Murray’s Cheese, $29.99 each.
Photo credit: Lauren Volo; Food styling: Richard Vassilatos