A couple months ago I came across a blog post that featured Cougar Gold, a Northwestern Cheddar with a very distinct package—a 30 oz. can.  Cougar Gold is the flagship of a cheese line produced by the Washington State University Creamery.  Unless you are in the dairy biz, or have spent a lot of time on the campus of WSU, or Penn State, or the University of Wisconsin, you might have never heard of university creameries. There are eight or 10 of them across the country, and they teach dairy food science,  facilitate industry research, and make stuff—mostly ice cream.

WSU started making cheese in a can back in the late 1930s, thanks to a federal government initiative.

“They wanted to provide cheese to the troops in a durable package,” says creamery mgr. Russ Salvaldalena. “Plastic packaging wasn’t being used yet and wax packaging tended to break. “

WSU researchers developed a process to overcome some technical hurdles, and real cheese in a can was invented.  With its integral connection to University, Cougar Gold and its canned cousins became popular with anyone associated with the University and its community of Pullman, Wash.

When I encountered Cougar Gold a little light bulb went on:  The aluminum can is becoming the package of choice (great flavor protection, low carbon footprint, potential for lovely graphics, okay to take camping, etc.) for craft brewers, so somebody just had to do a pairing of canned cheese and canned beer!  Of course that someone would be Cheese and Cheers. WSU was kind enough to send a sample my way.

So, a week ago Saturday I took a can of Cougar Gold, along with some Ska ESB and Half Acre Daisy Cutter, to the Chicago Beer Society Big Brew event in Randy Mosher and Nancy Cline’s back yard. There were many other canned beers in attendance (and even a canned Jamaican soft drink named Irish Moss), and while some of those made it into the photos, and were even tasted with the cheese, I limited the analytical pairing notes to the two beers from Ska Brewing and from Half Acre.

First the cheese: The WSU cheese cans are attractively decorated with stripes and the creamery’s logo–the letters WSC shaped like the head of a cougar. The can is about three times the size of a big can of tuna. Lots of info on the label. After borrowing a manual can opener from the Mosher-Cline kitchen, I was able to open the can in one go. The cheese looks like any other white Cheddar, with a uniform pale ivory color and some visible crystals. The aroma is very mild with a fresh milk characteristic. The paste was dense but crumbly as I broke it apart. There is just a tiny bit of moisture separation.  The photo of the open can shows some cracker fragments from an over enthusiastic pal of mine trying to dig in.  Best strategy is to chunk the cheese with a knife. No crackers needed (it’s quite firm), but some crusty bread and fruit preserves would be great.

The chunks had an elastic texture on the tongue, but melted eventually.  The flavor was clean, but with pronounced sweet milk and sweet fruit notes, and a clean finish.  Overall, it’s a decent American aged cheddar similar to those made in Wisconsin, Vermont or Tillamook, Ore., and aged in plastic wrapped blocks.  Cans are aged for at least a year before they are sold, and mine was about 15 months old when UPS delivered it.  Customers can continue to age them at home (in the pantry, even) for many years. Salvaldalena said the university opened one last year that was something like 23 years old.

The beers: Ska Brewing Co., Durango, Colo., makes a full line of bottled and can beers, and plays Ska music on its website. The ESB we tasted had a clean malty nose, a light to medium body. The flavor was all about the malt, with just enough hops for balance, and for a bitter finish.  Half Acre Beer Co. is one of Chicago’s sophomore craft brewers, selling several beers in cans, kegs and growlers, primarily to the Chicago area market.  Daisy Cutter is a hop-forward American pale that’s a big hit with Half-Acre’s local audience. The can we tasted had a big floral-perfumy aroma, and a light body. The flavor is strongly bitter with some JuicyFruit, and the beer finishes dry.  Both of these beers went really well with this cheese, but they each did their own thing.

ESB and Cougar Gold: The ESB and cheddar combination put the spotlight on the beer. The malty/bitter flavors come forward and the cheese became little more than a sounding board.  It would have been nicer to have the cheese come out and played with the beer, but it was still a pleasant pair. I’d have to give it a 3.5 out of five stars.

Daisy Cutter and Cougar Gold: The aggressively hopped Daisy Cutter had the opposite affect of the ESB—it lifted the cheese and brought it’s sweet cream and sweet fruit flavors to the forefront. The hop flavor mingled a bit and the bitterness provided a longer finish than the cheese had on its own. This might have been a bit more interesting, so I could be persuaded to give the Daisy-Cougar combo a four out of five.

So, canned beer and canned cheese can make for a nice pairing. While you are likely to see more and more canned craft beer at the liquor store, I don’t think there is a groundswell of demand for canned cheese. Aside from that aerosol can, cheese-whiz type stuff (I’ll gladly leave that to someone more interested than I am in bad food kitsch), good cheese is best cut from the wheel and wrapped in parchment, or plastic wrap. If you do encounter other examples of real cheese in a can, please let us know.  

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