Omnivore - Sweet Grass and Wrecking Bar collaborate on Black Swan

Cheese + beer = yum


  • Courtesy Sweet Grass Dairy
  • Sweet Grass Dairy’s Black Swan cheese washed with Wrecking Bar beer

You’d be forgiven for not associating Sweet Grass Dairy with beer. They sell cheese, after all. But, as they say on their website, the Thomasville, Ga. fine-food purveyors “labor to find enthusiastic, gifted people who are applying passion and respect to another venture, whether that’s curing meat, making chocolate, pickling okra, or brewing beer.”

In this case, the gifted folks in question are Bob Sandage and company at Wrecking Bar Brewpub. Sweet Grass used the Inman Park establishment’s Punch Yo Momma Smoked Porter as a wash for the dairy’s Black Swan, a firm-but-creamy cheese in the French farmhouse tradition that’s become one of their most popular items.

Black Swan is available now via the dairy’s online store, the Larder, until it sells out. Additionally, Wrecking Bar will have a wheel (9-10 pounds of cheese) to use however they see fit until it runs out. The Larder has the other nine wheels that were made, and Sweet Grass’ Mat Willey imagines they’ll be gone in a month.

Creative Loafing caught up with Willey to find out why one washes a cheese in the first place, the parallels between cheese and beer makers, and why collaboration is so important to Sweet Grass.

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What does it mean to “wash” cheese, and why does Sweet Grass do it?

The original story comes from our owner, Jeremy Little. A close friend of his was getting married and he wanted to create a special cheese to celebrate the occasion. After some thought and experimentation he decided to play around with beer. As the tale goes, he wanted to pick a beer that he thought would represent his good friend’s colorful personality and he chose Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard. (I should mention that Jeremy has a particular brand of humor!)

The first batch of Black Swan was only about 10 wheels or so. That cheese has become popular because of word-of-mouth and amazing customers. It’s unreal to me how much people love that cheese. Outside of our story, the reason many cheesemakers wash cheeses in beers/cider/liquor is for the aroma and the distinct coloring it can give to the rind. Also, some beers can truly impart a whole other level of taste to the cheese which is the case with Black Swan. There’s this big aroma - almost malty - that comes from the cheese, then there’s this huge, sharp, cheddar-like quality.

What other beers have you used for cheese washes?

Arrogant Bastard was the first, but we’ve tried different methods. We washed Thomasville Tomme curds in Terrapin’s Monk’s Revenge, and that was the most aromatic beer-washed cheese I’ve ever encountered. But, it also dried the cheese out, so it was a bit crumbly. Jeremy and the cheesemakers have also washed Black Swan in Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout and Left Hand’s Milk Stout. Honestly, it can be a tricky practice. Those cheeses were good, but they did not have the same intensity as the Arrogant Bastard wash. That’s why it remains our regular seasonal wash.

Experimenting with other breweries and other washes now is part of what I do at The Larder. I’m always looking for a way to do something special for customers. My goal was to look for a beer wash that would put the cheese on a whole other level. I think we’ve got that with this particular wash. I sampled about eight different Wrecking Bar beers with an unwashed piece of Black Swan to nail down the flavor profile we wanted. I’m glad I did, because the beer I thought would work the best, their Russian Imperial Stout, just overpowered the cheese. At the end of the day, the Smoked Porter won out. It adds elements that I believe make the cheese memorable.

It sounds like Sweet Grass has a pretty great relationship with craft beer. How did that come about?

When our cheese shop opened in downtown Thomasville in 2009, it started with two taps. Now, we have four and are looking plans to expand that number in the near future. In addition to carrying Southern craft beers, we began by introducing customers to great breweries like Founders, Brooklyn, Great Divide, Oskar Blues, Brasserie Dupont, St. Bernardus, Dogfish Head, Anchor, etc. I don’t think anyone thought our craft beer program would grow as quickly as it did, but demand was here. People kept coming back and asking for a beer they had last week or coming in to see what was the new beer we had on draft. It’s gotten to the point where people expect us to have great beer available all the time. We love that!

As for events, it was pretty simple when we started. We thought, “What brewery do we love and how can we get them down here to do something with us?” The answer for was Bell’s. The President/CEO/Founder Larry Bell has ordered our cheese. We’ve had their beer on draft since day one and our staff loves their brews. That was the beginning. Here’s a place that seems to like our cheese and we know we love their beer.

I reached out to Tina Anderson from Bell’s and, unbelievably, they were receptive. Beyond receptive, they were amazing. They sent down Vice President Laura Bell and specialty brewer Zeke Bogan from Michigan for three days of events. The response from the community was phenomenal, and from there we’ve just kept building on that momentum. We’re proud carriers of the craft beer flag in South Georgia, so over the last year and a half we’ve done craft-beer-centric events in Thomasville with Terrapin, Stone, Red Hare, and Founders.

Edward and Morgan from Westbrook were here a few weeks ago. They are amazing people. We hosted a sold out tasting with them on Thursday and a Friday night tap takeover where the place was jam-packed all night. They hung with us the both nights and chatted with people the entire time.

It seems like there are a lot of parallels between craft brewers and cheesemakers.

The parallels are quite striking. In 1985, the first-ever American Cheese Society Competition was held and just 30 cheesemakers entered 89 cheeses. Last year, almost 300 cheesemakers entered nearly 1800 cheeses. That’s quite similar to the craft beer boom. In the late 1980s, there were only about 200 breweries nationwide. Currently, that number is over 2500 and climbing. If you narrow that just to Georgia, when Sweet Grass Dairy started, we were it when it came to artisan cheese. Now, over the last decade, that number has grown to 8-12 handcrafted cheesemakers in Georgia. You can say the same about the explosion of craft breweries in the state over the last 10 years.

That continual growth isn’t just because of us - it’s because people are demanding it. It speaks to people’s desire to purchase for higher quality goods from a local producer. Families not only want to know where their beef is raised, but they also want to know who makes their cheese, who brews their beer, who grows their vegetables, who bakes their bread. Without our customers, we wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful or well-known. It’s them taking the time to ask for our cheese at the local grocery store or specialty shop. That simple, awesome act has driven our growth, and we are beyond grateful.

Do you foresee further local brewery collaborations in the future?

Absolutely. Collaborations are in our DNA at Sweet Grass. It’s just part of what we love to do. We find something that we love and we want to share it with the world. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Here’s one awesome thing, let’s take that, and combine it with another awesome thing. All that means is you end up with a whole lot of awesome to share.