Tag Archives: robinson farm

Drink Craft Beer & Cheese Fest 2015

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Random people who wanted their picture taken.

Say “Cheese!”

…was the completely appropriate, albeit admittedly corny phrase I shouted to the attendees of Drink Craft Beer & Cheese Fest, on Saturday, February 28th. Although I was not press coverage for the event, the large camera and flash I was toting around were enough to prompt fellow fest-goers to request pictures of themselves (which I happily obliged).

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Clockwise from top left: Toby from Peak Organic, the booth at Pretty Things Brewery, & Cricket Creek Creamery.

I have a love/hate relationship with beer festivals. On the one hand, they’re wonderful because you get to try so many beers from talented brewers all in one setting, while mingling with fellow beer lovers. Yet the same applies to why they’re loathsome: you try so many beers in a short period of time that it becomes difficult to remember said beers, therefore diminishing their uniqueness (not to mention the inevitability of a giant hangover the next day). Drink Craft Beer & Cheese Fest, however, was a different story. As the beer buyer at American Provisions, I got to attend this event as a representative of my store, an individual with a purpose (other than getting smashed at a beer fest). I was there to try new beers from several of the breweries we support, connect on a personal level with these companies, and witness any interesting pairings happening between the beers and cheeses that we love.

And despite what my boss may believe, I did not show up at work with a hangover the next day!

This was the first beer AND cheese event for Drink Craft Beer, so it was very exciting to see so many of AP’s beloved breweries and creameries all under the same roof. Uncertain of where to begin the epic event, I hung back by Toby of Peak Organic, who graciously started me off with a soothing cup of their cask-conditioned Nut Brown Ale. Peak Organic is a killer brewery from Maine, focused on local ingredients and awesome brews. Their line up that night included Hop Noir (a black IPA), Espresso Amber Ale, which was continuously pronounced “X-presso” (much to Toby’s chagrin), and Citrus Saison, a Belgian style saison that invigorated me with the promise of warmer days to come.

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Clockwise from top left: Al Snape from Far From the Tree Cider, many happy festival-goers, Joe & Erin for Vermont Creamery, and Mayflower Brewing. 

Armed with Nut Brown Ale, I set off into the crowd, ready to taste. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wander far to find a familiar face: Al Snape from Far From The Tree Cider was at a nearby booth, sampling up four new cider concoctions that we have been eagerly waiting to try since our visit with them back in January (read about it here!) The new cider offerings were Lust, a cherry cranberry cider; Cord, an oaked maple cider; Juno, a maple ice cider; and Milanowski’s Nightmare, a sour dry-hopped cider. While they were all delicious & seriously unique, Juno stood out with its velvety consistency and intense depth of flavor (check back with us in a few months to see these new products on our shelves).

We were stoked to see more familiar faces in the form of former AP-staffers, Joe Quintero & Erin McIver, at the Vermont Creamery table. Joe left AP to become the New England sales rep for VC, while Erin now works as the marketing coordinator for hip food site BostonChefs.com. This dynamic duo was shelling out samples of Coupole, Cremont, & Bonne Bouche, three of our favorite goat and cow cheeses. According to Erin & Joe, the creameries attending the event each brought 100lbs of cheese for the three sessions of the Drink Craft event (a bit of an over-estimate, in Joe’s opinion). A few other creameries I spoke to had an excess cheese leftover at the end of the night—it seems that Drink Craft Beer was following the Boy Scout motto to always be prepared!

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The booths of Bantam Cider, Smuttynose Brewing, & Allagash Brewing.

The event was filled to the brim with a wide range of local cheeses. Narragansett Creamery, for example, challenged the norm by serving up a hot sample of their Mediterranean-style grilling cheese. Old classics held strong in the form of aged cheddars from the ladies at Cabot Creamery—they encouraged you to pair these sharp and sweet hunks of cheese with hoppy libations like Wormtown’s Be Hoppy & Notch’s Left of the Dial. The crew at Jasper Hill Cellars pulled out all the stops with an array of cheeses—Alpha Tolman, a nutty Alpine style; Bayley Hazen Blue, one of the best blue cheeses around; and Moses Sleeper, a Vermont take on the classic Brie style. Their table display also provided attendees with an anatomy lesson on the source of all things good: the cow.

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Clockwise from top left: Narragansett Creamery, Cabot Creamery, the anatomy poster from Cellars at Jasper Hill, and Robinson Farm. 

My next cheese stop was a very special creamery, Robinson Farm from Hardwick, MA. Raymond & Pamela Robinson were not at the event, but Pamela’s son Ben was there promoting the farm’s cheeses. It was because of Ben (who lives in Southie) that the Robinson’s cheese, Tekenink Tomme, became one of the first cheeses ever to be sold at American Provisions. I was able to chat with Ben and his crew while enjoying samples of Tekenink, Barndance, & Arpeggio—their strong bloomy rind cows milk cheese, which paired especially well with the always wonderful Wunderkind cider from Bantam.

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Clockwise from top left: Chris from Notch Brewing, Otter Creek Brewing Co., Idle Hands Craft Ales, & the folks at Rising Tide.

Many more stellar pairings between cheese and beer were formed that night, several of which I don’t remember or was not witness to, but the spirit of the fest makes me believe they existed. Some of the pairings that I do remember were suggested in Drink Craft Beer’s fest guide, while others were born out of mere fate. Otter Creek’s Kind Rye IPA was quite the match against several cheddars in the house, specifically the suggested Grafton Village’s Extra Mature Cheddar. I discovered my own pairing between Notch Brewing’s luscious Černe Pivo (Notch’s founder Chris Lohrig explained to me the name is Czech for “black beer”) and a creamy piece of Berkshire Bloom from Cricket Creek Farm. Over at Idle Hands, I indulged with Triplication—their Abbey style tripel—which provided the perfect amount of spice and fruity flavor to complement the buttery, nutty notes of Jasper Hill’s Alpha Tolman (and the guys at Idle Hands were kind enough to inform me that a Wild Turkey barrel-aged version of Triplication will be out in a few weeks!)

Now, it was probably around this time in the night that my conversations were becoming less focused, my notes were barely legible, and my camera felt like it gained 20lbs. This is also when my distrust of beer festivals began to surface. Though abundant and delicious, cheese samples can only sustain a fest-goer for so long. Which is why I (and I bet many others at the fest) was psyched to remember that, strategically stationed in the corner of the event, were the stands of KO Pies & Roxy’s Grilled Cheese. The employees of these two companies didn’t need to try very hard to entice buzzed attendees, as each beer sample we consumed made the idea of a savory pie or grilled sandwich seem more and more desirable. The intoxicating smells wafting from Roxy’s grills and the mesmerizing glow from KO Pies’ cases didn’t hurt either.

KO Pies, Ben sampling Robinson Farm cheese, Roxy's Grilled Cheese, & cheese sample from Jasper Hill Cellars

Clockwise from top left: The always tempting KO Pies, Ben sampling Robinson Farm cheese, beautifully plated samples from Jasper Hill Cellars, and Roxy’s ladies slinging their grilled cheese.

As claimed before, I did not leave this event completely hammered, despite what usually happens at beer festivals. We can’t say the same for other attendees that night—the crowd increasingly became livelier as the night stretched on, and inhibitions were thrown to the wind with ease. I began to wonder how the inevitable intoxication of fest-goers was being perceived by the very people responsible, the brewers, so I decided to ask them.

The best response I received was from Billy Morrissey, the sales rep for Allagash Brewing. Now, I’d like to believe that Billy and I were equally excited to meet each other—I was extremely excited to learn that he was the reason AP receives specialty Allagash beers, while his excitement might have been directed at the awesomeness that is American Provisions generally, and reminiscing about visits there. I don’t mind taking the credit, though—but I digress.

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Clockwise from top left: Random fest-goers, volunteers, Drink Craft Beer tattoos, and Billy from Allagash Brewing.

As streams of drunken attendees pushed past us to sample more beers, Billy explained to me his feelings about their debauchery. He suggested that there was a difference between drunken fools at a festival and beer lovers who are enjoying themselves with their favorite brews. Honest interest and enjoyment of the beers is what was important to Billy. He reminded me that our shared love for craft beers (and artisan cheeses) was what brought us all together. And it is that experience that is so integral to the craft beer world. Cheers to that!

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Guy who needs a beer, and my best friend Lindsay (in the glasses) posing with Wormtown Brewery.

Climb Every Mountain: An Ode to Alpine Cheese

I really like Alpine cheeses. A lot. So much so that I’m having a hard time refraining from the use of expletives to describe how much, suffice it to say that this declaration is missing modifiers.

I’ll even bet that you love them, too. Behind the cheese counter, we have certain wheels we refer to as “crowd-pleasers.” Sounds like code for “boring,” but it is anything but when we use it to describe the family of cheeses made in the mountains. Gruyère, Raclette, Comté, Emmentaler, the classic holey Swiss your Grandma put on sandwiches—chances are, you’ve tasted and most likely loved an Alpine cheese.

“Alpine” doesn’t always mean a cheese is made in the Alps, though. The styles have been replicated in mountain regions the world over, most notably in the American Northeast (big ups, New England!), so we’ll refer to them as Alpine & mountain cheeses interchangeably.

You know what we love most about these cheeses? They’re made with the milk of cows who graze decadent mountain pasture all summer, then are received back in their valley hometowns with a huge party. The cows are adorned with flower crowns and gold bells before being paraded down the mountain and fawned over by the village people, who rely on these cows for their livelihood, not to mention the food that sustains them through frigid winters.

Literally, they throw their well-fed cows a big parade. We have so much to learn from these people.

Cow-In-The-Alps-Computer-BackgroundThe practice is called transhumance—moving cows up the mountain steadily as the snow melts in spring, to guarantee they’re grazing the lushest, most verdant pastures (throwing a party for your cows is just called being a badass). Transhumance has been practiced since at least the twelfth century, when a ton of the name-controlled cheeses we eat today got their starts. Comté, #1 cheese crush of the shop, dates back to 1115! And the earliest records of Raclette go as far back as 1291. With this kind of history, it’s no wonder the government gets involved in regulating what makes a Comté a Comté. They keep a close eye on process, to ensure the cheeses are being made the same way today that conditions necessitated back in the day—and to distinguish those doing it old-school from larger, industrial cheese makers.

Cows need to be milked every day, so to avoid costly shleps down the mountain, chalets were built at different elevations to make cheese with the fresh milk. To get proper name recognition nowadays, milk must be immediately cooked the day it was milked, usually in copper pots over open wood fires. Both milk and curds are cooked this way, which creates the notes of caramel, brown butter and brown sugar present in mountain cheeses. It was also a major pain to lug bags of salt up the mountain back then, so these cheeses boast a pliable meltability and sweetness due to lack of sodium.

Without salt, the cheeses need to be made in enormous wheels of up to 20lbs. to provide stability—the higher surface-area-to-volume ratio causes greater moisture evaporation, and the resulting drier cheeses are hardier, easier to preserve, age, and carry with on the journey.

Aside from the basics, the government regulations vary from cheese to cheese. Most of them require that cows eat only dried meadow hay during winter months in the valley. Raclette can only be made with the milk of grass-fed cows who never ate from silos. Vacherin Mont d’Or has to be made with the milk of Montbéliard cows that has been thermised, a temp below pasteurization that allows more flavors to come through. To be called Abondance, a cheese must be set in a concave mold and aged on spruce planks, and to be called Comté, each cow is required to have at least one hectare of grazing land to itself (approximately two football fields)!

And within each of those styles, there is tons more variation among the mountain communities—which country they are in (the Alps include France, Switzerland, Italy, & Austria, among others), what plants are native to the region, whether the cows grazed north or south-facing slopes, and the soil conditions. This one class of cheese allows as much room for complexity as wine, and they boast a range of possible flavor profiles to match. From toasted nuts, burnt butter and a garden of floral notes, to savory wild herbs and even a pronounced meatiness, these cheeses contain just about every word I think of when imagining a perfect food. And luckily for you guys, we have a few pointers on how to draw out all this nuance.

Cheeses like this L'Etivaz, Gruyere, or Comte have a rich creaminess and a melt-in-your-mouth buttery quality that needs a little zest in a pairing. Mostarda, an Italian condiment of preserved fruits & mustard powder, keeps these cheeses balanced.

Food—We eat these cheeses in winter because of when and how they’re made, but also because they are damn good melters. Stateside standards like mac ‘n’ cheese, grilled cheese, & fondue perform beautifully with Alpines, but they also shine in their hometown classics like an oozy Raclette wheel melted by an open fire, or the creamy, funky potato bacon gratin they call Tartiflette.

Potatoes show up all over Alpine preparations, so we don’t think you’d be crazy to nosh on some Gruyère with a French fry, or even to melt some on top of potato chips. For pairings, you can play off the flavors present in a mountain cheese—toasted nuts, salty caramels, browned butter and fresh wild herbs are all great matches. And on the flip side, you can choose foods that present opposite qualities, for balance—tangy mostarda or chutney, zesty marmalades & relishes, pickles, or anything else acidic is going to lighten up a rich, sweet-cream piece of mountain cheese. And perhaps one of the easiest and simplest pairings is Comté and apple slices—a duo often requested by our shop owner’s daughter in her school lunches. Try brown-bagging some for yourself tomorrow! You’ll be thanking us later.photo (54)

Drink—As it goes with food, these mountain cheeses pair best with warming winter libations. Oaky chardonnays match the rich, woodsy tones in Alpines, while Reisling brightens the sweet notes of cooked sugar. Doppelbocks and porters employ hops & roasty malts to wake up notes of grass and toasted hazelnuts. It’s customary to do shots of a fruity schnapps with your mountain cheese courses in Switzerland, and given how well apples go with Comté, we think the Pommeau aperitif from Carr’s Cider House would make a great substitute (ya know, if you don’t keep schnapps lying around). For bold cheeses like Winnimere (a Vermont-made riff on Vacherin Mont d’Or), we think the distinctive tannins from its belt of local bark go great with a peaty Scotch or rye whiskey.

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We carry an array of mountain cheeses on our shelves at any given time, so be sure to ask your monger for their current recommendations. Here’s a brief list of some of our favorites, grouped by their maker or importer:

Heublemen, Nufenen, Maxx Extra, Challerhocker: These heavy-weights come to us from Columbia Cheese and the man, the legend Adam Moskowitz. Adam travels to the Alps constantly to taste wheels in the Jura mountains. The wheels we get from him are always bursting with flavor and dense, creamy interiors. They are rich and fudgey, yet often peppered with crunchy crystals of tyrosine, the amino acid protein left behind when milk proteins break down with age (in case you ever wondered why older cheeses have a crunch to them). Name-controlled and traditional, these are some of our oldest and most by-the-book Alpine cheeses.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve: One of the winningest cheeses in the history of the American Cheese Society, this take on Beaufort/Gruyère comes from Wisconsin’s Upland’s Cheese Company. It’s a little ironic for one of the best mountain cheeses made in the States to come from our country’s large swath of flatlands, but the two families who work the land at Upland’s have spent years molding their farm to meet the needs required by these Alpine styles. Aged up to two years, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve is only made with the summer milk of cows who are rotated daily to graze leafy, abundant fields along the hilly crest of Pleasant Ridge. They’ve also spent decades on selective crossbreeding of their closed herd, tweaking to suit the needs of the cheeses they make. The cream for Pleasant Ridge provides a perfect ratio of fat to protein before it even hits the cooking vat, so it’s no wonder the finished product is so rich & luxurious. Crunchy yet smooth, sweet-tart and just a touch savory, this cheese tastes downright professional.

At Uplands Cheese Company, wheels of Pleasant Ridge get washed in a brine solution several times a week to encourage the growth of certain bacteria & draw out the flavors of local microflora in the milk. Photo c/o uplandscheese.com

At Uplands Cheese Company, wheels of Pleasant Ridge get washed in a brine solution several times a week to encourage the growth of certain bacteria & draw out the flavors of local microflora in the milk. Photo c/o uplandscheese.com

Springbrook Tarentaise, Tarentaise Reserve, & Raclette: Springbrook Farm’s cheese program is headed by Jeremy Stephenson, who lived in Europe and trained with French cheesemakers for several years before attempting his Vermont-made take on the classic Tarentaise & Raclette styles. It’s fair to say he’s been successful, with the cheeses garnering several awards from the ACS (including Best in Show) over the years. His Tarentaise Reserve, an extra-aged version of the younger Tarentaise, has become such a commodity in the American cheese world that we often sit on waiting lists for it for months. Crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet, with a beautiful concave rind to mimic its French parentage, this is easily one of the best cheeses made in America today.

Consider Bardwell Rupert: Another ACS winner, slightly different than the other cheeses listed here, Rupert has a deep, warm goldenrod paste, with a drier and cleaner texture that boasts savory, umami flavors–on his last visit to the shop, Consider Bardwell’s cheesemaker Chris Gray told us that lately, it’s been reminding him of red miso. A great pick Alpine lovers looking to mix it up.

photo 2 (6)Jasper Hill’s Alpha Tolman & Winnimere: Also a Best in Show winner and also a step apart from the nutty, fudgy wheels on this list, Winnimere is Jasper Hill’s take on Jura mountain classics like Försterkäse or Vacherin Mont d’Or (cheeses that date back to Louis XV’s time). This coral-rinded wheel is girdled by spruce bark harvested in Vermont’s forests, and washed with VT’s coveted Hill Farmstead Beer. Already such decadence in its pedigree, and we haven’t even gotten to the cheese pudding that lies within! Winnimere is best eaten with the top cut off and a small spoon sticking out—we encourage folks to scoop this milky velvet substance right out of the bark. Full of meaty earth & dank savory tones, we love this cheese beside beef jerky or candied bacon, or with a nice glass of Scotch.

And the Alpha Tolman aint too shabby, either—a riff on Appenzeller, boasting notes of caramelized onion and dried fruit, this cheese shines next to cornichons, whole grain mustard, and påté.

Robinson Farm’s A Barndance, Prescott, & Robinson Swiss: The hills of central Massachusetts may not be as steep as those in the Alps, but that doesn’t stop the Robinson Family from trying their hand at French classics like Comté and Abondance. The farm in Hardwick, MA has been in the family for four generations, but it wasn’t until Pam & Ray took over that they decided to start crafting unique cheeses for retail consumption. What started as a project to add value to their raw milk has since morphed into a family love affair with mountain cheeses. And while their wheels don’t taste the same as those from the Alps, they follow the most important principles of grassfed, raw and organic fresh milk. Their cheeses have a cleaner, smoother, and more firm paste, full of tiny holes and grassy, sweet flavors that come right out of the bucolic Massachusetts countryside.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetL’Etivaz Gruyere: A new addition to our wall, this cheese is named for a village in Switzerland where 76 revolutionary families reside. These are the folks who, in 1930, rebelled against the government’s cheese regulations and started their village’s own designation of origin. L’Etivaz is essentially 19th-century Gruyère—the creators felt that cheesemakers were getting too lax in their production of the stuff, and needed to follow the stricter guidelines required 100 years ago. A little creamier, less sharp, and far nuttier than a standard Gruyère, this huge wheel offers a special taste of history.

Marcel Petit Forte St. Antoine Comté: Last, but furthest from least, the Marcel Petit Comté is easily one of our most consistent, complex, and elegant cheeses. After being made in the mountains, wheels of Comté are selected by affineurs who then monitor their aging process. Marcel Petit has revolutionized affinage, by using a WWII military bunker in the French countryside, and by having tasters monitor the wheels’ flavor profiles daily and only pulling them when their flavor is at its peak. They spend at least a year in the cool, damp fort, fortified by concrete walls and nestled into a grassy hillside. Tasters turn the wheels and care for them, tracking their progress in search of the perfect marriage of fruity and nutty, creamy and sharp, herbal and floral.

The wheels Marcel Petit deems worthy of export go through one more test of perfection by our importer, Essex St. Cheese, who started their whole business around importing only the best wheels of this specific Comté. By the time it gets to our counter, we are undoubtedly giving you a damn-near-perfect piece of cheese.

An affineur at Fort St. Antoine monitors wheels of Comté. Photo c/o comte-petit.com

An affineur at Fort St. Antoine monitors wheels of Comté. Photo c/o comte-petit.com

And these are just our most commonly stocked mountain cheeses—we get a smattering of exciting Alpines throughout the winter so be sure to always ask what’s in stock if you’re a fan of the nutty-fudgey-creamy-fruity. Willow Hill Farm’s Butternut makes rare but delightful appearances, and we try to keep Cobb Hill’s Ascutney Mountain around as much as we can. Right now is the best time to get our largest selection of Alpines—challenge yourself to try them all!