O'So of Plover, Wisconsin, brought seven beers, including a deep Black Scotch Ale.
How many people will come out to taste cheese and beer samples on a cold Saturday afternoon in January? A lot.
I'm judging only from the crowd at the first Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest, held at the Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall this weekend. While I'd seen the names of the participants in advance -- creators and makers of Wisconsin beers and cheeses (and one dairy and one meat-curer and one university press), I didn't actually have a firm idea in my mind what to expect.
"It's kind of like the farmers' market, but with lots more cheese samples, and instead of vegetables -- beer!" one person said to me, and that's pretty close. Two rooms of vendor booths flanked an open area with tables where performances by the Cork and Bottle String Band alternated with demos on pairing beer with food (presented by TDP's beer guru, Robin Shepard) and pairing beer with chocolate, with chocolates by Atwood Avenue chocolatier Gail Ambrosius and beer by Furthermore of Spring Green.
These were first-come, first-serve seatings, and the chocolate-beer pairing session was the hottest seat in the house. I wasn't lucky enough to score one, but eavesdropped on Gail Ambrosius instructing the tasters that "beer enhances anything else" you're eating; it "makes the taste buds stand on end." Good pairings bring out the best in each other; the smoky "Three Feet Deep" dry Irish stout brought out the blueberry in the chocolate of a blueberry truffle, for instance.
Here's a truncated list of favorites and surprises discovered during my stroll through the booths (a complete list of vendors is available here:
* Remember I said one meat-curer? I met Scott Buer of Bolzano Artisan Meats, a Milwaukee-based company that makes small batches of dry-cured pancetta, guanciale, and prosciutto. Bolzano just started this April, so its prosciutto isn't even ready yet, but samples of the pancetta (pork belly cured in salt and spices and dried) and buttery, delicate guanciale (similar, but made with pork cheek) were available. Buer uses heritage Berkshire hogs he gets from a co-op in Iowa, but he will be switching to a purveyor from Lake Geneva; he uses about six hogs per month. Bolzano meats are available locally at Fromagination and Steve's Wines.
* Dave's BrewFarm of Wilson, Wisconsin (between Eau Claire and St. Paul) knocked my socks off. First of all, it's a sustainable farm that uses windpower to power the brewing operation. Then there's the beer, people. I sampled the Matacabras (described as "a strange new ale") and the AuBEXXX (golden strong ale with secret spicing, Belgian lineage yeast, and some special hops), both of which were intense, complex, and interesting -- really smart beers. Drinking them was like dating someone who'd received a MacArthur Genius Grant. My main regret of the day is that I did not go back to sample Dave's other four beers. Stupid! Dave's BrewFarm is not currently available in any Madison locations, but they're working on it.
* Caprine Supreme, family-operated farmstead makers of hormone-free goats milk cheeses (from free-range goats), brought a passel of different cheeses. (Caprine also makes goat's milk yogurt and sell goat's milk.) I bought a package of the mellow "Harvest Moon" variety (which I might be able to describe more fully if I hadn't tasted so many cheeses yesterday). Caprine is located in Black Creek, Wisconsin, west of Green Bay and north of Appleton. Currently Caprine is not sold at any Madison outlet, so tell your favorite cheese counter they're worth a try.
*Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery of Ellsworth, Wisconsin (near Hudson), brought cheese curds. The creamery will be celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Ellsworth, "cheese curd capital of Wisconsin," celebrates the Cheese Curd Festival this year on June 26.
* Harmony Specialty Dairy of Stratford, Wisconsin (near Wausau) brought a line of "handcrafted British tribute" cheeses -- Cheshire-style, double Gloucester, Abergele, and the Welsh-miner style Caerphilly, including an interesting Nut Brown Ale Caerphilly.
* More familiar names also provided some knockout cheeses, like Roelli Cheese of Shullsburg's Dunbarton Blue andCarr Valley's superb Benedictine (made with cow, sheep and goat milks).
* Viking Brewery of Dallas, Wisconsin, brought a "hot chocolate" beer that started out with intense chocolate tones and ended with a vibrant peppery finish. Dallas is near Chetek (does that not help you? It's way the heck up there).
* I got to meet Jerry Heimerl, the maker of one of my favorite cheeses, Evalon, a mellow goat cheese from Saxon Homestead Creamery. Heimerl says that Big Ed, the same cheese as Evalon only made with cow's milk, is the Creamery's best-seller. "Keep up the good work," I told him. "You just made my day," he replied.
And that reminded me of the final component of eating local -- tell the folks who work so hard at making quality Wisconsin products that we love the results.