It’s 4pm at the Buzz Wine Beer Shop in downtown Los Angeles. Certified Cheese Professional (yes that’s a thing) and owner of Vagabond Cheese Alex Ourieff has literally been cutting the cheese – 30 to 40 times if I’m not mistaken, right in front of me. My nose is on olfactory overload (from the cheese, not Alex), my tongue is coated with a mix of hops and rind, and my stomach is immensely happy yet totally confused by its contents. For the last three hours I’ve been taking bites of cheese and taking sips of beer. Bites of cheese, sips of beer. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
After the marathon I just endured, tasting what seemed like insurmountable number of cheeses to pair with a tasting flight of five dank IPAs, I needed a nap. Ourieff, on the other hand, walked around as gleefully as when he walked in, packing up his arsenal of cheeses into a large cooler with a pep still in his step, happy with the selections we’ve made – another cheese pairing set in the books. And he’s headed to conduct another pairing at a brewery down the road.
Ourieff is quickly becoming the cheese baron of the Los Angeles beer community. His company, Vagabond Cheese, has worked closely with a string of breweries throughout the LA area to provide an elevated experience to participants – offering a five-course cheese pairing to accompany beer flights. He’s a regular at El Segundo, MacLeod, Phantom Carriage, Smog City, King Harbor, Angel City, and the list goes on. Vagabond doesn’t have a brick and mortar shop yet, which has led Ourieff to take his love of beer and cheese pairings directly to breweries. Ourieff will show up to a brewery a week or so in advance of an event to create the perfect pairing for the predetermined flight (hence the three hour cheese binge), and on the day of is present to sell and explain pairings to customers for about $15. “The thing that excites me is talking to people,” says Ourieff. “Create that shared experience of trying something incredible for the first time, that’s what it should be about.”
Ourieff talks about cheese like the best cicerones discuss beer; he knows more about cheese than I thought was possible, and is engaged not only in knowing his flavors but also his boutique cheese makers. Presenting a cheese list you won’t find through any other purveyor, Vagabond Cheese sources its dairy from across the world, having longtime partners stash requested cheeses one wheel at a time onto larger pallets from the East Coast or Europe. Thanks to the connections and experience of Ourieff’s past endeavors, he’s able to snag rarities you won’t find anywhere else. He’s worked at the Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City, as a purchasing manager for Gourmet Imports, and eventually as a buyer at Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco’s Ferry Building; all before deciding to open up his own business here in Los Angeles in 2014.
His unpretentious attitude invites you to push your palatable limits and expand your own knowledge about cheese. “If I can get to customers through the pairings of two things I really love equally,” says Ourieff, “maybe I can expose a lot of people to artisanal cheese that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.” This approach of engagement and fostering exploration, so often found in the beer community as well, has seemed to create a unique and highly hospitable business model for Vagabond Cheese. “Going to breweries and farmers markets is about getting to the people who aren’t already buyers of artisanal cheeses,” he explains. “How do we create experiences for customers that is inspiring, or inspires them to support the small producers that are out there?”
So what makes a great beer and cheese pairing? Ourieff is quick to point out that the basic rules can only take you so far. “Sure there are basic guidelines,” he says, “but if you want stellar pairings, you have to taste things together… if you stumble on something that blows your mind its by accident with the guidelines.” But let’s start at the basic principles of pairings. According to Ourieff, “hops tend to balance well with acidity in cheese. Any cheese that’s sharp will go well with hoppy beer.” When it comes to darker beers, Ourieff explains that, “a standard pairing for dark, malty, roasty beers like porters and stouts would be to go with blue cheese – but my preference is to go with cheeses that have a creamy mouth feel… anything that coats your palate well can go well with those darker beers.”
If you already have some fine cheese available, maybe reach into that bottle collection you’ve been hording and do some experimenting. “Some of the more interesting barrel aged and wild beers in the saison category are great for cheese pairings,” says Ourieff. “There are a lot of similar chemicals that you’ll find between cheese and beer. The phenols you get in beer (spicy, earthy, barnyard) you get similarly in character with Alpine cheeses.”
Do yourself a favor and head to one of these pairings yourself for a chance to see the Certified Cheese Pro in action. Offered at a Los Angeles brewery or beer bar near you, Vagabond Cheese’s stops are wide spread enough to be in your area in the coming week or so. I went back to downtown’s Buzz Wine Beer Shop to see the Dank IPA pairing in action, and to get some feedback from customers. According to fan Jet Doye, the experience of pairing five beers with five cheeses is totally worth it. “I’m not a beer drinker, but I was excited to come because the pairings are so good, and I thought I might learn something… Instead of saying I don’t like beer I can say ‘Oh I like that one.’” This being her third pairing, Doye added, “I lie to my trainer about how much cheese I get from Alex.”
At the end of the day, it seems that Vagabond Cheese is on a mission to push our sensory preceptors to new boundaries in pursuit of shared experiences. “Ultimately what we’re about as a company is bringing cheese to people that don’t always have the opportunity to try them, and finding cheeses that are exceptional,” says Ourieff. “If food is anything but a vehicle to create a community then you’re not doing it right.”
Visit VagabondCheese.com for event details and more information.