Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.
Beer-washing has to be the cheese trend of the year, and here comes more proof. This California beauty, bathed with a local black lager, doesn’t smell much like the beer—such cheeses rarely do—but it benefits from the technique anyway. In the same family as Belgian Chimay but more artisanal and enticing, this new arrival from an award-winning cheesemaker looks like another home run for her.
Bleating Heart Cheese owner Seana Doughty has had this cheese on her mind for years. The initial iteration was a harder cheese, but she put that project aside. Sometimes a recipe is just not a good fit with a creamery’s equipment and space. When she resumed experiments last fall, she had a softer cheese in mind. Matured for only three weeks, the cheese would require pasteurized milk—a first for Doughty, a raw-milk cheese advocate. (Cheeses made with raw milk have to be aged at least 60 days.)
A neighboring dairy supplies the organic Jersey cow’s milk and Moonlight Brewing, a Santa Rosa microbrewery, provides the Death & Taxes. This cult black lager, an uncommon style, is malty but not hoppy, unlike a black IPA. Doughty is a huge fan, and now she has an excuse to keep a keg on the premises. She bathes the wheels at least four times, first with her hands and later, once a rind forms, with a brush. With brewer Brian Hunt’s permission, she christened the cheese Death & Taxes as well.
What else is in the wash besides undiluted beer, she won’t say. “We add a few other things but that’s our secret,” says Doughty. The beer definitely colors the rind—Doughty describes it as resembling stained wood—but doesn’t impart much of its chocolatey aroma.
“It’s very difficult to retain any of that beer character,” admits Doughty. “I’ve never had a beer-washed cheese from anyone where I could distinctly smell the beer.”
So why bother? Certainly the beery surface attracts microorganisms that contribute to the fragrance, even if the lager doesn’t leave its own scent behind. I get yeasty and nutty aromas, hints of peanut butter and walnut, and some damp-cave smells near the rind. Similar semisoft cheeses often strike me as sticky, gummy or cloying, but a fully ripe Death & Taxes is creamy, with a buttery hue from the Jersey milk. The salting is perfect.
About 10 years ago, Doughty and her husband, Dave Dalton, quit their jobs and moved from San Diego to Northern California with a plan. Doughty would follow her cheesemaking dream and Dalton would start a brewery. “But I sucked up all the available capital,” confesses Doughty. “There was no money left for the brewery, so this cheese is a tip of the hat to my husband.”
It is also a bow to reality. Doughty envisioned Bleating Heart as a sheep cheese producer, but she can’t find enough sheep’s milk to meet her needs. “We have lost three suppliers in two years,” she wrote me. “Our sheep cheese production is the lowest it has been in five years. If we want to stay in business, we have to make cheese from milk that I know will always be available.”
Look for Bleating Heart Cheese Death & Taxes in these locations. Alas, Moonlight Brewing Death & Taxes is draught only. A German Schwarzbier (black beer) would be similar and a Dunkel style, like Ayinger Dunkel, would not be far off.