Cheesemonger and former trainhopper Matt Hart and I sat in the sparse, dark confines of Bar Lusconi, a non-descript speakeasy-style joint on East Main Street in Durham. Hart is also a homebrewer, and we shared a Belgian West Coast IPA he recently made. It featured a yeasty backbone and a huge, citrusy hop nose. Prickly with carbonation like a Belgian-style beer, it had a dry Czech hop finish. "This could be an imperial pilsner," I said.
He nodded in agreement.
An art school grad-turned-poster artist Hart learned about specialty food while working at The Pasta Shop when he was attending California College of the Arts. Hart's foray into homebrewing began when he landed a job in the cheese department at Whole Foods after relocating to the Triangle with his wife.
"I learned all about cheese there, " he said. "Whole Foods exposed me to a whole new world of beer. I started to buy better beer but realized I couldn't afford to continue to do that. So I just learned to make it," he explained.
He paused before saying in all seriousness, "I simply couldn't go back to PBR."
That was six years ago.
He sees a similarity between cheese people and beer people. "A lot of people who fall into cheese make art or music. Artists are dreamers, romantics, idealists—they see what sucks but they also see the beauty in things," Hart said.
He opined that cheese, like craft beer, is half about the story. It's about the animals, the farm, the people—how and where it was made, and who made it.
As we chatted he educated me on the cheeses in front of us. They were served with a 750-ml bottle of Buffalo Belgian Stout from Brouwerij Van den Bossche. Scharfe Maxx, Hart explained, is an Alpine cheese from Studer Dairy on the Swiss-German border with a "funky aroma, sharp bite yet nutty with sweet cream flavors."
Also on board was a Sapore del Piave, an Italian cheese that is "robust, hearty and milky and also quite nutty but far less moisture than the Scharfe Maxx." My favorite was the Leonora, a Spanish chevre, which was as, Hart described, a bright and citrusy goat cheese.
Hart confessed that he finds as much excitement in making cheese displays as he does brewing beer. I asked him if he had any desire to take his beer making to the next level; he just shrugged and said, "Why not?"
The beer he'd most like to clone? "French/Belgian farmhouse stuff. I had that 'holy shit' moment with farmhouse ales," he said.
For Stateside examples he cited Maryland's Stillwater Artisanal Ales and California's The Bruery as folks who "get it right."
As for a beer he has never had but would like to try, Hart named a Trappist ale: True Trappist ale can only be brewed by monks in Europe. There are only nine monasteries that brew this style—six in Belgium, two in Netherlands and one in Austria. But Hart doesn't envision traveling there anytime soon. Instead, he would prefer to go on a road trip and sample little beers from local breweries in small towns across the United States.
A former traveler (it was through trainhopping that he discovered the beauty of North Carolina), Hart has now settled down with his wife and three kids. North Carolina was appealing because of its affordability. "NYC, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle all got crossed off the list almost immediately for many of the same reasons we were moving from the San Francisco Bay Area," said Hart.
A vibrant music scene also meant a vibrant poster-making scene. You've probably unknowingly spotted Hart's posters on a kiosk or telephone pole around town. Another factor that was important to them was a queer-friendly culture.
But the last thing Hart expected was to be at ground zero for the birth of our area's craft beer scene. And that couldn't make this cheesemonger happier.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hops and curds."