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Delightfully Funky, Booze-Washed Cheese Is Our New Obsession

Delightfully Funky, Booze-Washed Cheese Is Our New Obsession

Not everyone is a fan of odiferous cheese, but what if the reason for their funk is that they’re bathed in beer, bourbon or brandy?

A washed-rind cheese is one brushed with brine or alcohol, which fosters the growth of Brevibacterium linens. The bacterium, which is usually also added to the wash, gives these cheeses their signature stink. (Fun fact: It’s the same bacteria responsible for foot odor.) It also delivers sticky red, pink or orange rinds and a gooey interior. But while the aromas and flavor profiles of washed-rind cheeses may be yeasty, sulfuric, meaty or barnyardy, most smell more pungent than they taste.

The process of washing cheese with brine dates to at least the 7th century, when Alsatian monks created Munster, a creamy, notoriously aromatic cow’s milk cheese with a vibrant orange rind. In the Middle Ages, Belgian Trappist monks also began making washed-rind cheeses, often using beer or brandy to bathe the wheels. The tradition of washing cheeses with alcohol has continued over the centuries and remains a popular practice today, particularly in Europe and the U.S.

While washing cheeses was likely an early form of preservation, it also encourages the growth of beneficial microbes while keeping harmful microorganisms at bay. Washing with alcohol instead of brine has the added benefit of imbuing a cheese with flavor and added complexity.

“For our North Fork Whiskey Washed Munster, bathing the cheese with the spirit encourages unique fruity and floral esters to develop on the rind, along with the color enhancement brought on by the specific alcohol,” says Alise Sjostrom, founder and cheesemaker of Redhead Creamery in Brooten, Minnesota. “The whiskey is also local to us, so it provides a sense of central Minnesota terroir and collaboration with a great company.”

Incorporating alcohol into the curds themselves or wrapping booze-soaked leaves around a cheese before aging similarly transfers aromatics and flavor to the final product. But the motivation for doing so may also be practical. That’s the case for cheesemaker Pat Morford of Rivers Edge Chevre in Blodgett, Oregon, which has received widespread acclaim for Up in Smoke, a fresh ball of farmstead goat’s milk cheese wrapped in smoked maple leaves that have been spritzed with bourbon.

“While the spirit does add some flavor and fragrance, it’s mostly to make the leaves pliable,” says Morford.

Of course, the best way to learn about booze-soaked cheese is to eat them. The following cheeses are some of America’s finest alcohol-spiked, curd-forward offerings, all available to be shipped to your door.

Image Courtesy of Baetje Farms

Beer-Washed Cheese

While Chimay is perhaps the planet’s best-known beer-washed cheese (from the abbey and brewery in Chimay, Belgium), many American cheesemakers have adopted the practice.

Alemar Cheese Company in Mankato, Minnesota, produces Good Thunder, a squidgy adaptation of Reblochon (an AOC cow’s milk cheese from the French Alps), made from 100%-grassfed pasteurized cow’s milk. After the cheese is washed in Nacht Rider Schwarzbier from Minneapolis’s Arbeiter Brewing Company, it’s aged for six to eight weeks. The resulting russet-hued square is rich and gooey, with a bold, meaty umami profile.

Missouri’s Baetje Farms does its own version of Reblochon, using pasteurized milk from their herd of goats as well as that of nearby farms. Washed Vallée is brushed with Whiskey Barrel Stout from Kansas City, Missouri’s Boulevard Brewing Co, yielding a semi-soft cheese with tantalizing notes of bacon and sweet cream with a hint of caramelized onion.

Bluehorn Cheese
Image Courtesy of Rogue Creamery

Cider-Washed Cheese

New York City’s Murray’s Cheese has acted as affineur for dozens of cheesemakers over the past 20 years, aging some of the nation’s most formidable collaborations in the shop’s four on-site caves. (The shop offers a cave-themed class, and for the more ambitious, a cave intern program.)

Greensward, from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, is but one notable example. Inspired by Switzerland’s AOC Vacherin Mont d’Or, this cow’s milk beauty is washed with Michigan’s Virtue Cider, wrapped in spruce bark and aged for six weeks. Greensward’s luscious, satiny paste is redolent of bacon, browned onions and a whiff of the Vermont woods.

Less hedonistic but no less enjoyable is Hop Along from Northern California’s venerable Cowgirl Creamery. Made from pasteurized organic cow’s milk washed with French cider, this appealing semi-firm snacker is aged for 45 days, yielding aromas of apples and freshly baked bread. (Cowgirl Creamery sells it as part of its California Coast collection, but you can also order a five-pound block from FoodServiceDirect. Local shops near you may also carry it.)

Image Courtesy of Murray’s Cheese

Wine-Washed Cheese

Pairing cheese with wine might be a no-brainer, but some cheesemakers also use fermented grape juice or pomace to wash their wheels.

Affineur Sergio Moro of Veneto’s Latteria and Caseficio Moro makes Ubriaco al Prosecco, a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese that spends two months immersed in Prosecco before aging for at least six months. Creamy, floral and delicate, each bite is imbued with the essence of golden apple and pear.

Meanwhile, Rogue Creamery, out of Central Point, Oregon, soaks its award-winning Bluehorn Blue in biodynamic Syrah from nearby Troon Vineyard, lending each cave-aged wheel vibrant berry and plum notes, plus a rosy hue.

Greensward Cheese
Image Courtesy of Murray’s Cheese

Whiskey-Washed Cheese

Sjostrom’s riff on traditional French Munster (not to be confused with American Muenster, a processed semi-soft cheese) is North Fork Whiskey-Washed Munster, a dense little cylinder made with cow’s milk from her family’s dairy. After washing the cheese with Minnesota 14 Whiskey from nearby Panther Distillery, Sjostrom ages each batch for eight weeks to develop a delectable creamy paste with a hint of toasted oak and salami.

For a delightful upgrade on fresh goat cheese, try the previously mentioned Up in Smoke. Morford was inspired to create a product that was representative of both and her farm. She smokes maple leaves gathered from the property with alder chips (also collected on-site) and sprays the leaves with bourbon before wrapping each subtly smoky, tangy ball of cheese.

Up in Smoke Cheese
Image Courtesy of Murray’s Cheese

Brandy-Washed Cheese

Rogue River Blue is another highly decorated cow’s milk cheese from Rogue Creamery; each wheel is wrapped in biodynamically grown Syrah leaves from Troon Vineyard that have been soaked in pear brandy from Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery. The cheese is aged from nine to 11 months and released on the autumnal equinox. It’s a dense, fudgy wheel with notes of umami, spice, caramel, vanilla and fig. It’s certainly one of the world’s great cheeses, improved only by a glass of Port or an earthy Syrah.

If you’re seeking something truly stinky, Époisses (Ay-PWOSS), with its buttery, oozy paste and tacky orange rind, is one of the most glorious cheeses to come out of France. This PDO pasteurized cow’s milk offering from Burgundy is washed with locally made Marc de Bourgogne and aged for a minimum of six weeks before being packaged in its signature wooden box. The traditional way to eat Époisses is to cut a hole in the top of the cheese and spoon out the runny ivory paste.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of washed-rind cheeses from all over the world and cheesemakers are always innovating—experimenting with everything from sake and absinthe to rice whiskey. We suggest nabbing a slice whenever you see one; just be mindful to limit tastings or cheeseboards to three or four selections to avoid palate fatigue. But the best way to discover new favorites? Don’t fear the funk.

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