I DON'T KNOW if it was exactly an epiphany. But I did feel all grown up late last Thursday afternoon, staring out at stormy San Francisco Bay from the Hog Island Oyster Bar inside the Ferry Plaza Building.

I was balancing a plate filled with Hog Island Sweetwater and tiny Kumamoto oysters and Cowgirl Creamery cheeses in one hand. In the other hand, I had a succession of small glasses of the best beers from North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg.

Whew, what a night.

Mark Ruedrich, head brewer/co-owner of North Coast, chose the cheese and beer pairings at the Hog Island tasting, which was arranged by North Coast for buyers from Whole Foods Markets. North Coast makes a number of Belgian-style beers exclusively for Whole Foods. So the tasting was a mix of Whole Foods brand and North Coast beers and Hog Island kept the oysters, grown on their farm on Tomales Bay, coming.

Ahh, the pairings. Mark knows his cheese and his beer. One of the best was the first, Blue Star Wheat with Bellweather Farm Crecenza. Blue Star is a crisp, lemony wheat with a dry, tart finish. Bellwether Farm Crecenza is a whey or "ricotta" cheese; it's soft and creamy with a pleasing tart note that merged perfectly with Blue Star. I will try this again at home soon.

Mark paired his Whole Foods Cru D'Or Organic Belgian-Style Ale with Cowgirl Creamery's Mt Tam, a triple cream made with organic milk from Straus Family Dairy. The dark, earthy, mushroom flavors in the cheese were a perfect match for the ale, which has an interesting yeasty note.


Advertisement

Best of show had to be the 2005 and 2000 Old Stock Ales with Montgomery's Farmhouse Cheddar, a nutty, moist cheddar from an artisan cheesemaker in Somerset, England.

The second-best cheese was Colston-Bassett Stilton, an amazing blue cheese with a delicious, aromatic tang. It's one of England's most famous cheeses.

Old Stock's a tremendous, 10 percent alcohol beauty that improves dramatically with aging. The 2005 still had a dry finish, but retained some sweetness and hop flavor. The 2000 poured like a fine port, just a tiny bit of foam: The hop and malt flavors had blended. It tasted like a fine aperitif and with the oysters, the power-cheeses and the view of the icy bay, it felt a bit like heaven.

After the North Coast tasting at Hog Island, I joined Vic Kralj, proprietor of the Bistro in Hayward and an English friend, for a stroll along the Embarcadero over to the 21st Amendment Brewery at 563 Second St. We sampled three of co-owner and brewer Shaun O'Sullivan's strong beers including his prize-winning Double Trouble, a beer worth a long walk on a cold day. The first time I tasted it was the previous Saturday, at the sixth annual Double India Pale Ale Festival at the Bistro, 1001 B St., in Hayward. Winners chosen from 50 entries by a panel of professional judges were:

- Gold: White Knuckle Ale, an 8.2 percent alcohol by volume, 80 IBU (International Bitterness Units, a Bud has 13 IBU) from Marin Brewing, Larkspur, head brewer Arne Johnson. It will be on tap again at Marin in late March.

- Silver: The Hop 15, Pizza Port, Solano Beach, head brewer Tomme Arthur. It was a whopping 10.5 percent ABV and 100-plus IBU. You'll have to go south to Pizza Port to try this one.

- Bronze: Double Trouble, from 21st Amendment, head brewer Shaun O'Sullivan. It's still on tap this week at the pub. A big beer with an explosive aroma, malt, hops and alcohol notes artfully intertwined.

- People's Choice Award: Pliny the Elder, a magnificent 8 percent, 100 IBU ale from Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa. Head brewer and co-owner is Vinnie Cilurzo. You can try that one at the pub, 725 4th St., in downtown Santa Rosa. It's often on tap at pubs around the Bay Area that have good beer lists. Vinnie has plans to bottle it soon.

-Calendar: With strong beer month fading, the next Bay Area event is the third annual Bay Area Firkin Gravity Festival, April 1 at Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse in Berkeley. This one's expected to draw 20 or more craft ales, each on a handpump in the old-fashioned (and proper) English style. Cost: $20. E-mail info@triplerock.com for more information. 

-Want to know more about beer and cheese pairing? The night before our North Coast tasting we toasted the night away at a beer and cheese pairing at Rogue Ales Public House, 673 Union St. in San Francisco's North Beach. For that tasting, and a complete list of the North Coast pairings, check our blogs: http://www.beernewsletter.com and http://www.insidebayarea.com/beerblog.

Beer ratings are based on a star system. — world classic; — outstanding; — excellent; — good; — average.

William Brand publishes What's On Tap, a consumer craft beer and hard cider newsletter. His column runs every other week. Write him at whatsontap@sbcglobal.net or call (510) 915-1180.