In a cheese vat filled with curds and beer is the best place to begin to tell the story of my latest Belgian adventure.
But first, I should explain why I’m here.
My link to Belgium begins on an apple orchard in St. Truiden, where my late mother’s family is now in its third generation of fruit production. My mother grew up there, and nearly all of my aunts, uncles and cousins on her side still live there. I enjoy visiting them because they live next to the Wilderen brewery and distillery, where the only menu offerings are beer, gin, and ice cream sundaes. (This is classically Belgian: the epitome of decadence.)
My mother met my father in Belgium when he was a pro basketball player in Europe in the 70’s and ‘80s. He was playing for the team of my mother’s hometown; they fell in love and started a family. I was born in Switzerland, my sister in Belgium, and we both spent our early years in Spain. When I was five years old, they chose to move back to my father’s Pennsylvania Dutch roots in Berks County to raise their children, which is precisely how I ended up with one foot in both countries. (I’ve calculated that both halves contribute equally to my affection for good beer.)
This winter, I seized the opportunity to book a plane ticket to Brussels, excited in equal parts to visit my mother’s family and travel on a sort of cheese pilgrimage.
A month before the trip, I reached out to several creameries throughout Flanders, the northern, Flemish speaking part of Belgium. I contacted eight, to be exact, and I was happy to be welcomed by two.
I spent last week with the first one, a small dairy farm and creamery, De Vierhoekhoeve (a name which I can now proudly spell) where I assisted the cheesemaker in his process of making what is known in Belgium as bierkaas, or literally, beer cheese.
The cheesemaker, Pieter Taelman, became interested in bieerkass when he married into the family farm, forming the second generation of ownership alongside his wife, Hilde. There was a brewery in the town that he thought might enjoy having its beer made into cheese.
He thought right. The brewery was Delirium Tremens, ranked among the best beers in the world. It took Pieter several years of perfecting his bierkaas recipe, and he now makes cheese for many of the finest breweries in the country - Pater Lieven, Hopus, Gruut, Duvel, Liefman's Kriek; the list goes on. He uses blonde ales, brown ales, krieks, trappist beers - the cheese does well with any beer style. Conveniently, there are plenty to choose from.
Bierkaas is a style that is made like a Gouda, but in the midst of the process, fresh curds are soaked in beer. The curds spend an hour bathing in ale, absorbing as much of it as possible, before getting drained in small round forms and pressed for several hours to form classic baby Gouda wheels. The wheels are painted with cheese coating to protect the rind and aged for several weeks, months or years.
In the cheese’s young form of 4 weeks, the flavor of the ale is highly pronounced, and some mongers can even identify the brewery based on a blind taste of the cheese. As the cheese ages, the ale flavor takes a back seat to the caramel, nutty flavors that begin developing. After several months, the cheese identifies as a mature Gouda, initially sweet, sharp on the finish, and teeming with crystal crunch.
I had encountered the cheese before, although not consciously. While traveling here as an adolescent when I was first discovering beer (of course, the legal drinking age of 18 is a mere suggestion), I found it entirely amusing to be served three cubes of cheese with my beer at the bar. It was years later that I was able to put it all together; that said cubes of cheese were actually bierkaas, not a snack, but a specialty.
Some may say that the cheese is meant to be enjoyed with a glass of the beer with which is it made, but I think that it’s the other way around. The beer needs the cheese to become a perfect pairing, and this, I profess, with my whole (half Belgian, half American) heart.