Words & Photos - Claire M. Bullen
“Hi, my name’s Ned Palmer, and I’m a freelance cheesemonger.”
For anyone who’s been to one of Ned Palmer’s cheese and beer pairing nights, this will be a familiar refrain. It’s how he begins every tasting session, before leading attendees on a winding journey through curds and grain. Topics range from medieval cheesemaking techniques to Belgian beer production, nuggets of Norman history to why making cheese is like freeform jazz. Witty, warm, and brimming with stories and arcane trivia, he’s a bit like your favourite university professor – except he specialises in all things fermented instead of Kantian morality (though actually, he’s well-versed in that, too).
At Hop Burns & Black, close to 20 listeners have colonised the shop, clustered among humming beer fridges and perched on stools along the front windows, eager for his talk – and the sampling – to begin. Before each of us are six generous portions of cheese, from the milkily oozing to the robustly blue. Our palates are sharpened by hungover fatigue and the wedges are fast becoming irresistible.
We’re here on the final evening of London Beer City, which has imbued London with its festive abundance for the past 10 days. For his part, Ned has hosted a series of tastings at five different London breweries (Brew by Numbers, Brixton Brewery, One Mile End, The Five Points, and Gipsy Hill Brewing Company), during which their freshest pours were supped alongside his selection of artisanal British and Irish cheeses. At the end of each session, after much indulging, attendees were handed a ballot and asked to nominate the night’s most successful match.
"I always feel like a brewer could walk into a dairy and pick up cheesemaking really quickly."
Now, in this South London bottle shop, it’s our job to try the finalists and choose, in Ned’s parlance, “the supreme champion” pairing of London Beer City. It’s sufficient temptation to drag our aching livers and rupturous spleens down to East Dulwich, even after an evening spent at the Lionel Richie-soundtracked London Craft Beer Festival.
“Pick it up and give it a squeeze,” says Ned, directing us to our first cheese of the evening: Dorstone, a snowy white goat’s milk cheese robed in an ashen jacket. Glasses of Gipsy Hill’s Beatnik Pale Ale are passed around – and so it begins.
Some might ask: why beer and cheese in the first place? It’s true that wine is the established pairing partner of cheese, whether in a formal restaurant setting or at relaxed dinner party. We’re taught that the two are an excellent match. But is that really the case?
According to Ned, it might not be. For starters, he says, beer has greater depth and range than wine, beginning with the simple fact that it’s made with more ingredients. “You’ve got grain, you’ve got hops, you’ve got yeast, you’ve got water – and the other mad ingredients that modern brewers put in. And then with all these things you have different strains and varieties, and can do different things to them, which is just one more frond of the fractal complexity.”
Thanks in part to its breadth, beer has flavours that go well with cheese, and are present in cheese, that wine might lack. “Earthy,” says Ned, “I can’t imagine someone describing a wine as earthy.” He also notes that you’re much more likely to get umami flavours in beer, not to mention the burst that hop aromatics provide. And then there’s the question of mouthfeel. In beer, “you’ve got creaminess, which is nice with creamy cheeses, and you don’t usually get that in wines – except maybe in buttery Chardonnays.”
It’s not that wine can’t be paired with cheese, or that good matches don’t exist. Ned hastens to confirm that yes, he does love wine, and that it isn’t always fruitful to set up a false dichotomy between the two beverages. And yet, given Craft Beer’s rising status around the globe, now is the time to emphasise just how well it works alongside food – and to counter the belief that beer is best accompanied by little more than salted peanuts and pork scratchings.
Ned has spent the last 15 years working with cheese. It all began with a serendipitous turn at the Gorwydd Caerphilly stall in Borough Market, before pivoting to the esteemed Neal’s Yard Dairy, where he worked as a pro monger for six years. In recent years he’s gone freelance, leading tasting events at Neal’s Yard, putting together pairing evenings for corporate clients and, as a sign of just how zeitgeisty beer and cheese matching is becoming, hosting an increasing number of events with breweries and bottle shops. He’s even made cheese alongside some of Britain’s finest cheesemakers, like Joe Schneider of Stichelton, or Mary Holbrook, whose award-winning sheep and goat’s milk cheeses represent some of the finest of British artisanal cheesemaking. But it was far from a direct path to the land of milk and dairy.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t think ‘I’m going to be a cheesemaker,’” he says. After studying philosophy at university, Ned graduated and became a builder’s labourer “I felt like I needed to be in the world. It was just the job that was available and it was really satisfying.” Later, he relocated to Australia to start an experimental theatre company. From there, various career twists and turns have seen him make the rounds as a hospital porter, work as a project manager for an NGO, get a masters in experimental psychology, shelve books as a librarian and play jazz piano.
Yet the story of how Ned finally discovered his cheese affinity sounds remarkably like the personal eureka moment that most craft beer lovers can recount – that first sip of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, say; that happy bafflement when faced with potent hops, and that dawning realisation that, above all, beer can have real flavour.
“My motto when it comes to beer & cheese is ‘let’s go down there and see what happens.’”
“I distinctly remember the first moment I had Caerphilly [a traditional Welsh cow’s milk cheese], and feeling angry when I realised that all the other cheese I’d ever had before was shit,” he says. His first experience with craft beer was similarly revelatory: a bottle of Kernel Pale Ale, naturally, given that brewer Evin O’Riordain is a friend (and had also managed the Gorwydd Caerphilly stall and worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy in a previous life).
It begins to make the case that craft beer and artisanal cheese really aren’t very different at all. Or, as Ned would say: the two are “mystically intertwined.”
On a basic level, both beer and cheese are fermented products borne of necessity, and have been keystones in Western life for thousands of years. Both were historically made by women, as Ned points out, while fermentation was once thought to be a kind of magic (or, more malevolently, witchcraft). Both existed in great plenitude and variety until the industrialised age, during which artisanal, small-scale producers came close to extinction. And both have recently experienced a thrilling revival.
Ned is quick to give credit for the origins of today’s British beer culture: “We have to give CAMRA all the respect for saving our beer,” he says, because “without them I’m sure we would’ve lost it all, and that would have amounted to an international tragedy.” The story of artisan British cheese’s revival is less well known – “plenty of people still think British cheese is no good, but the renaissance has been going on since the 1970s.”
He labels the establishment of Neal’s Yard Dairy in 1979 as a pivotal moment for British cheese, when co-founder Randolph Hodgson would drive around the UK in search of the few remaining traditional cheesemakers. His aim was to bring their products to London and, in driving sales, rescue the last of a dying breed.
Even today, Ned says, there are a lot of parallels between brewing and cheese production. “I always feel like a brewer could walk into a dairy and pick up cheesemaking really quickly, and a cheesemaker could walk into a brewery and learn how to brew.”
But there are also lessons that each newly flourishing industry could impart to the other. Ned argues that craft brewers, with their wide-ranging imaginations and creative impulses, could inspire cheesemakers to similar flights of fancy. Fat is an excellent medium for aroma, he notes – what would happen if, say, cheesemakers steeped their milk with coffee beans before beginning production?
As for cheesemakers, he reckons they could release craft brewers from their obsession with consistency. “Several people have said to me that the next phase in craft brewing is going to be making things really consistent. But when they say that, I always get this little twinge…” He notes that cheesemakers aim for a “broad band” of quality rather than very consistent results (admittedly, they are faced with steep microbiological challenges, as milk is rarely heated above 50 degrees in the process, ensuring that a veritable petri dish of microbes are alive and present). It does make a palpable difference – the Stichelton had a juicy fruit-like quality earlier in the week, Ned says, while the latest batch has a Marmite-like savouriness. Are exacting brewers, as a result, missing out on flavourful, funky – but benevolent – weirdness?
"Ned hastens to confirm that yes, he does love wine, and that it isn’t always fruitful to set up a false dichotomy between the two beverages."
“If you make 10,000 litres in a day and it screws up, then you’re fucked, and you’re going to want to be more controlled,” he acknowledges. And yet, you do have the sense that cheese and beer still have quite a lot left to say to each other.
Back at Hop Burns & Black, we’re experiencing the mystical intertwining first-hand. At first, sober and cautious, we tentatively prod the cheeses as Ned schools us in their backstories and their makers. We take small nibbles when bidden while swirling our companion pours of beer and sniffing them appreciatively. As we grow more raucous, we also grow bolder with our pairings, moving beyond the prescribed sets and sampling each cheese with each beer to see what happens on our palates.
The results are surprising, as many of the nominated pairings are trumped by new combinations. We discover, for instance, that Kirkham’s Lancashire takes on a buttery complexity when sipped with One Mile End’s Snakecharmer IPA, which, tonight, smells like freshly pulped peach nectar. Brew By Numbers’ 12|05 Barrel-Aged Tripel holds up very well against the pungent meatiness of the Milleens washed-rind, though it’s even better with Stichelton – enough to be crowned the supreme pairing. Less surprisingly, Brixton’s Lavarush Coffee Stout is also dreamy with the Stichelton (blues and stouts are notoriously mutually infatuated).
It’s becoming clearer that strict prescriptions and pairing rules are only limitedly helpful here. Perhaps it’s one more vote in favour of beer as cheese’s perfect match, away from the hallowed strictures of ‘correct’ wine pairings. The versatility of beer is a wonderful thing. Of all the combinations we try, there are very few failures. If anything, each one sheds new light on the complex and beautifully crafted products before us.
“My motto,” Ned tells me – something he wants to have translated into Latin, or perhaps tattooed – “is ‘let’s go down there and see what happens.’” When it comes to beer and cheese pairings, or inviting craft beer to the dining table as a whole, it’s hard to find a better piece of advice.