In Los Angeles, more people than ever are staging beer and cheese pairings, so it’s become increasingly difficult for the events to stand out. Given that, the powers that be at Ford’s Filling Station called in a pair of heavy hitters from the Bay Area, and invited me to attend the event. On October 30, Cowgirl Creamery co-founder Sue Conley and Lagunitas Brewing Company market manager Renee Harper appeared on the patio at Ben Ford’s Culver City gastropub, collaborating with Ford’s chef de cuisine Sal Roldan on a unique pairing.
Conley began her informal presentation by saying, “Lagunitas is right down the street, so it’s really exciting to pair. It’s hyper regional.” Cowgirl Creamery opened in Point Reyes Station in 1997, and up until two years ago, every cheese that Conley and business partner Peggy Smith made was out of that location. Success prompted them to open a larger facility in Petaluma in 2008. Now only Red Hawk is made in Point Reyes. Cowgirl Creamery is now located down the street from Lagunitas, which founder Tony Magee moved to Petaluma from Forest Knolls in 1994.
Conley ordered her five cheeses on the two-person platters in order of intensity, but throughout the course of the event, Chef Roldan threw her a couple of curveballs with his prepared dishes, and the organizers adjusted on the fly.
All but one Lagunitas beer came a bottle. We started with Lagunitas Pils (5.4% ABV), the brewery’s only lager, which is fairly light, with the least hop intensity. It was our starter beer since it doesn’t have the ability to wreck any palates.
Our initial cheese was Inverness, a soft, column-shaped cow’s milk cheese that’s named for a town across the bay from Pt. Reyes. Conley pointed out the “grainy texture, which indicates yeast mold.”
We quickly transitioned to Mt. Tam, which Conley called “everybody’s favorite Cowgirl cheese.” The triple-cream cheese is named for Marin County’s famed Mt. Tamalapais. It’s aged for 10 days and lightly pressed, as opposed to Gouda, which is cooked at a higher temperature and hard pressed.
We each received half of a Mushroom and Leek Galette made with Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, tangy Montrachet goat cheese, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, lemon vinaigrette for acidity, and microgreens, all appearing on flaky, buttery pastry dough. This concluded our pour of Lagunitas Pils, which demonstrated good range.
Our next Cowgirl Creamery cheese was Pierce Pt., which features Chamomile, bay, fennel, wild thyme and wild chamomile, which are all gathered in summer. They’re dried and line the rind of a semi-firm, muscato-washed Jersey cow’s milk cheese.
To complement the Pierce Pt., we received sweet date pecan bread, French country bread, red wine fig jam, pear and cranberry compote and tomato pepper jam, all made in-house.
The beer pairing was Lagunitas Censored Rich Copper Ale (5.9% ABV), one of the maltier offerings on the brewery’s hop-heavy roster.
Our next course demonstrated that we were in for much more than just a beer and cheese pairing. Chef Roldan’s Croque Monsieur incorporated pungent Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk cheese, Aussie Kobe cheeks that he braised for five hours, and rich bookends of buttery pain de mie.
Our beer pairing was Lagunitas IPA (5.7% ABV), which had good hop bite that (sort of) helped to tame the unabashed richness of the grilled cheese.
Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk’s rind appears pinkish-red as a result of natural bacteria. The cheese is a byproduct of a happy accident, relegated to aging room for 30 days and resulted in an award-winning cheese. “It’s the only one that French people like,” says Conley.
Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale (7.8% ABV) started as a seasonal, brewed with 50% barley malt and three types of wheat, two of them roasted. The beer is sweet and light and, according to Harper, “It’s best enjoyed quickly and in big volume.”
It was interesting to hear Sue Conley’s thoughts on mac and cheese prior to the event, which favored multiple and varied cheeses. Ford’s Mac & Cheese involved a single cheese, Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel, along with elbow macaroni, minced ham hock, roasted Fresno chilies and breadcrumbs. The mac had good flavor and an inviting red tint, but was fairly dry.
Sue Conley explained the origin of Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel. In 2008, there was global economic collapse, so she and Smith decided, “Our cheeses are so precious and expensive that we should make an everday cheese.” Wagon Wheel features the same washed rind as Red Hawk. It’s aged two months.
Throughout the course of the event, Conley dropped some serious cheese knowledge on the assembled participants. For example, she said that cheesemakers often rely on indigenous ingredients to protect the cheese. That’s why Cowgirl Creamery uses ingredients like herbs and stinging nettles to crust the rind.
She considers Cowgirl Creamery cheese to be “estate cheese” since they can identify where the milk comes from, as opposed to co-ops that pool disparate milk. They source from Straus Family Creamery and a Jersey cow dairy, whose name escapes me. She said that in 1993, Albert Straus was first dairyman in the West to become organic, which became the base of business for Cowgirl Creamery.
Okay, let’s throw in another fun fact. Peggy Smith worked at Chez Panisse for 17 years and helped to train Ben Ford.
Alright, back to the Lagunitas beer, in this case, A Little Sumpin’ Wild Ale (7.8% ABV). This is A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ brewed with Westmalle, a Belgian yeast strain, which changes the character, adding complexity and spice.
The beer paired well with a cut of rosy flatiron that was crusted with Rogue Creamery Crater Lake Bleu cheese. No, not every cheese that Chef Roldan cooked with came from Cowgirl Creamery. Since they don’t make a blue cheese, that seemed alright by me.
Cowgirl Creamery Inverness was supposed to come last, but it didn’t work out that way. As a result, Lagunitas Hop Stoopid (8% ABV) appeared on its own, delivering a whopping “102 IBU 4 U.” To my knowledge, the threshold for International Bitterness Units was about 100. Apparently there isn’t a scale that can contain the “stoopid” hoppiness. Amazingly, the beer wasn’t oppressively bitter, a testament to the brewery.
We finished with a silky slice of Bellwether Farms ricotta cheesecake with a crushed Graham cracker base that was flavored with orange zest and honey and graced with more of that red wine fig jam.
Conley didn’t produce this cheese, but she did praise it, crediting Cindy Callahan – her neighbor – the first person to bring a flock of sheep to California. The former nurse is still going strong, but the cheesemaking duties now belong to son Liam, who majored in economics at Berkeley and helped to instill the creamery
The pairing was Lagunitas Brown Shugga – Sweet Release (9.9% ABV), which emerged from a failed attempt to make Gnarlywine in 1997. They bombarded it with brown sugar and salvaged what became an annual end-of-the-year seasonal. The sweet but balanced beer was a fitting conclusion to a memorable event that over-delivered and completely eliminated the need to consume anything else that day.