What a pair: Cheese and beer
While some people's idea of a beer and cheese pairing may be Budweiser and nachos, a beer tasting of a decidedly more sophisticated nature will take place this weekend at the Offshore Ale Co. On Sunday, the local brewpub will host an evening featuring a selection of craft beers paired with gourmet cheeses, to benefit the Island Food Pantry.
With the rise of microbreweries and increasing varieties of beer, a new breed of connoisseurs has evolved, and beer tastings and dinners have become a popular trend in this country, where, according to craftbeer.com (a website dedicated to gourmet American beer), we now have more beer styles and beer brands to choose from than any other market in the world.
Rose Willett of Fiddlehead Farm, who is selecting the cheeses for the event, is an amateur gourmand of another sort. Four years ago, Ms. Willett and her partner Bob Skydell purchased Fiddlehead Farm, with its popular farm stand/store on State Road in Vineyard Haven. Since then Ms. Willett has purposefully increased her knowledge of food growing and producing. Long a proponent of the slow food movement, she has started visiting farms around New England in an effort to learn more about the cheeses that she sells. "For some reason it just resonated with me," she says. "I became very serious and it became a passion. I do lots of reading and get out there visiting farms and making cheese."
Ms. Willett comments that our area is especially rich in variety of high quality cheeses. "New England has some of the best cheesemakers in the country. It's such a diverse range of styles in every kind of milk. It's a very centralized cheese producing area in the country."
Ms. Willett forged a friendship with Jan Buhrman of Kitchen Porch Culinary Experiences when the two of them attended a slow food convention in Torino, Italy, in 2008. They have also formed a working relationship, supporting and getting involved with each other's endeavors. Last fall the two women hosted a cheese and wine event at Fiddlehead Farm, which not only sold out, but as Ms. Willett comments, "I could have had four times as many people."
The two women got many requests to host another event and so Ms. Willett contacted Offshore owner Phil McAndrews about the possibility of collaborating on a cheese and beer pairing.
"I thought it would be a nice way to broaden what you think about when you think about beer - that it can be just as sophisticated as wine," says Ms. Willett. Ms. Buhrman is helping to promote the event and all the proceeds will go to the Island Food Pantry.
Mr. McAndrews is happy to have the opportunity to bring a popular trend to the Island. He comments on beer's recent rise in respectability: "It marries with food just as well as wine, but beer's a little more fun. It's more user-friendly. People aren't that afraid of it."
For the beer and cheese evening, Mr. McAndrews has chosen a range of beers crafted by Offshore brewer Neil Atkins. He describes some of the six beers that will be featured saying that he will start out with one the softer style of beers like amber ale or porter and move on to the more bitter, hoppy Menemsha Creek pale ale. Also featured will be an IPA, a stout, and a strong Argus dark Belgian beer with caramel notes.
Although Ms. Willett confesses that she is not an expert in beer, she notes, "I have the palate to know what goes together, so that's what I can bring to the table."
For the pairing she has chosen eight representatives of regional and imported cheeses, including a couple from Vermont farms that she visits regularly. She is also including one of her favorites from Vermont, a Winnemere wrapped in fir bark and, appropriately, washed in beer brine. There will also be a smoked blue cheese, an aged sheep's milk cheese from England, and a classic cheddar, among others. Ms. Willett will also provide some olives, figs, nuts, and other nibbles.
Mr. McAndrews points out that both he and his brewer Mr. Atkins are very involved in the craft beer community, reading up on new developments and attending beer tastings when they can. The two men and Ms. Willett will offer information garnered from their travels, their friendships with producers, and first-hand knowledge.
Ms. Willett will also have some involvement with Ms. Buhrman's upcoming weekend of wine tastings, featuring a very popular wine connoisseur, journalist, and speaker from Italy. Visit kitchenporch.com for more information. Ms. Willett says that she may be making cheese for one of the events that will feature dinner and demonstrations.
Beer and Cheese Tasting, Sunday, Feb. 28, 3 pm, Offshore Ale Co., Oak Bluffs. With Rose Willet of Fiddlehead Farm. Benefits Island Food Pantry. To make a reservation, call Offshore at 508-693-2626.
Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.