Last week, I was the lucky invited guest of Market District at a cheese and beer paring event in its Robinson Township store.* Because of the time of year (Oktoberfest, anyone?), the evening’s activities centered around those two hallmarks of Bavarian cuisine. Yes, they’re not exactly hallmarks of an anti-inflammatory diet, but I am a firm follower of the rule of moderation, so a night of cheating with cheese and beer still works with that philosophy.
Giant Eagle’s cheese category manager, Gianfranco DiCarlo, Jr., led the group through a tasting of five beer and cheese combinations, most of them German inspired, which really opened my eyes to how beer can influence the taste of food. I’ve done the same thing with wine many times, but never beer, but as DiCarlo pointed out, beer is actually much easier than wine to pair with foods, especially cheese. I’m totally editorializing here—DiCarlo did not use this particular analogy, merely the essence—but wine is like a cat, a little finicky and difficult to get along with unless you find the right combination. Beer is more like a dog, friendlier with a variety of foods and generally easygoing with everyone.
Bergkase Cheese With Great Lakes Oktoberfest
According to DiCarlo, Germans name their cheese very literally and logically (that’s my kind of people right there). Bergkase, a raw cow’s milk cheese, means “mountain cheese.” DiCarlo explained that when milk is pasteurized before using it in cheese, the heat takes away the nuances in the milk and standardizes the flavor. Raw milk cheeses, on the other hand, take advantage of the wild flora that develops in the milk, depending on what the cow has been eating, and the flavor changes throughout the year. This particular cheese was firm, creamy, and nutty. According to cheese.com, it’s a cross between emmental, gruyere, and appenzeller, so that’s where the nuttiness was coming from. If you like a high-quality gruyere, you’ll probably like this. (I did. It was one of my favorite cheeses of the night.) The Oktoberfest beer was more malty than hoppy, making it a nice companion to the nutty cheese.
Hirten Cheese With Duvel Belgian Golden Ale
Hirten is the German word for pastoral; the milk used in the cheese comes from—you guessed it—pastured cows. The cheese was aged four months, making it sweet and rich tasting. It also had an interesting characteristic that DiCarlo pointed out to us: tyrosine crystals. If you’ve ever eaten an aged cheese and come across some crunchy bits, that’s tyrosine. They’re crystallized amino acids formed during the aging process; they’re a perfectly normal and in fact desired component of cheese making, lending a slightly sweet, textured bite to spice up the character of the cheese. This cheese was paired with a floral, effervescent ale—very palate cleansing, and the floral nature of the beer emphasized the cheese’s sweetness.
Weissbier Cheese With Paulaner Hefeweizen
Continuing the tradition of literal cheese-naming, weissbier cheese is a washed-rind cheese that’s been rinsed with—yup, you guessed it again—weissbier (wheat beer). Washing the rind deposits some of the beer’s flavor into the cheese and kills some of the culture on the surface of the cheese but allows others to flourish, resulting in an entirely different flavor than before washing.
This was a softy, creamy, and mild cheese that I actually found a little boring at first. To top that off, it was paired with a hefeweizen, a style of wheat beer that I find incredibly yeasty in flavor, and not in a good way. However, the most interesting revelation of the night happened when I put the beer and cheese together: total taste transformation. To me, this is what food pairing is all about. You take two different foods that taste one way separately, but when you put them together, you get an entirely new assortment of flavors. It’s like molecular gastronomy in your mouth. When combined, the mild fats from the cheese completely neutralized the yeasty beer, allowing me to taste the fruitier components.
Westminster Farmer’s Reserve Cheddar With Dogfish Head IBA
This is where the cheeses and beers started to take a departure from the German theme. Clearly this is an English cheddar, which DiCarlo explained has a sweet, mineral flavor enhanced by those protein crystals we learned about earlier. The IBA (India brown ale) is more malty and less bitter and hoppy than a traditional IPA (India pale ale), so its caramel notes went well with sweet cheddar.
Beemster Classic Aged Gouda With Draft Unibroue Fin du Monde
This aged, nutty, sweet cheese was my second favorite of the group, possibly because DiCarlo explained that one of the flavor notes reminded him of “old books,” and quite honestly, who doesn’t love old books? The beer was also sweet and creamy with very little hops, a perfect way to close out the tasting. It’s available on draft right now and in growlers at the Robinson Market District store.
DiCarlo also gave us a quick informational update on Market District’s cheese offerings. According to DiCarlo, who is the sole purchaser of cheese for all 230 Giant Eagle stores, feedback from customers indicated that shoppers were overwhelmed with the 300–350 cheeses the stores can carry each year. To help customers better understand their options and which cheeses they might prefer, Market District is rolling out two new programs.
- Cheese Flights: these themed mini-tastings group together hand-selected cheeses from regions like England or Spain, offering 4–5 ounces of cheese plus a few extras (e.g., dried fruits) for $6.99. It’s a no-stress appetizer for two for a romantic dinner, or pick up an assortment for a larger party.
- Small Bites, Big Flavor: the next time you’re in the cheese department, look for this basket featuring small chunks of assorted cheeses. Priced at $2–$3 each, they allow you to try a new cheese without committing to a full-size block that you may or may not enjoy. Once my knee is reliably better and I’m less dedicated to this anti-inflammatory diet, you can bet that I’ll be visiting this basket on most of my Market District excursions.
To close out the night, DiCarlo took us through a tour of the Market District cheese department, pointing out a few of his favorite or more interesting cheese selections and offering a few extra tastes. But I should emphasize that we didn’t get this VIP treatment because we were “invited media”; anyone shopping at Market District can ask to sample any of the cheeses before buying. My favorite choice in this department was a lemon baked ricotta cheese (and kudos, Gianfranco, for pronouncing ricotta correctly!). It was like a slightly less sweet, lightly lemon cheesecake. Amazing.
*I attended this event as invited media and enjoyed the beer and cheese sampling free of charge. I also received a gift card to buy even more cheese. These gifts did not influence my reporting of or opinions on the event, Market District, or Giant Eagle. But DiCarlo’s passion for and knowledge of cheese, combined with his correct pronunciation of ricotta, did make me want to be best friends by the time the evening ended.