Last night, I attended a National Geographic Live! event with the fun title "A Come to Cheeses Moment," about the art of pairing cheese with wine and beer. The speakers included wine expert Joshua Wesson, co-founder of the Best Cellars chain of wine shops (now owned by A&P), and Sweetwater Tavern brewmaster Nick Funnell, a softspoken Brit with a background in chemistry.
And the cheese factor? Well, Steven Jenkins, of course. He's the cheesemonger for Fairway Market, the author of Cheese Primer, and a self-declared "idiot savant" who overcame a Velveeta-smothered childhood to become America's first French-certified maitre fromager (master cheesemonger).
The event was presented as a competition between the two beverages, although in practice, the quick-show-of-hands voting system in a crowded room proved pretty darn inconclusive. But that's the point, I suppose—it's ultimately up to your own palate to decide what's "best" when it comes to any kind of food and drink pairings.
"Anyone who comes in here with an open mind and an open mouth is going to be surprised," Wesson predicted before the event, adding that even though beer might seem to be the underdog, its bitterness and "scrubbing bubbles" often refresh the palate better than wine, giving it an edge when paired with heavier cheeses.
"People assume it that wine and cheese go together better, and that red is better than white—but when it's a cheese that's very salty and full of fat, hanging on your palate, you really want something refreshing. It's going to be very interesting to see if the refreshment factor trumps all the other factors."
I considered that as we tasted the first cheese, a soft, rich scimudin that tasted lovely but left a buttery slickness on the roof of my mouth. The beer, a nicely balanced kölsch from Capitol City Brewing, was a good match for flavor, but Wesson had smartly picked a sparkling Saint-Meyland Brut (a champagne in all but name), and I thought the wine's livelier bubbles cut through the fat better.
The wine wasn't the liveliest part of the evening—my table was full of 20-somethings who had come out to celebrate a birthday, and after just one round they were already talking and laughing loudly enough to get scolded by a server. (Reminded me of a beer event I wrote about last year...good thing Mr. Shush wasn't at our table!) I couldn't really tell what the overall vote was in the room; but if our table was a representative sample, most of the rounds were a draw.
All of the beers came from within 150 miles of DC, although most are only available directly from the breweries, Funnell noted. The wines are fairly easy to find, but not the cheeses—Jenkins said he was still unsure until just a few days before the event whether the FDA would let some of them into the country (since they're all unpasteurized, and rather obscure). "Some of these cheeses are so rare, they don't even exist!" he joked. My favorite was the Spanish pico melero, an aged sheep's milk cheese with a firm texture and a slightly sweet, nutty taste.
If you're interested, the six pairings were as follows:
5. Cheese: Wildspitz (cow and goat; Switzerland) Wine: Li Veli Passamente Negroamaro 2008 (Italy) Beer: Devil's Backbone Barleywine (Roseland, VA) My verdict: Couldn't stand this cheese, no matter what I drank it with; liked both drinks on their own—let's call it a tie.
6. Cheese: Peralzola (sheep, Spain) Wine: Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz 2009 (South Africa) Beer: Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter (Frederick, MD) My verdict: Sorry, I had to leave right before the final pour! But the blue cheese was outstanding.