Ash and Ash
I was browsing through some cheeses the other day in the market and my eye fell upon a half wheel of Morbier. Anyone who has seen this cheese can recognize it by its calling card: a line of ash that cuts through the center of the cheese width-wise, or horizontally. I was drawn to it like a bug to a bright light.
Playing a game of color-association, my mind thought about pairing the cheese, which I had only had once or twice before, with a couple of porters. Initially, it was my hope that the dark malt flavors of the beer would provide a nice match for the cheese’s earthy profile and springy texture – perhaps as a dessert pairing. I am always looking for cheeses that do well with porters and stouts because, at the end of the day, these are some of my favorite styles of beer, both to drink and brew.
Pairing 1: Maui Brewing Company Coconut Porter (Hawaii - Ale) with Morbier Affine Lait Cru (France – Cow’s Milk)
Maui Brewing Company recently began shipping their canned beer to Oregon. The only other two Hawaiian beers available, Primo and Kona, are both contract brewed on the mainland, unlike Maui’s beers. To my knowledge, Maui sends two other beers to Oregon besides the porter: a blonde ale and an IPA. The Coconut Porter made quite a splash when it arrived, having a solid cult following behind it. In fact, one of my fellow columnists King C. related his first encounter with the beer during his trip to Maui.
The Coconut Porter pours a dark brown in the glass and sheds ruby highlights. It forms a big and dark tan head with amazing retention. The nose is filled with cocoa and coconut milk with hints of berry, cherry and dark caramels.
On the palate, the beer is full bodied with a high, but rounded, carbonation lending a silky mouth-filling sensation. Up front, the beer lets loose the coconut, and this dominant flavor is supported by a clean alcohol bite. The coconut lingers and mixes with bittersweet chocolate and coffee flavors, and the beer begins to resemble Kahlua for a time. Finally, the beer finishes dry with a complex mix of raisins, rum and coconut that fill the mouth and continue for a long time.
This beer is decadent and delicious! Anyone who enjoys either porters or coconuts, or both, should get their hands on a can of this beer.
Morbier is a French cow’s milk cheese with a very noteworthy appearance, discussed above, and it carries the name of its town of origin. The cheese has a fascinating history, related in detail here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morbier_(cheese). The short version is that the ash line originated as a coating placed atop the leftover curds from each day’s cheese-making to preserve them for the next day when the cheese mold could be topped off with fresh curds. Today, the cheese is available in both raw and pasteurized milk versions and the aging period seems to vary from one to three months.
My Morbier has an orange-yellow rind with an uneven white dusting. The paste is pale, almost white, and its consistency appears homogonous with the exception of the horizontal ash line that divides the cheese roughly in half.
On the nose, the cheese offers notes of hay and chalk with a soil-laden earthy twang. There are also sour and pepper hints. Overall, the cheese’s moderately intense nose is quite complex and really pleasing.
The texture of the Morbier is semi-firm and somewhat elastic and it coats the tongue thickly when chewed. Initially, flavors of hay and almond present themselves, and a slightly grainy ash texture breaks the coating a bit. This transitions into a very long and tangy finish. The hay notes and tanginess continue, and they are joined with fuller nutty flavors and a fairly pronounced tuber character (sorry, I’ve been looking for an excuse to use that word – tuber, it sounds so funny!). This finish is very long and mild, with nuanced complexity.
This is a very cool cheese. It is strongly earthy yet very approachable, something that can not be said for a number of earthy cheeses. In addition, the complexity in the Morbier begins in the nose and follows through the finish on the palate, always subtle and challenging.
I’m going to cut to the chase on this pairing: it didn’t work. As soon as the beer hits the palate, it completely overwhelms the cheese with rum and coconut flavors. When the cheese does resurface, it tastes sour and tannic. The only finish on the pairing, in which both parties are stunted, is a mix of tannic ashy bitters and some rum, an experience that is boozy and astringent. Unfortunately, two very great products just landed belly up in this situation.
Pairing 2: Olfabrikken Porter (Denmark – Ale) with Morbier Affine Lait Cru (France – Cow’s Milk)
Olfabrikken, which translates into “Beer Factory,” is one of the pioneers of craft brewing in Denmark. The tiny brewery, started by two computer programmers in 2004, is one of the most prestigious in the Scandinavian beer scene. According to the website of Shelton Brothers, their importer located out of Massachusetts, Olfabrikken bought its brewing system from a British microbrewery and built their original facility in the corner of a family barn (http://www.sheltonbrothers.com/beers/breweryProfile.asp?BreweryID=66). Their beers are unpasteurized, unfiltered and usually very hoppy and robust, and I find that this brewery takes cues both from the US and Belgian craft beer cultures.
To this day, Olfabrikken Porter represents, to me, the epitome of strong porters. In addition, the brewery made a Winter Porter that clocked in at 11% abv about a year ago; I’m not sure that this winter beer is still available or whether it will be brewed again, but I encourage porter aficionados to seek it out.
Olfabrikken Porter pours black and opaque with a medium mocha colored head that sticks around for the long haul. The nose outpours aromas of bitter chocolate, fudge and cream with an herbal spicy hint.
The body of the porter is medium-full and has a moderate level of carbonation. Up front, the beer mixes flavors of milk chocolate with a hint of raspberry fruitiness. Then, more flavors fill out the profile such as coffee and cream, berries and toasty caramel. Also, there is significant bitterness and a hit of herbal hop flavor. The beer finishes dry with a long lingering coffee flavor mixed with the hops. As I said before, this beer is exquisite – one of my all time top beers. The bottle is never big enough, and I always seem to drain the bomber too quickly.
Although the Olfabrikken Porter and Morbier work better than the prior match, this pairing is still not particularly worthwhile. The cocoa of the beer mixes with the earthiness of the cheese before the cheese’s chalk flavors emerge on the finish which is pretty one note. Overall, this pairing does not lessen the beer or the cheese, but there is really not any sort of interplay between the two that begs further pairing.
Unfortunately, my pairing choices this week were not very successful. But, the two porters sampled were both really wonderful, and the Morbier was an exceptionally tasty cheese. I think that the subtlety of the cheese could not stand up to the robust flavors that these beers poured forth. For dark beer, a dry Irish stout or brown porter would probably have given the Morbier a bit more breathing room. As for the Olfabrikken Porter and the Maui Coconut Porter, I think they would have done better with some sharp cheddar or intense blue cheese.