When I met Barrie Lynn, the Cheese Impresario, back in 2012 and she suggested we do a cheese and sake pairing, to be honest, I thought she was joking. See, at the time of our discussion, we were sitting at a cheese and beer pairing and had been, well, I had been, consuming quite a bit of REALLY spectacular fermentation of both the cheese and alcoholic nature. Adding to my gentle buzz was the awe of being at my first American Cheese Society Conference, and now someone I admired wanted to do some sort of story with me! After assuring me she was serious, Barrie Lynn said she’d call me and arrange the whole thing. Well, not only did I receive a call, I received two bottles of sake, cheese, and instructional emails to do the tasting over the phone, which was both awesome and terrifying, as I had never even tried sake before, let alone heard of pairing it with cheese. What had I gotten myself into?
The first question I asked Barrie Lynn on the day of our call was how she came up with this pairing and she told me the following:
“One of my friends in the entertainment industry called me up one day and said, ‘Put together a plate of cheese and we’re going to go on your roof – I had a great rooftop garden in LA – I’m gonna bring over someone I want you to meet. I think there’s something here, but I’m not sure.’ I put this big plate of cheese together with some rather robust stuff like 10-year cheddar, but I just didn’t know how it was going to work. Well, my friend arrives with Kay Inoue of Banzai Beverage Company. He is this young, passionate sake expert and he just tells me to drink up and try it. I tried it and started screaming ‘Umami! Umami to the Max!’ I just went nuts because it was so amazing. I realized that this was something I wanted people to learn about. The education process has been thrilling because once people have an opportunity to taste this, it opens up a whole new world.”
The two bottles I had been given to try were a pink, pretty one called Umenoyado Aragoshi Ume Shu, which Barrie Lynn referred to as “Juiced,” and the second was a more dark, mysterious bottle called Jumaiginjo Jokigen, or Euphoria. It was interesting to learn that, unlike wine, sake is to be stored upright, not on its side and it should also be consumed within months of purchase. In fact, should the sake be unpasteurized (namazake), it has only weeks of shelf life.
My first thought centered on how was I going to serve these, since I was under the impression that sake was to be consumed warm. Interestingly, higher-grade sake suffers in flavor if warmed and is best chilled like white wine. Lower-grade sake is warmed to cut through its rough edges. I was relieved when Barrie Lynn instructed me to chill my bottles then remove them a half our prior to our tasting, similar to preparing cheese for service.
The first was Widmer Aged Brick Cheese Spread which is an intense, aromatic spread made from cheddar and brick cheese. Joe Widmer is a Wisconsin master cheesemaker and it really shows with this approachable, tasty cheese.
The second selection was Dunbarton Blue made by Chris Roelli which has a science-experiment -gone-wrong-human-brain appearance with its intricate dotting of blue tones due to the enzymes. The flavor is actually quite mild, yet casual cheese peeps may still be intimidated by the appearance of this cheese.
The last selection was Hook’s 10-Year Cheddar , which is one of my all-time favorites and a 1st place ACS winner from 2006. It’s loaded with crunchy calcium crystals and sharp, intense flavor that makes this a really great snacking cheese.
It’s time for the pairings and Barrie Lynn has me starting with the Junmaiginjo Jokigen, the Euphoria. She tells me to turn the bottle of sake upside-down then right-side up first to move the yeast around. Yes, yeast. Sake is a product of rice fermented in spring water and yeast. The rice kernels are milled or polished, which gives sake its clear appearance. The more the kernels are milled, the higher the grade. Our bottle is a 45% grade, or 16-17% alcohol, which, when considering the sweetest white French Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise has an average 14.5% alcohol, I know I’m in for a kick.
Upon opening the bottle I am immediately met with the aromas of flowers, melon and Lychee, which was very surprising. Taking a sip, I find the flavor, while sweet, not over the top, and smooth.
We began with the Dunbarton Blue and the Widmer Brick Spread. Before I could take a bite, Barrie Lynn taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned in cheese tasting.
The Cheese Highway:
1) First, admire your cheese and use your “schnoz.” Really smell it.
2) Swirl the sake, just like wine and smell it, really getting the nose into the glass.
3) Take a small bite of cheese (don’t hork it down) creating a “highway” as it coats your tongue, which will happen naturally.
4) Finally, take a sip of the sake, and taste how it blends with the cheese as it travels down the “highway”.
5) Repeat to get a good balance of flavor.
I felt like an idiot sitting alone in my kitchen sticking my “schnoz” into my cheese and wine glass, but I did it. My apprehension turned to amazement and then enjoyment. The nuttiness from the Dunbarton was tempered by the sweetness in the sake, yet the slight alcohol flavors in the sake were mellowed by the beefy tones in the cheese. Honestly, my head was seriously knocked back. No lie. Each bite became better, with flavors of intensity and tang and fruit and it was just perfect.
Moving on to the Widmer Brick Spread, the sake took on a totally different flavor. The aggressive intensity of the cheese brought out the apple flavors in the sake, and the salty harsh bite of the cheese tempered while still tasting intense. I could see it paired nicely with some figs or a bowl of salted nuts. Perhaps some stone fruit as well. My mind was racing with ideas, but there was still one more cheese, the Hook’s 10-year.
Barrie Lynn gave a bit of a chuckle and said to give it a go. It takes a few bites to get the right amount of coating for the “highway” effect, but I now know why she left out of the first mix. Not a great match for Euphoria as the salty assertive qualities in the cheddar just battle in unpleasant ways with the fruit and sugars in the sake. I’m ready to get this taste out of my mouth and on to the Umenoyado Aragoshi Ume Shu, or what Barrie Lynn calls “Fruity to the Max.”
A lower alcohol content (12%) made with plums, Ume Shu, as it’s called, isn’t technically sake, but more of a plum wine. Having been raised on Manischewitz wines during Passover and the memories of the syrupy-sweet grape-juice-from-hell horror still lingering in my mind, I was not looking forward to this bottle. It didn’t help matters when I saw the consistency of the Ume Shu. Unlike the Euphoria’s clear clean consistency, Ume Shu had a thick and cloudy appearance from the plum pulp. The aroma upon opening the bottle had a sweet, fruity and dreamy quality.
I prep my cheese highway with the Hook’s 10 year, taking several bites of the salty, crystal-infused, cheese then take a sip of Ume Shu. This is definitely not Manischewitz. A total mind-blowingly perfect combination of savory/sweet flavors ensues, showing off the intense tones of the cheese and the lush plum of the sake. Ume Shu is some dangerous stuff though because I can’t detect any hint of alcohol happening in the glass, only some really tasty plum juice having a party in my mouth with some amazing cheese. I’m left a bit speechless for a while, which amuses Barrie Lynn since she screamed when she first tried it.
Barrie Lynn recommends Ume Shu and other higher-grade sake as a great summer beverage alternative and I completely agree. Paired with cow’s milk cheeses, the buttery, beefy flavors work best. Goat’s milk may be a bit of a clash. Leftover sake can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, but no longer.
Sake and cheese pairings have become more popular in recent years, but far from mainstream. High-end sake is hard to come by (these two are available in at Sakaya in New York City) but worth the effort to seek out. As for the cheese selections, most are available through Wisconsin Cheese distributors, however it can be fun to experiment with alternative cow’s milk combinations.
I spoke with Barrie Lynn recently and we entertained the idea of meeting up again in person soon. I can’t wait to see what exciting cheese pairings the Cheese Impresario has for us to taste next! Until then, Stay cheesy!