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Learn to Love Washed Rind Cheeses

Winnimere cheese being washed with beer by two men using brushes

As the name implies, washed rind cheeses are washed. The most common wash is a salty brine based on the cheese’s own whey, but wine, beer, and other spirits are commonly added to the brine. Belgian Trappist Monks use Belgian ale, while French cheesemakers bathe Époisses in Burgundy wine. Most washed rinds are washed a couple of times a week, which helps break down the curd from the outside, influencing the texture, aroma, and flavor of the cheese. Some washed rind cheeses are so gooey, they are put in little wooden crates or wrapped in bark to prevent them from losing form and spilling their delectable interiors. 

The tradition of washing cheeses originated with 16th century French monks, who milked cows and made liquor as part of their duties. When they discovered washing young cheese in wine imparted an unrivaled funk, Époisses was born. Not only did the brine prevent the rind from cracking and by helping it to retain moisture, it encouraged the growth of a bacteria that gave the cheese a meaty flavor, something the monks missed during meatless fasts. 

The bacterium that gives washed rinds their pink-hued, funky-smelling rinds is Brevibacterium linens (B. linens is also found in human sweat, which is why washed rind cheeses often remind us of feet or locker room musk). The bacteria can occur naturally in an aging room or can be added to the milk or applied directly to the rind of a cheese. The ultimate example of naturally occurring B. linens is probably Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk. This cheese was made when Cowgirl’s popular triple cream Mt. Tam cheese became infected with a natural strain of B. linens. In an effort to get rid of the microscopic invaders the cheeses were washed with a brine solution, but this caused the B. linens to thrive. The end result was the award winning cheese we know and love today.

Washed rind cheeses are bold in both aroma and taste. While each cheese has it’s own unique flavor and texture, as a family these cheeses are salty, creamy, and meaty, with a definite ripeness reminiscent of unwashed socks. The funk that defines these cheeses isn’t something that should put you off though. Take it from the most famous washed rind of all: Époisses. The name literally translates as “worth the effort.” If you’re looking for the next cheese challenge and want to try a washed rind, here are four that I recommend.

1. Meadow Creek’s Grayson

Two halves of a Grayson cheese stacked on top of one another

This 9-inch square cheese is made from cow’s milk and based on a Taleggio recipe. The producer’s name (it’s made by the Virginia Feete family) caused Murray’s Cheese to pun, “Looks like Taleggio. Smells like Feete.” While the cheese is a washed rind, that only partially accounts for it’s in-your-face aroma. The Jersey cows that produce the milk for the cheese are allowed to roam and eat pasture, resulting in nutty and oniony flavors in the paste of the cheese. 

Want to try it? Embrace Grayson’s pungency with a sweet wine like gewürztraminer or a malty beer.

2. Berthaut’s Époisses

Washed rind Epoisses in box with lid next to it

This cow’s milk cheese from the town of the same name in Burgundy, France, is one of the most notorious stinky cheeses. It’s rind is washed repeatedly in a solution of brine and then wine or brandy.

 Want to try it? Don’t be scared of Époisses, instead cut open the top of the cheese and dip a spoon into the interior of it. Try it oozed onto a crusty slice of baguette with a glass of Burgundy wine. 

3. Jasper Hill’s Winnemere

Single round of winnimere being brushed with beer and brine

When brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler purchased Jasper Hill Farm in 1998, they wanted to create a cheese that would use only products local to their Vermont farm. Winnemere does just that. The cheese is made with milk from the brothers’ small herd of Ayshire cows, wrapped in bark from the farm’s spruce trees, and washed in brine and a locally produced lambic beer. The result is a ringer, and won Best in Show at the 2013 American Cheese Society Judging.

Want to try it? Since Winnemere is washed with a lambic, it’s a natural pairing for the cheese. Crisp, spicy wines, or cocktails made with a spruce or fir liquor would also work well with the cheese’s woodsy flavor.

4. Langres

Langres cheese with orange wrinkled rind

Langres cheese looks like it’s literally collapsing under the weight of its middle-school-gym-locker smell. The rind of each wheel receives a coating of annatto (a natural red dye) that turns it a golden-orange color and is washed regularly with brine and Marc de Champagne over four or five weeks as it matures. The cheese has a distinct pork or bacon flavor that will make vegetarians swoon.

Want to try it? Rumor has it that the collapsed top of Langres is meant to be filled with Champagne. If you’re not feeling quite that decadent, try pairing it with a sparkling cider or simple some crisp apple slices.

4 thoughts on “Learn to Love Washed Rind Cheeses”

  1. John Savage says:

    Any idea why some washed rind cheeses are wrinkled and some not? What causes the wrinkling?

    1. Good question! The soft washed rind cheeses, like Epoisses and Affidelice au Chablis, ripen from the outside in – like other surface-ripened cheeses (like Brie, Camembert, crottin, etc.). This means that the rind (the outside surface where the active bacteria dwells) of the cheese is literally ripening the cheese. So the first place that becomes soft and gooey is the outer layers of the cheese itself. Carefully aged at the right temperature and humidity, these cheeses will slowly ripen all the way through, with the center as the last part to ripen.

      As a washed rind cheese ages all the way through, the active bacteria slowly break down the proteins in the cheese itself. The longer the cheese ages, the more wrinkly the surface becomes. There’s chemistry behind everything that’s going on, but to answer your question: The longer a soft washed rind cheese ages, the more wrinkly it becomes. The younger ones are still smooth–at least in the case of the smaller rounds, like Epoisses. In the larger washed rinds, like Taleggio, the shape, density, and thickness of the rind itself don’t allow wrinkles to occur though it is the same process.

      1. John Savage says:

        Dear Amy,
        I understand the answer with soft washed rind cheeses, but my cheese (if you google CELTIC PROMISE)
        you will be able to find images of it, is a SEMI-SOFT washed rind cheese and therefore the problem is somewhat
        different.
        Another cheesemaker speculated that it may well have to do with starter cultures. Perhaps too much mesophilic
        and not enough thermophylic.
        Could this be possible?
        Thanks,

        John

        1. cheesemaster says:

          Hi John,

          To get an answer for you we went to Gianaclis Caldwell (Pholia Farm) and Bronwen Percival (Neals Yard Dairy):

          “It is believed, but not confirmed, that the patter on fungi that develops on these cheeses is influenced by geotrichum and pulls and tightens the rind in a wrinkled pattern. When the paste of the cheese starts to soften, the external influence of the fungi allows the surface to pucker and wrinkle. So washed rind cheeses that don’t have a stabilized paste or other major surface fungi are more likely to wrinkle. It isn’t a bad thing!”

          Hope this helps,
          Amy

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