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Need to Add Food to Your Bar Menu? Pair Spirits and Cocktails with Cheese

Image by Дмитрий Дмитрий from Pixabay

Today, Bar Convent Brooklyn featured a spirits and cheese pairing webinar loaded with useful information for bar operators struggling with reduced traffic and facing shutdowns.

Serving cheeses alongside spirits and cocktails not only offers many guests a new experience, it can help bars avoid being forced to close their doors by government officials. As bar owners and bar teams are well aware, their restaurant counterparts have been allowed to remain open (with shifting restrictions over the past several months) while they’ve endured closures.

State and local lawmakers across the country have decided that foodservice establishments may remain open while shutting down businesses that derive most of their revenue from alcohol sales. Governing bodies have different definitions for bars and restaurants, so making food a part of everyday operations may give bars a viable way to pivot in regards to COVID-19-based shutdowns. As always, operators must stay up to date with state and local laws to remain in compliance.

BCB paired Adam Levy, founder of the New York International Spirits Competition, with Cara Warren, a venerated cheesemonger. Levy is also the “dean” at the Alcohol Professor and Cheese Professor. Warren has a podcast produced for the Heritage Radio Network called Cutting the Curd.

Putting cheeses on the menu has benefits beyond compliance. Not only do cheeses have the potential to help keep a bar’s doors open in these incredibly trying times, they offer operators an additional revenue stream while offering guests a new and fun experience. They don’t take up a ton of valuable inventory space and tend to have longer shelf lives than other food items. Also, people love posting images of cheese boards to social media. Seriously—#cheeseboard has over 800,000 posts on Instagram.

Cheese boards the author enjoyed with industry friends at Bacchanal in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail 2019. Image: Jessica Deibel

For operators who are new to cheese, finding a dependable (and affordable) cheese source may feel intimidating. Warren says the first step to adding cheeses to an operation is similar to finding liquor sources: Find the best distributors and reps in the area and “become their best friend.” She adds that many cheese producers—much like farmers—are happy to work directly with bars. Warren says that cheese orders can cost a few hundred dollars. If an operator is able to find the cheeses they want to put on their menus through a distributor from which they order ingredients for cocktails, that may help reduce order costs a bit.

Some French cheeses are protected by an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). However, doesn’t mean preclude American producers are from crafting their own versions of well-known cheeses. That freedom doesn’t require cheddar to be made in a particular state, city or county in the United States, for instance. Further, that means bar owners can research local cheesemakers (or “fromagers” if you want to be fancy and French about it) and try to forge beneficial relationships. Many guests are interested in supporting local producers—particularly these days—making it a consumer trend worth pursuing.

The research doesn’t stop there, of course. Adding cheese to an operation isn’t the quickest process when done right, according to Warren. An operator will have to do research to find sources, research to select cheeses, and research to identify how spirits—and specific bottles—pair with the cheeses chosen for the menu. Warren maintains spreadsheets and ranks specific pairings on a scale of one to five.

Team members will also need to be educated on the selected cheeses, like they should be on every menu item. Warren suggests that it can be easier when adding cheeses to a menu to offer pre-selected cheese boards. While guests enjoy customizing just about every aspect of their experience, allowing them to build their own boards may put additional strain on staff. However, an operator should know how strong their team is—if they’re up to the challenge, build-your-own boards could be a big hit.

A crucial element to adding cheeses to any operation is understanding costs. If an operator goes down this avenue blind, build-your-own boards—and cheeses in general—can be a disaster. Warren pulls no punches when sharing best strategies for putting cheese on menus: build the cost of cheeses and their accompaniments into the price of the cheese boards.

Bar operators must consider every cost associated with cheeses. There’s the cheese itself, of course, and then:

  • Cheese boards
  • Plates or bowls for crackers, flatbreads or other breads if they’ll be served separately from the cheese board
  • Vessels for olives and other food items
  • Honeycombs and/or honeys
  • Cheeseware, such as knives
  • Picks with flags to identify different cheeses on the cheese board

If it’s going to be part of the cheese board in any way, it needs to be costed and passed onto the guest. When choosing the cheese boards themselves, Warren likes black slate but adds the caveat that they chip rather easily. Plain white dishes always work, of course. Wood boards are rustic, and there’s an added bonus: An operator who’s skilled at woodwork can make their own to control costs, or commission a craftsperson they know to make boards.

Along with material and cost, size must be a consideration. Operators should play with their presentations to get a feel for the size they’ll need. Warren says 1.0 to 1.5 oz. of each cheese should be sufficient, so that’s a good starting point when considering size. It’s important to avoid cluttering the board and making it difficult for guests to navigate. Another thing to keep in mind is that cheeses can cross-contaminate one another in terms of color, flavors and aromas. Boards should be large enough to keep cheeses from touching one another, have space for additional items (crackers, honeycombs, small vessels, etc.), and not be unwieldy or difficult for guests to handle.

One trick Warren shared to make smaller cheese boards seem more loaded up, therefore adding to the perception of value for price, is height. Adding taller crackers or placing crackers or flatbreads vertically can make a board seem fuller.

Cheese should be served at room temperature, according to Warren. Serving it cold can lessen the impact of a cheese’s flavor, so she recommends storing cheeses on dishes, protected by lids. It can take 40 to 60 minutes for a cold cheese to come to room temperature, so operators should keep that in mind. Cheeses should be rotated between those that will be served that day and those that will be stored for the following day. While they tend to have long shelf lives, cheeses that seem like they’re reaching the end of theirs can be repurposed. Again, cheeses can cross-contaminate one another, so store them in groups.

During the webinar, Warren suggested that bar operators plan to break even with cheeses and make money on the alcohol, aiming for a price point between $22 and $24 for three to five cheeses. At around $30, she says, guests may become skittish. Like wine, many guests are intimidated by cheeses and likely won’t be open to spending $30 or more on a cheese board.

When it comes to tasting cheeses and spirits or cocktails, Warren recommends the “tasting sandwich” approach: take a sip, take a bite, and take another sip. Operators will need to research—preferably with their bar teams and servers—to build their cheese boards. Warren suggests theming them around terroir or local spirits paired with local cheeses to make them even more appealing to guests. Starting out, she recommends focusing on three cheese styles—semi-soft, blue, and washed-rind are just three examples—and choosing two cheeses for each.

For this BCB tasting webinar, Levy selected Cutwater Vodka, Roku Gin, Bacardí Gran Reserva Diez rum, Cierto Reposado tequila, and Buchanan 12 Year Deluxe Scotch. Below are the cheese categories that Warren selected, listed by spirit:

  • Vodka: Smoked cheese, washed rind cheese, or gouda. Levy recommends a Vodka Martini as the cocktail pairing, adding that many vodka cocktails work with cheese pairings.
  • Gin: Aged sheep’s milk cheese or French brie. Levy also likes Caorunn Gin and Barr Hill Tom Cat Barrel Aged Gin for this pairing. Warren says operators should invest in a brie that costs $12-14 per pound. When choosing a brie, double cream versions contain 60-75 percent butter fat and triple cream versions contain more than 75 percent butter fat. Triple cream brie also pairs very well with Champagne and other fizzy drinks.
  • Rum: Aged Cheddar or Mimolette. Warren felt the notes of the Bacardí were closer to calvados than a rum, so she selected Mimolette to play well with those notes. Sweeter drinks and cocktails with apple notes or made with bourbon also play well with Mimolette, also known as Boule de Lille in France. A good retail price for quality brie is $25-32 per pound, which means wholesale pricing should be much more attractive to operators.
  • Tequila: Fresh goat cheese. Levy paired his cheese with Herradura while Warren stuck with the Cierto. She chose a washed-rind goat cheese to complement the smokiness and spice of the tequila.
  • Whiskey: Blue cheese. “There’s a blue for everyone,” says Warren, addressing how many people are “afraid” of blue cheese. Much like narrowing down a wine, cocktail or beer order, staff should talk guests who are reluctant to eat a blue cheese through their flavor and texture preferences. This is where research and staff training really come into play. When selecting blues, Warren suggests cheeses cut from wheels as they tend to have the best flavor profiles and appearance; a quality blue should look fresh and not gooey. Brown liquors work well with blue cheeses, and Levy recommended pairing them with Lagavulin and Forty Creek Canadian whisky.

The ability to adapt, to pivot in order to survive and thrive, has always been a characteristic of hospitality industry operators. Adding cheeses to the menu can help bar operators stay open (as long as state and local officials agree) and generate more revenue (as long as operators are cognizant of cost).

To learn more, visit the Cheese Professor, subscribe to the Cutting the Curd podcast, and follow Adam Levy and Cara Warren on social media. For more from Bar Convent Brooklyn, click here.

David Klemt View All

I’ve been studying and writing about the hospitality industry since 2006. Like so many people, I started my journey in this business by working as a host, server and bartender. I was introduced to nightlife in Chicago, learning the ins and outs of nightclubs and after-hours hot spots.

After moving to Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago, I both co-owned a valet company and helped promote the club it serviced. That led to me taking on the role of editor for a Las Vegas hospitality industry publication.

A few short years later, I continued along my journey of hospitality industry reporting. I went from contributing to a major industry outlet to taking on the role of editor and content curator.

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