Alcohol pairings have become increasingly popular (and ambitious) in Los Angeles, and The Cheese Impresario continues to offer a novel twist on the theme. The former ad exec left the world of Mad Men to follow her passion for artisan cheese. She’s since become a terrific ambassador for fromage, hosting a series of compelling events around the city. Last year, she hosted rum and chocolate pairings in Hancock Park and participated in the blowout Mutineer Magazine launch party in Hollywood. On January 31, Barrie Lynn Krich (the impresario) invited me to an unusual pairing event at an Arts District loft that featured her cheeses and sake from K. Inoue of Banzai Beverage.
To prepare for the event, Barrie Lynn and Inoue shared a rooftop tasting with a massive cheese platter and 20 different sakes. The Cheese Impresario started her presentation by recounting how she screamed louder with each pairing, describing “umami to the max.” Inoue is an importer of rare and unusual sakes and has made it his goal to “think outside the sushi bar.”
Attendees filled banquet tables while sipping on Banzai Bunny, an unfiltered, smoky sweet sake.
Inoue shared some basic sake knowledge with us, which helped to provide the framework for the pairings. Sake is 80% water and the flavor is dictated by the brewmaster and the quality of the water. In Northern Japan, water is harder, and it’s softer in the south. All sake is made by hand and typically rates 15-16% ABV. 60 different rices are used in sake, each offering unique characteristics, just like grapes. Good sake should not always be chilled. If it’s full-bodied, it can go to 120-140 degrees, at which point it becomes rounder and sweeter. Another fun fact: sake spoils in 6-9 months
One major measure for sake assessment is the polish. The more polished the grain, the more refined the taste, and the less funk from amino acids. The highest recorded polish is 91%. Legend of the Stars made the sake, and it costs $2000 dollars per bottle. Of course that sake wasn’t part of the tasting, but there was an empty bottle on hand, to give us something to aspire to, I guess.
Our first sake was the amber-hued Mt Victoria, aged for 2-3 years in porcelain tanks until it achieves caramelly single-malt or cognac characteristics. We also scored some sips of Legend of the Stars Junmai Daiginjo which was nearly clear and didn’t deliver nearly as much flavor.
Barrie Lynn provided tastes of several premium cheeses, starting with a Fenugreek Gouda from cheesemaker Merieke Penterman in Thorp, Wisconsin. The soft raw milk cheese was stuffed with seeds from Holland, which provided a distinctive nutty maple flavor. The cheese paired with Seashore Pride, a “Junmai” sake made with pure rice, water, yeast and koji. The premium sake was made in a facility lined with stainless steel, for cleanliness’ sake, and involved light color and subtle flavor.
Next, we enjoyed a tiny wedge of 4-year Cheddar from Tony and Linda Hook. Crystal clear Palace Snow Pure – a 40% polished Junmai – brought out the spice of the cheddar.
Award winning cheesemaker Sid Cook’s Airco was a soft, hickory-smoked cheese made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk. The pairing: Best in the West Junmai Ginjo, with 51% polish. In Japan, rice farms and sake breweries are normally mutually exclusive, but not in the case of Best in the West.
Dunbarton Blue was my favorite cheese of the day, a pungent cow’s milk cheese with thick, salty blue veins. Only 8 wheels are made every 3 months, but The Cheese Impresario has pull with cheesemakers. We also received a slice of La Brea Bakery bread slathered with Aged Brick Spread. Both cheeses are from Joe Widmer in Theresa, Wisconsin, and paired with Euphoria Junmai Ginjo. “The fields are so clean you can just lay down and sleep on it,” said Inoue, who also hinted at the legend of brewmaster Mr. Sato, who treats sakes like fine wines. The Euphoria had a Chardonnay like acidity and sweetness.
We finished with Juiced Plum Nectar sake, made with fresh plum mash. The fruity sake achieved complexity when paired with Hook’s 10 year cheddar, a wedge with killer crystalization from amino acids.
Overall, the sake and cheese pairing was a good learning opportunity, with some inspired moments. If you’re looking to create your own sake and cheese tasting, top cheese emporiums include Andrew’s Cheese Shop (Santa Monica), Artisan Cheese Gallery (Studio City) and The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. For sake, consider Larchmont Village Wines, Veno Kado (West Hollywood), Topline Wine & Spirits (Glendale), K&L Wine Merchants (Hollywood) and Wally’s (Westwood).