Jeff Mattes, master cheesemaker from Saxon Creamery.
Cheese might be the Miss Congeniality of Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest. Certainly many attendees are there for the beer, but no question -- there's a lot of appreciation for the cheese. It's just the way we do things here in Wisconsin.
And certainly, speaking of congeniality, it is always a pleasure to speak with the cheesemakers about their craft and their latest offerings. They bring up their accomplishments like proud parents discussing their kids.
In the cheese samples offered during the festival on Saturday, I noticed a lot of butterkase, gouda and havarti. I wondered if this was chance or intention; if those were kinds of mid-January comfort cheeses, or sure bets to pair with most beers.
Then I overheard a cheesemaker mention that she hadn't brought any blue cheeses because they crumble and don't sample well, and I wondered if the abundance of butterkases and goudas could just be attributed to cube-ability.
At any rate, butterkase, a German-style cheese, is semi-soft (not, usually, so soft as to be spreadable) and has a buttery creaminess. While it's often suggested that this cheese be paired with a similarly mild beer, like a pilsner, so as not to overshadow it, the excellent Butterkäse from Edelweiss Creamery of Monticello was so mellow and rich it seemed to me that it could stand up to an IPA -- that it would complement it without getting in the way of the citrusy hop flavors. Decatur Dairy of Brodhead also brought an interesting smoked butterkase. Forgotten Valley of South Wayne brought both a good butterkase and its smoked version.
Gouda and havarti appeared in their original forms and in flavored versions that would go well with crackers and a football game: The horseradish havarti from Emmi Roth had a strong dose of the spicy root. Even more game-day friendly was Emmi Roth's new release of a chile pepper gouda, with habaneros, jalapeños, and chipotles within. The cheesemakers recommend a stout with the chile pepper gouda, and an amber with the horseradish havarti.
Koepke Family Farms of Oconomowoc brought its LaBelle line of cheeses, which are semi-soft, aged, and in style a unique blend of gouda and butterkase, made with milk entirely sourced from the Koepke family farm, with a recipe developed in collaboration with Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese. LaBelle is available locally at Hy-Vee and Metcalfe's. The sweet fenugreek version (which tastes like it has a hint of maple, but that's the fenugreek) is very appealing.
Another semi-soft pleaser was Decatur Dairy's unique Stettler's Swiss, a nuttier, creamier and softer version of Swiss cheese yet with more personality than baby Swiss.
Other cheeses had bolder, more complex flavors with more of a sense of terroir coming through. Cheeses that could star all by themselves at the center of a cheese board would include the brand new Krampus Käse from Crème de la Coulee, nutty and similar to a gruyere; Cedar Grove's Weird Sisters, a mountain-style cheese from cow and water buffalo milk that was compulsively nibble-able; and the St Dorian's sheep's milk gouda from Capri Cheese.
Pastureland Co-op of Belleville's mellow Grasskase (a washed-rind brick style) was a hit at the Willy Street Co-op booth. Another cheese there, from a producer to watch for more of in the future, was a grass-fed, organic sharp cheddar made by the McCluskey Brothers at Shillelagh Glen Farms of Hillpoint.
A personal favorite, Saxon Creamery of Cleveland, was on hand with several interesting cheeses, including the Monastery-style Greenfields, a semi-soft, washed rind aromatic cheese that seemed to have a direct link back to the pasture. Master cheesemaker Jeff Mattes is excited about Saxon's latest, its Asiago Fresca (a young, creamy cheese good for melting).
A cheddar from Otter Creek Organic Farm named "Fall" –- its cheddars are all distinguished with the seasonality of the milk -- might go well traditionally with a porter but, less conventionally, turned out to be an interesting companion with Monolith IPA, the lively, citrusy winner of the day's homebrewing competition.
Other specific pairings out of the day stood out as well. Welsh-inspired Abergele cheese with portabella mushrooms and chives from Harmony Specialty Dairy Foods paired well with a malty stout, and a chipotle cheddar by Cesar's Cheese of Columbus was very nice with other hoppy beers (thanks to Isthmus contributor Robin Shepard for these pairing picks).