Steve Jones, Portland’s best-known cheesemonger, stands near one of his cheeseboards, available at The Commons Brewery at Southeast 7th Avenue and Belmont Street. Jones recently opened his third cheese tasting eatery here, Cheese Annex. One of the cheese boards available at Cheese Annex is shown here paired with The Commons Urban Farmhouse Ale and Walnut, a Belgian dark ale. Photo by Patty Mamula
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Beer and cheese were made for each other. Steve Jones, Portland’s best-known cheesemonger, always felt that beer was the winning beverage to pair with cheese. He put this idea to the test five years ago when he opened Cheese Bar in Southeast Portland. It was an immediate success.
“Beer has so many winning components that wine doesn’t have,” he said.
“It’s effervescent, grain-based and the terroir in beer and cheese shares grain as the common denominator. With its bubbles, beer keeps the mouth refreshed and there are so many different styles.”
Steve Jones and Janet Fletcher, the author of “Cheese and Beer” and “The Cheese Course” along with a host of other food books and articles, presented “Suds and Curds: Using Cheese to Sell More Beer” in April for the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland.
Fletcher discussed several different beer and cheese eateries, including a brewpub, a specialty grocery/hybrid pub, a bottle shop with cheese boards and another specialty grocery, presenting detailed information about cheese offerings, costs, total revenue of the establishment and pairing components.
Jones discussed his three establishments. The Cheese Bar was the first and largest with more than 200 varieties of cheese, a full kitchen, six taps with five beers and one cider, 50 to 75 different bottled beers, five or six bottled ciders and 25 or 30 wines.
In March, he opened two new eateries. Downtown at Southwest 11th Avenue and Alder Street is Chizu, an intimate 18-seat, Japanese-inspired bar with a sushi-type format for cheese tasting. Jones carefully chose a variety of 30 cheeses, bottled beers that lean heavier towards Belgians and a few ciders and wines.
He also collaborated with his friend Mike Wright at The Commons Brewery’s new location at Southeast 7th Avenue and Belmont Street, to open the Cheese Annex, a walk-up window cheese bar within the brewery. “We’re a lessee,” said Jones. “I pay a base rent and 5 percent gross. This Commons beer is so cheese friendly.”
Jones combined his artistic talent -- his undergraduate degree is in studio arts and painting -- with his experience as a professional chef when he flipped into retail food about 20 years ago in St. Louis, Mo. He started at a small beer store, opening a deli there that he built from the ground up. “With my art background, my cheese board displays were pretty enticing,” he said.
After that he was hooked on cheese, opening up three shops with a partner that featured American artisan farmstead cheese, before moving back to Portland and managing the cheese department for Provvista Specialty Foods, where he bought on a multimillion-dollar scale. Before the Cheese Bar, there was Steve’s — his first shop in Northwest Portland — in the corner of a wine shop.
Jones said, “We work hard to have a number of avenues to move our cheese. We turn over 200 cheeses at the Cheese Bar in two weeks. We may buy an 80-pound wheel and sell one-fourth of it right away. We wholesale the 20 pounds, selling it in 2-pound blocks to restaurants. The chefs are very excited — even though ours cost more, its fresh and high quality.”
Regarding specific cheese recommendations, a question from the audience was: What cheeses are recommended when starting out?
Fletcher suggested manchego cheese. “Spanish cheese is very affordable,” she said. She also mentioned comte, a French cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in eastern France and pecorino from Italy. “Most of the European cheeses are affordable because they are subsidized,” she said. Locally, she likes a Beehive Cheese from northern Utah that’s a Cheddar style coated with coffee bean.
Another question asked: If you could only manage one option, what would it be?
Jones said, “Raclette. If you’re very constrained, you might have a cheesemonger come in a couple times.”
Fletcher said, “I like the idea of having only one option each night. That way you could get known for something special.”
Jones likes to work with small cheese producers, ones that might be a little under the radar. “We like naturally organic and work hard to find the special ones. The ones with a story.” On the receiving end, his team inspects the cheese thoroughly. “My team is well trained for that,” he said.
Proper storage is very important and there were questions about how to wrap the cheese. Jones said they use patty paper and microporous paper to keep the cheese from touching plastic containers. “We do everything cut to order in 1-ounce portions. It makes such a difference. “
Questions abounded about pairings. Jones talked about a recent pairing with a donated cheese. He met with The Commons brewer and they paired the cheese with a brown ale. “The chocolaty, malt-forward taste blended well with the cheddar sweetness.” Usually in pairings he prefers tastes that contrast rather than harmonize.
In regard to a question about recommended books, the natural answer was to look at Fletcher’s. For information, visit: www.planetcheese.org
For information about the fourth annual Beer and Cheese Fest on June 21 at The Commons, visit: www.facebook.com/PortlandBeerAndCheeseFest
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.