It's a Wednesday afternoon, and I'm standing at the Boise Co-op cheese counter with four people whose jobs I covet. They're sipping beer and sampling cheese, searching for the perfect marriage of flavors for the Front Door Pizza and Tap House's ever popular First Thursday pairings of beer, cheese and chocolate.
An enthusiastic Cera Grindstaff, the house manager at Front Door, says they've been on the hunt for perfect pairings for the past three years. The group must be doing something right because Grindstaff says the monthly tastings are always packed.
"Yeah, way popular," she says with an eager bounce. "We sell out. We have enough to do 30 plates, and we always sell out."
With a slightly more reserved flourish, Matt Gelsthorpe, Boise Co-op's beer buyer, rises purposefully from behind the cheese counter, pulling wedges of cheddar and rounds of chevre out of the case.
"Cera e-mailed me yesterday with the beer list," he says. "I've tasted the majority of these beers before so I started grabbing cheeses today that I thought would work."
If you think this sounds like little more than a field trip boondoggle for foodies, it's not. These tasters take the challenge of finding the right match seriously. Really. Now they're trying to tease out the consummate cheese for a cantankerously sour beer.
"With the sour beer," Gelsthorpe says as he holds up a bottle of Jolly Pumpkin Brewery's Noel de Calabaza, "it will be a little bit more difficult just to find the one that works best. We really want it to pop because the beer is spectacular and difficult."
The selection is so difficult that Robert Harrelson, Front Door's kitchen manager, makes sure everyone contributes an opinion.
"The more palates, the better," Harrelson says. "Not everyone's palate is the same, so you know if just one person was doing this, it could come across as not being as good. We try to have as many people doing this as possible."
The group starts out with some so-so matches, then takes a bite of Rouge et Noir, a buttery, triple creme brie from California.
"Yeah, that really did have a little pop to it," says Harrelson through a just-perceptible grin.
"It has such a great nose on it," adds Grindstaff as she gives the beer a little sniff. "Do you get a little bit of the wood from the barrels?"
"You can smell the funk, and there's almost some cherry notes to it," he says.
Jessica Price, the Front Door's beverage manager, hasn't contributed much so far, apart from quietly suggesting that I take smaller gulps. Instead, she judiciously contemplates each lingering taste. Eventually, she has a verdict on the cheese.
"That's really good. It brings that cherry in there, and it kind of loses the sourness," she says.
"It makes this beer much more approachable," Gelsthorpe interjects after swishing a sip from cheek to cheek. "A lot of people are going to be very afraid of this beer, and I've actually had bottles returned, saying this beer is bad."
"Yeah," Grindstaff says. "It actually mellows out those sharp acidic flavors. It brings out the nice flavors in the beer."
They all agree. That's the power of a good pairing. A challenging beer can be tamed, enhanced by the right cheese--and vice versa--creating a magical mingling of flavors greater than the sum of their gustatory parts. It's like adding the perfect nutrient to a temperamental orchid: Flavors suddenly bloom on the tongue in beautifully unexpected ways.
Grindstaff takes another swig.
"I really think that beer is blowing up lately, like in the past couple of years. It's awesome for us," she says.
She's right. Beer is beginning to get some respect in serious food circles. It isn't the Rodney Dangerfield of beverages anymore. And there's a craft beer revolution going on. Today, learning to pair a meal with an artisan ale or porter is as respectable as pairing it to a hoity burgundy or toity bordeaux. Some restaurants in Portland, Ore., even sport beer sommeliers who will fine-tune your selection with the laser-like expertise of a wine steward--while sparing you the condescendingly raised brows.
Over the years that the Front Door/Co-op group has been pairing cheese to beer, they've learned a few lessons, noticed some patterns, discovered some natural mash-ups.
"We've had success with a number of the hoppier styles and hoppier beers with cheddars," says Gelsthorpe. "That seems to be a classic pairing: an IPA and a nice sharp cheddar."
Price says stouts work with bleu cheeses because big beers typically pair nicely with big cheeses. Pilsners often work with subtle cheeses, like young goudas. And beers with citrusy notes work well with chevres.
But she adds a cautionary note.
"I've learned that when you assume that something will go together, it usually doesn't. A lot of it is trial and error." A bad pairing can be tragic--like sucking on old pennies or licking a damp barn door--and that's why the group takes to their search with the sobering knowledge that innocent taste buds are at stake.
"Typically I like to get the beer on my palate so [I] start getting those flavors," Price says of the tasting technique she has come to use. "And then the cheese--what you really want to do is get it in there and let it soften up a little bit so it pretty much encompasses most of your palate."
She takes a sip, smooshes a nubbin of cheese with her tongue, takes another sip, then does a little jig that seems to signal a good match.
"Both of these shine through and complement each other," she says.
But cheese isn't beer's only natural partner. The Front Door's First Thursday pairing also includes chocolate. So, the next stop is the Chocolat Bar in downtown Boise and a chat with owners Chris and Kristi Preston.
"It's been just a wonderful surprise how well beer and chocolate go together," Chris says. "And the beers that we've had have just really been outstanding. It's been this wonderful surprise every month to see how are we going to be wowed. It's really been enjoyable."
The Prestons make chocolates from scratch and try to pair special ingredients to that month's beer selection. Kristi has a platter of possibilities ready to go.
"We'll use things like red chili and pair that with the beer, and then another one might be something that has ginger in it or just a plain dark chocolate with almonds," she says. "So it's this real variety of flavors that complement with the beer. It's fun that way."
Price says the Front Door tries to include Idaho-made ingredients as often as possible, having paired beers from Grand Teton Brewery, Laughing Dog and Sockeye and cheeses from Ballard Family Dairy.
Compared to Oregon and Washington, though, Idaho isn't yet a big producer of craft beer, cheese or chocolate. But if this afternoon's outing is any indication, there's light on the culinary horizon: Idahoans are definitely refining their palates and since beer, cheese and chocolate are gateway foods, once a community gets a taste for a good pairing, a more complex food culture can't be far away.
More disciplined than I, Price moves on to the next chocolate choice while I stall over second helpings of the last.
"That's a very interesting beer," she says as everyone moves down the counter, leaving me to surreptitiously snag one more truffle. "You get that sweet up front and then all those hops come in on the back end.
"I'm thinking maybe that dark chocolate with the ginger . . ."