IT WAS inevitable that Pennsylvania's new breed of cheese-makers would bond with the state's thriving brewers. Artisan creameries and breweries are small, locally-owned businesses with handmade products that typically are unique, full-flavored alternatives to their run-of-the-mill mainstream competitors.
Also, as Howard Field of Farm Fromage in Lancaster observed, "We're both nuts."
He added: "We're kind of O.C.D. We both like to adjust this and that. We're always trying different techniques. We're always trying to make things better."
Thus, a couple of times a month, Field makes the eight-mile drive to Lancaster Brewing Co. for a growler or two of the brewery's dark, smooth Milk Stout. It's the all-important ingredient in Farm Fromage's pungent beer-washed Tomme.
"Local beer plus local cheese," Field said, "equals local goodness."
It's an equation that local cheesemongers are eagerly embracing through the centuries-old technique of rind-washed cheese. Instead of using more traditional salt brine or wine, the maker repeatedly bathes the cheese over a period of weeks with locally-brewed craft beer. The process encourages bacteria growth that helps give cheese a strong, funky smell and creamy, earthy flavor.
If you've sliced into Belgium's Le Chimay à la Bière or French Vieux-Boulogne (the world's stinkiest cheese) you've enjoyed beer-washed cheese.
These days, though, you don't have to search through the import aisle to find the good stuff. Dozens of creameries have opened statewide in the past 10 years, and many are producing world-class raw-milk varieties that showcase Pennsylvania-made beer.
Yellow Springs Farm in Chester County makes Yellow Brick Road, bathed in Victory Golden Monkey. Keswick Creamery in the Cumberland Valley outside of Harrisburg makes Tommenator, bathed in Troegenator double bock from nearby Troegs brewery. Coatesville's Doe Run makes Bathed in Victory, also made with Golden Monkey. Cow Tipper, from Wayne County's 172-year-old Calkins Creamery, is Gouda that's been washed and soaked with Yuengling Porter.
Alex Jones, product manager at Reading Terminal's Fair Food Farmstand, which features a wide selection of Pennsylvania-made cheese, said using locally brewed beer is "just another expression of the cheese's terroir." Terroir is that hard-to-define measure of climate, grass and (since we're talking cheese) the barnyard that builds the character of a food product.
Emilio Mignucci, owner of DiBruno Brothers gourmet grocer, says that while wine baths may be traditional, "there's a whole lot more going on with beer's chemical makeup" that can add even more distinctive flavor to cheese. Additionally, Mignucci said, the beer's various enzymes help break down the cheese's protein cultures for a smoother, creamier flavor.
The intensity and character of its aroma and flavor changes depending on the variety of beer used in the rind wash.
In recent months, for example, Birchrun Hills Farms in Chester Springs has treated its outstanding cow's milk Red Cat with several local brands, including Victory Baltic Thunder (Thunder Cat), Yards Brawler (Brawling Cat) and Tired Hands Guillemot (Tired Cat).
"It took a bit to figure out what we were shooting for," Tired Hands brewer Jean Broillet IV said of his collaboration with Susan Miller of Birchrun Farms. "We wanted the beer to impart some color, so we went with a dark beer, which gave it a brown hue. And we knew the beer had to have a fair amount of fermentable sugars to help develop a nice, moldy rind that would attract microflora."
Yes, it sounds like a bit of mad science.
But all it takes is one whiff to know they've succeeded.
We're talking bottom of your junior high gym locker, week-old sweat socks stuffed into wet Chuck Taylors. A small, ripe round, properly brought to room temperature, could overwhelm a room the size of the Palestra.
Breathe in, embrace the funk - that's the terroir - and wash it down with a pint of your favorite Pennsylvania brew.
Don't bother looking for these cheeses at the Acme. They're mainly available at specialty stores, at the creameries' online stores and some community-supported agriculture networks. A nearby few destinations:
Reading Terminal Market. The Fair Food Farmstand on the 12th Street side of the market features the region's widest selection of the Keystone State's raw cheese, with varieties from more than two dozen creameries. New Jersey's Valley Shepherd Creamery just opened a stand at the opposite end of the market. And in the middle, Downtown Cheese specializes in imports.
DiBruno Brothers. Its locations in South Philly, Ardmore and on Chestnut Street and in the Comcast Center in Center City offer local and imported washed-rind cheese.
Whole Foods Market. Locations in Franklintown, South Street, Wynnewood, King of Prussia, Plymouth Meeting, Jenkintown, Wayne and elsewhere have very good selections.
Farmer's markets. Those once-a-week neighborhood pop-ups often showcase Pennsylvania cheese. Look for your favorites at Headhouse Square and in Upper Merion, Phoenixville, Bryn Mawr and Media.