Photo: Max Shrem
Warning: Cheese washed in beer may sound like a perfect combination – and for flavorists, it definitely is – but it sure makes a stink. Garbage that's been sitting out for days, dirty undergarments, and rotting food are just a few odors that come to mind when taking a whiff of Sablé de Wissant, a raw cow's milk cheese washed in wheat beer and sprinkled with breadcrumbs. Sable de Wissant isn't alone. When researchers at Cranfield University in the U.K. used an electric nose to find the world's smelliest cheese, they identified another soft cow's milk cheese washed in beer – Vieux Boulogne. So why does beer cheese smell so bad?
Ironically, it all comes in with the wash. As with other washed rind cheeses, such as Jasper Hill Farm's Winnemere (which is also brushed with beer), a brine –water and other ingredients, like salt and herbs – is rubbed onto the rind of the cheese as it ages. In the case of Sablé de Wissant, the brine is beer. The interaction between the beer's fermented wheat and milk enzymes produces a type of bacteria, called brevibacterium linens. "The yeasts used in the fermentation of beer never fully consume all of the available sugar," says Peter Estaniel from Better Beer Blog. "The growth of this bacteria is probably aided by the residual sugar found in beer." It's not only responsible for the rind's orange color, but also for the cheese's nauseating odor. But beer cheeses aren't unique in their superlatively stinky smells -- all alcoholic solutions create the same distinct aroma when applied to cheese. Indeed, Epoisses, a cheese washed in Marc de Bourgogne, was banned from public transport in France due to its smell.
Luckily, there's a pay-off for such a pungent odor. If one can get past Sablé de Wissant's obvious smell (not an easy task!), its flavor is actually quite mild, like that of a Camembert. It also has a deliciously creamy texture, similar to Brie. Considering Sablé de Wissant's offensive smell, one would find its popularity in France mind-boggling."Customers with varying palates, amateurs to connoisseurs alike, purchase this cheese," says Hugues Foucher from Fromagerie Foucher (at 118 Rue Mouffetard in Paris). "It's available year-round." Remember after purchasing the cheese that it should be handled with the utmost level of care to prevent the infectious stench from spreading like a plague. If it's left uncovered in the fridge, the smell of the cheese will permeate other foods. Make sure to wrap it well in wax paper and then to place it in a separate compartment in the fridge (at the very least a Tupperware container).
Those in France, can purchase Sablé de Wissant from Fromagerie Foucher and Androuët. Stateside, we recommend Winnemere, which is washed in Belgian ale and is a lot more palatable than Sablé, because the strong aroma emanating from the rind is minimized by the woodsy taste of the cheese (it's wrapped in bark). Back in March, we discovered the many ways in which cheese can be paired with beer, but we never imagined the extent to which the fermented wheat would be able to dictate the flavor development of the cheese, when used during affinage. So, next time a cheese description reads "washed in beer," take it as a warning and proceed accordingly.