Editor's Note: Emiliano Lee is the Artisan Market Manager at Farmshop in Los Angeles, California. He also serves as a judge for the American Cheese Society.
One of, if not the most, frequently asked questions I field on the cheese counter is, "What's your favorite?" To which I almost always reply, "Well, that depends."
What's ripe? What's tasting particularly good at any given moment? What am I in the mood for? What's the weather like? What am I drinking? Ah, yes, the age-old pairing question.
In the end, it really does boil down to personal taste, but there are certainly some combinations that work better than others.
Many people want to pair wine and cheese, and while I can dance to that, I'm personally more of the malt and hops persuasion. For me, beer is a more natural choice, and as many others will attest to, it plays tremendously well with cheese.
Looking at my cheese case right now, here are a five wheels that are tasting particularly nice along with some of their best drinking buddies.
1. Extra Mature Bandage Wrapped Cheddar by Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese (Modesto, California)
This traditional, farmhouse-style English cheddar speaks to the passion and skill of its cheesemaker, Mariano Gonzalez. This raw milk beauty has won the top spot twice at the World Cheese Awards in London, beating the British on their home turf.
Its dense texture crumbles and melts creamy on the palate, bringing out various sweet and savory notes. Think butter and toasted nuts with hints of caramel and pineapple. Its complexity lends well across the board to many types of beverages (it pairs just as nicely with reds as whites when it comes to wine), but what could be more fitting to pair with a good farmhouse cheddar than a nice hearty ale? There are few pleasures more satisfying.
For some fun, one of my favorite pairings is Lagunitas Brewing Company's India Pale Ale. With the beer's combination of bold hoppiness and deep malty foundation, the complexity of flavor in the cheddar steps up and sings right in tune. Add a hearty rye bread and some pickles and call it a meal.
For a mellower combination, pair with your favorite brown ale or special bitter to bring out the buttery notes and bright fruit.
2. Vivace by Andante Dairy (Petaluma, California)
Cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan has a reputation for creating some of the finest small batch cheeses available. While we've been familiar with her beautifully crafted goat cheeses reminiscent of the finest you'll find abroad, she has only recently begun to incorporate sheep's milk from a nearby farm into her repertoire.
Vivace is a blend of sheep's and goat's milk with a delicate rind that holds in an unctuous paste that develops from the outside-in. The creamy texture instantly coats the palate in tongue-smacking delight. Flavors are rich, yet fresh and bright, with sweet hay notes lingering on the finish.
Alpine Beer Company concocts just the beverage to wash this one down: Willy. This beer is full-flavored, yet light enough to be crisp and nutty at the same time. The effervescence cuts through the rich paste of the cheese, leaving you with a mildly sweet finish and bringing out grass in the nose.
In lieu of Willy, pair with a wheat beer of your choice or even a lighter red ale to bring out more of the musky animal notes if that's your kick.
3. Winnimere by Jasper Hill Farm (Greensboro, Vermont)
Andy and Mateo Kehler started Jasper Hill Farm in 2003 and have, in a short several years, become one of this country's preeminent sources for American farmstead cheeses.
Their Winnimere cheese is wrapped in spruce bark from Jasper Hill's own trees and washed with ale from a neighboring brewery. It's best enjoyed by simply peeling back the top rind, allowing the bark to act as a bowl and digging in with a spoon or just a hunk of crusty bread. The silky texture wraps itself around your tongue with a symphony of flavors: sweet, smoky, salty, creamy, fruity, woodsy, beefy. A friend now famously likened it to taking a walk through the bacon forest.
One of my favorite things to have alongside this cheese is dried tart cherries, so a lambic cherry beer like Timmermans Kriek is a perfect pairing with this seasonal wonder. The carbonation helps break down the cheese and bring out individual flavors. The light tartness complements the savory qualities of the cheese, and the cheese itself tones down the sweetness of the beer.
4. Nicasio Reserve by Nicasio Valley Cheese Company (Nicasio, California)
A relative newcomer to the farmstead and artisanal cheese scene, the Lafranchi family has been producing some consistently good cheese in a very short period of time.
One of those cheeses is Nicasio Reserve. The Lafranchi family went to their roots in Valle Maggia, Switzerland, to learn the craft and bring it home to their Marin County farm.
Nicasio Reserve is an Alpine-style cheese that's dense and creamy with a light fruity funk on the nose. Across the palate, the impressive sweet cream flavor of their milk (certified organic, by the way) hits you right off the bat before mellowing into a complex play of stone fruits, grass and hazelnuts. The sweet cream follows through once more on the finish.
This cheese instills warmth, as does the beer I've paired with it: California Ale from Telegraph Brewing. It may be a flavorful medium-bodied beer for a flavorful medium-bodied cheese, but by no means is it a medium-bodied experience.