What’s the Difference Between Working in Cheese and Working in Beer

So what’s the difference between working in cheese and working in beer?

I get that question about once a week from my regulars at the store, and my answer depends on how much time I think they have.  If they are in a hurry, then I’ll hit ‘em with a quip “beer doesn’t get moldy” or something like that.  If they have some time, then I’ll give them a longer answer and it’s drawn from the below.

Evil Twin

A beer that pairs well with really strong cheese

First, here’s some background.  About two years ago, I shifted from cheese into a position where I dealt mostly with the craft beer program at the store.  The primary motive was financial.  After nearly 30 years of working in cheese and significant notoriety from the NY Times, NY Magazine and Wine Spectator, I was looking for work and most of my cheese contacts told me to go get work that paid somewhere around $15 an hour.  They weren’t being mean (well maybe one guy….), but rather that’s the artisanal cheese economy in NYC (there’s a discussion for another time about whether the business model is broken).  My potential employers readily acknowledged that my purchasing and marketing skills could probably increase sales by 2K a week; it didn’t matter, that was the going rate.  I figured it was time to get going and see what the world of craft beer was like.  I’d put together a nice small program where I worked from 2011-2014, at Westside Market’s East Village location I’d have a chance to apply my philosophies to a large outfit.

Here’s what’s similar in selling both products.  In each case you’re talking with customers who are aware of somewhat better product (in cheese the general public is familiar with fromage like Humboldt Fog and Cave Aged Gruyere and in beer the parallel is anything brewed by Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada) and introducing them to what’s on the higher end, say cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy or the Cellars at Jasper Hill or beer brewed by Pipeworks or Stillwater.

In general the clientele welcome this counsel.  There’s a LOT of really great cheese and EVEN MORE really great beer on the market today.  It’s easy to get intimidated by sheer volume of deliciousness that is available.  The initial challenge was to give people more than a product; I wanted to give them a road map into case, so that the next time, they’d have clearer agenda.  That meant introducing an IPA lover to a brewery that does several really good ones and if they weren’t an IPA lover then my first tack was to get them on board with saisons.  With cheese lovers the game was to get them familiar with certain affineurs.  Even in a big pre cut and wrapped cheese case like ours there are cheeses from leading European affineurs like Rolf Beeler, Caroline Hostettler and NYD.

From there, however, things diverge.  Beer customers are much clearer on the connection between agriculture and flavor.  People seem to have little trouble grasping that beer made from oh say, Citra hops, will be much fruitier than beer made from Chinook hops.  OTOH, talk to people about cheese and bring up grass from different seasons or different breeds of cows and I see their eyes glaze over and a thought bubble over their head might read “ya know, Jarlsberg isn’t so bad.”

That situation is indicative of another key difference.  People are better at grasping the outline in beer than they are in cheese.  In beer you start with the style of beer, IPA, lager, stout, etc.  The next step is the producer and then the ingredients.  A parallel inquiry could be made into cheese but the general public is far less aware of how cheese is made much less how to parse the differences between cheeses.

Some of that may owe to the fact that every major American city has several breweries these days and many, if not most, give tours.  Dairy farms don’t typically exist in cities, so a tour involves a road trip, and there usually aren’t drink tickets in a tap room at the end.

One thing that cheese has all over beer is in the reputation of the experts.  Cheese experts like Max McCalman, Tia Keenan and others are known for being enthusiastic and articulate.  While Garrett Oliver, the public face of craft beer in New York is also enthusiastic and articulate, that reputation doesn’t filter down to the front lines.  The stereotype of a knowledgeable beer professional is of a hops snob eager to stare down their nose at you for not knowing the latest unfiltered IPA.  I see that all the time when people ask me on the beer aisle where the Corona is.  I don’t roll my eyes.  They aren’t buying it for me.  If a six pack of Corona makes their life a little happier, I’m fine with that.  Yet, that customer will grab their beer and scurry off the aisle as if they are avoiding a withering gaze.

I graduated high school 38 years ago, long enough to have a pretty good handle on the idea that life isn’t high school even if there are often striking resemblances.  The “cool kids” act of some beer geeks isn’t helpful.  Fortunately the beer information pipeline dwarves the one in the cheese world, and many craft beer consumers get their information that way and avoid snobs.

Whether I was running a beer department or a cheese department, my goal is create community.  I work in New York City; there are dozens of places to buy even the most rarified product.  If that customer feels an attachment to our place, it gives us a competitive advantage.  That community has been easier to build and maintain in beer.  First off there’s Instagram and second both my boss and I enjoy chatting with regular customers about beer.  Essentially, we’re succeeding in making an impersonal space, an aisle with more than 400 varieties of often crazily packaged beer, into a convivial area.

Do I miss cheese?   Sure, I miss Winnimere.  I miss Rush Creek Reserve.  I miss coming on to the counter on a Saturday afternoon and getting six different picks of the week from my fellow mongers.  OTOH, in 30 plus years of working in cheese, rarely did a customer bring me some.  It happens every week on the beer aisle.  It’s even better than drink tickets at a brewery tour.

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The Do Over 03: Class Matters

The Do Over 03: Class Matters

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

When I was growing up, there were railroad tracks in the neighborhood, but the real class divider was the busiest east-west thoroughfare. I lived in Kenwood on the South Side of Chicago and south of 47th St. the area resembled Hyde Park, which was best known for the University of Chicago and its immediate vicinity.  North of 47th St. Kenwood was, well, let’s say it was a little rougher and tougher.

In our household, we were more than a little bit proud of our middle class status.  We’d moved on up—down to 48th St. from Lake Meadows to be precise–a solid decade before the Jeffersons ascended the same class ladder to the Upper East Side.  We made it clear to all visitors that we got there the right way: hard work, book smarts and savvy.  Anyone suggesting otherwise was cruising for a bruising.  It was usually but not always implicit that that savvy and those smarts were what separated us from the folks north of 47th St.

That familial pride in our um, stature moved with us to Dallas when my Dad’s job shifted headquarters there in 1974, and looking back, it was interesting to see how we clung to it even after the company went under a couple of years later.  Our brands didn’t change; it was pretty much business as usual with one income instead of two.   We weren’t the vacationing type, so that didn’t come into play.  I still wonder if the brands were less nostalgic than aspirational.   It didn’t matter.  My father found a far better, more lucrative new job about a year later.


Layla was the soundtrack to this essay as I’ve listened to this record enthusiastically at most points in my life.

When I was 26, after four years in New York City as a student then four more as a struggling bohemian, I began to find my middle class footing.  Rent ceased to be a chronic worry; NYC’s burgeoning food scene became a hobby both via restaurants and shopping, and since part of my income derived from work as a cheesemonger, fine food was also a professional as well as a class emblem.  When I was 27 I hosted Thanksgiving dinner in which I roasted a free range bird from a top butcher and then once it was done I roasted Kona coffee beans and ground them for the java to serve with dessert.

My income was often fitful but it ticked slightly upward through my 30s, crashing with a big thud after the dotcoms did the same.  In the fifteen years since then, I’ve battled and battled, scrambled and scrambled and as I take a moment to look back, I think I’ve done the same thing my parents did in the mid ‘70s.  I clung to emblems of a middle class lifestyle even if my income didn’t always justify it.   I work in the food biz so there are numerous stores where I receive a little discount.  I definitely should have frozen my gym membership at times, but it was a major aspirational emblem.  My brightest moments of self-identification came through the dance, cardio and yoga classes I’d taken, so even when I was walking around on a cane, the idea that a return to such endeavors was right around the corner was important to me.

The big place where I see my refusal to admit the realities of my income situation is in assistance.  2001, 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2011 feel so heroic in retrospect for my ability to bite the bullet, but they would have been much easier to manage with a little help from SNAP.  Currently, ACA offers assistance that I’ve not looked into either.  To do either would have made me feel like I was denying the savvy and book smarts that are just as much a core value as my workaholism.  It would have placed me on the wrong side of 47th St.  Also, I’m a New Yorker to the core:  I’m gonna hit it big tomorrow, just you watch.  I’ve probably felt that way since the plane landed at Newark Airport in August 1978.

Still, the larger meaning is that I fell prey to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has poignantly called the dangers of the single story.   Each destination and moment has many routes to it and many routes out as well.  That results in many implications and future prospects.  My tendency to narrow it to one was an aspect of being 56 (or 54 or 52 even) and acting like I was 26.

When I was 26, I was a tennis player or a boxer or a marathon runner, a solo athlete on a solitary quest.  Now, even though I live alone in a small apartment, I’m more of a quarterback or a pitcher or a point guard, reliant on a team around me.   For instance, no quarterback succeeds without a solid offensive line and sure handed receivers.  I have come to realize how my life similarly interdependent and that as such class is malleable.  It’s helped me realize that sometimes you need emblems to fortify aspirational identification and that all the time you need teammates.  It makes tracks much more figurative much less of an absolute.


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At The Root on What it Was Like to Work in the Obama White House

As cool to research and write as it sounds.  I could have interviewed these cats all day long. The cutting room floor is another article in itself.


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At WSJ on the new Mehldau/Redman duet recording


‘Nearness’ by Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman Review: Jazz Standards for a Modern Age

The new recording by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman defines what jazz sounds like today.

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau. ENLARGE
Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau. Photo: Michael Wilson

In the mid-20th century, jazz went through several seismic shifts: the emergence of bebop in the ’40s, the arrival of free jazz in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the synthesis that became known as fusion in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Since then there have been no structural shifts of comparable magnitude, which makes it hard to devise a shorthand label comparable to grunge in rock, minimalism in classical music or gangsta rap in hip hop. Yet jazz musicians continue to produce compelling music, even if it defies easy description.

“Nearness,” the new duet recording by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman, is a fine case in point. Few records released this year better define what jazz sounds like today, even if there isn’t a hip noun to describe it. The recording is a collection of live performances from their 2011 European tour, and it features three originals and three standards. The standards— Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” and “The Nearness of You,” which was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington—are the highlights; the duo present amalgams of the trends that define post-millennial jazz.

“Ornithology” begins with the familiar cascade of swinging eighth notes, but almost immediately there are tempo shifts and rapid mood changes. Mr. Mehldau’s counterpoint to Mr. Redman’s lead ranges from stern contrast to gentle complement. The rapid shifts are indicative of an age where information is received in 140-character bursts. First Mr. Redman and then Mr. Mehldau uses his solo to probe and abstract the familiar theme. With the exception of a brilliant reworking by piano great Bill Evans, “Ornithology” usually is faithfully covered, but Messrs. Mehldau and Redman manage to stay true to the composition’s spirit while taking it into new realms.

“In Walked Bud” slows after the first thematic statement, and for a minute the two musicians alter the notes. It is as if another Monk classic, “Bright Mississippi,” is edging into the picture, almost as if it were an electronically generated sample but done with acoustic instruments. Without abandoning the structure and melody, they take the piece far afield. Then both musicians solo, concluding the piece with an improvised duet that accents the myriad possibilities in the tune.

“The Nearness of You” is slowed to a glacial pace, even slower than Frank Sinatra’s definitive version and the extraordinary rendition by Bill Charlap 14 years ago. The pianist and saxophonist nearly turn the Carmichael/Washington ballad into a quiet meditation from a murmured entreaty and expression of longing, their solos more ruminative than extroverted. It’s at a tempo not often found in mainstream jazz but commonplace in trip hop and dance music not driven by the beat. The highlight comes at the end when Mr. Redman takes an unaccompanied solo that returns longing to the center of the song.

These standards offer valuable opportunities for comparative listening, but there is plenty to enjoy in the original works on the disc as well. They feature stellar, intuitive interplay between the musicians. It’s a likely product of their being on tour for several weeks with this repertoire. Most notable is their ability to blend traditions from across decades. Mr. Mehldaus’s “Old West” and Mr. Redman’s “Melancholy Mood” feature the serene, pastoral themes that became popular during the ECM recordings of the ’70s and ’80s, but each musician takes thorny solos, more characteristic of free jazz. This merger of styles did not become commonplace until this century.

Mr. Mehldau is 46 years old and Mr. Redman a year older. Both have been prominent figures on the New York jazz scene since the early ’90s, when Mr. Redman was the bright young star following his triumph in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Mr. Mehldau was the pianist in his band on tours then and earned considerable acclaim. Mr. Redman’s recordings deftly moved from traditional jazz to fusions with funk and hip hop. On his recordings, Mr. Mehldau became well known for taking ’90s rock classics and making them into natural parts of the jazz fabric. “Nearness” is an impressive work that showcases two active minds smartly updating classics. Now, if only they’d devise a buzzword for their style.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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After the attacks, residents of lower Manhattan (maybe everyone, but I live in the East Village) started taking inventory.  Not of our figurative stockrooms but of our friends and acquaintances.  How could you not?  It seemed like every business in the neighborhood had flyers seeking information on someone who was missing.  There were vigils outside of Beth Israel and St. Vincent hospitals.    I found out the night of the attacks, Mike, the guy I usually talked NFL with on Sunday nights, was a firefighter….and missing.   So yeah, I took attendance of familiar faces everywhere I went, shopping, retail work, and fitness classes.  I was a regular in a Monday night led ashtanga yoga class at my gym.  It was a full class with a devoted student body for this rigorous practice, and the teacher Ghretta Hynd, was masterful.  About three weeks after the attacks, there was one guy missing amongst the regulars, and we had collectively begin to worry; he worked for Aon or Cantor Fitzgerald or some business located at the top of WTC.  Then on the fourth Monday after 9/11 just as the class was getting rolling, we were into our second or third sun salutation, the door opened and he walked in.  40 people came out of downward facing dog and stared in happy recognition.  A wave of applause spread across the room.  He smiled said he was on vacation when it happened and had been busy going to funerals since.  Ashtanga is no joke and the yoginis were known in the gym as this stern faced, barefoot brigade.  We all did our practice that night with smiles on our faces.

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Dear White People…

Dear White People,

I’m almost 56 and half years old or to put it another way I’ve been on the planet for 677 months or 2934 weeks.  And for each and every unit of those times, I’ve been Black or African American or in my early days, Negro.  My expertise in what that means is thorough; it is based on both substantial study and abundant life experience.  In other words, there isn’t a single opinion or insight on this matter that I need to have explained to me by you.

So when we’re discussing something I’m working on or considering that involves African Americans who might not have a role on The Wire, don’t tell me “oh no, no one will understand it, it’s not really Black,”  which is of course, what a restaurant owner had the temerity to do this week.  When I mentioned that he might think more along the lines of the characters found on Black-ish or Scandal, he just rolled his eyes and said “oh, I don’t know what those are, I guess I’m so out of it.”  And he charged off to another corner of the restaurant.

I, probably like every other African American if not Afro-diasporic person, am accustomed to being Whitesplained on numerous matters.  At my job on the beer aisle of a fancy grocery store, White people tell me all the time  things such as all American microbrewed beers contains sulfites or Budweiser has bought Sam Adams but I didn’t recognize the news because it was presented as InBev buying the Boston Beer Company.  When I was a cheesemonger white people would often tell me that none of my beloved American cheeses were made from raw milk.  When I’d cite chapter and verse of the FDA policy on the matter they’d give me a condescending look and suggest that I get my employer to send me to Europe where I could eat real cheese.  I get Whitesplained about jazz and sports too.  In all of these cases, I typically tilt my head to let the BS go out the other ear, so I could get on with my life unfettered by the nonsense.

I’ve been Whitesplained about race before, but I decided that this week is the last time, or at least the last time I take it without raging back.  I guess after 56 and half years, or 677 months or 2934 weeks, I’ve just run out of patience.

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The Do Over #02: Anger

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional, financial and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of musings trying parse the difference between now and then.

I was quick tempered as a child.  It’s not that I didn’t lead a rather comfortable life, but anger seemed empowering.  The Black Panthers were angry, and it seemed like they had LOTS of power, so any impetus to boil my blood was welcomed.

As I got older, I saw anger differently but no less welcoming.  It was a power motivational tool.  For instance, my high school guidance counselor rejected my request to take dance as an elective and directed me to a pre calculus class as “that’s where your real talents lie.”  I wanted to be physically active and this is before the era that all kids were slotted into some activity or five.  You had to be a skilled player to be on the court and I wasn’t.  I thought that if I was taking a class for credit, I would have an opportunity for my body to figure it out.   Ah well, my body figured it out in my early adult years at gyms and fitness studios across NYC, and I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity.  It felt like my body was no longer imprisoned by the notion that I was “brainy” or “smart.”  It seemed like many of my fellow gym rats were escapees from similar penitentiaries.

A key professional motivating anger came during a job interview a few months after I got out of college.  I interviewed for a copy runner gig at the NY Times.  It was 1982 or 1983; the Reagan recession was still in full force, and I was really interviewing to get on the short list of people to be called when the economy began to look up.  I thought the interview had gone well.  My credentials were solid; ivy League grad and award winning feature writer in high school.  Yet at the end of the interview the HR rep told me very plainly that she didn’t think I was cut out for journalism.

“Why?”  I asked trying to hide my dismay; journalism had been my only career ambition from the time I was 12. “It’s a difficult job,” she said.  “I just don’t think you’re cut out for it.”  Needless to say, those words echoed in my head and fueled me then like cold brewed iced coffee does today.   In 1991, when I got my first piece in the NY Times, I thought about sending it to her, but I realized I’d gotten over the anger.

Anger today is trickier.  There are slights that continue to provide motivation, but it’s different now. I have to be careful.  In the last fifteen years or so, anger has had a way of turning inward and inhibiting my life rather than motivating it.  The inward anger isn’t rational, but it’s not entirely irrational either.  The thumbnail history of my career is that I simultaneously developed careers in journalism via freelancing to leading newspapers, magazines and websites and in specialty cheese via jobs in many gourmet emporia and boutiques in New York City.   This did not conform to the standard go to work/get a paycheck/enjoy evenings and weekends routine, but it was a remarkably elegant and versatile financial ecosystem that mostly kept me afloat for several decades.  Usually when journalism was hard to come by, I could dial up the cheese work.  When journalism rebounded, I could dial down the cheese.


No special reason for Eno other than it TTM was the soundtrack while writing this dispatch

Yet there were vagaries to this routine as well.  For one, I always just barely kept my head above water and sometimes not even.  At 30, I was told I was too old for a staff job and similar situations at newspapers (i.e. the position has been budgeted at a pay scale lower than your command).  Yet, I always felt I was one steady freelance gig away from that evenings and weekends comfortable existence and when dotcoms came into the picture, 1996-2001, I did enjoy that lifestyle.  But then it ended abruptly.  I scrambled, expanding my music journalism career to include sports and recently expanding my cheesemonger career to include craft beer specialties.  Both were savvy moves, but it’s been back to the future as I often just barely keep my head above water again, if that.

Many of my journalist peers chide me for hanging on in the profession (ironically, some of them also chided me for not being a real journalist in the ‘80s and ‘90s since I had a part time food gig).  “Why don’t you just go full time in cheese,” said one food journalist, evidently unaware that she was advocating abandoning a career that routinely generated 50K for a job that only rarely paid better than $14/hour.  When I sought to use my dismay as motivating anger, however, it often turned inward.  I was furious with myself for not pursuing new career options during the millennial era halcyon days.  Now, it’s hard to pivot toward other opportunities since I feel like I’m in the middle of the sea with only fleeting glimpses of land.  Most of my energy is involved in staying afloat.

Also during the new millennium, I let my body go.  Twice during first dates in recent years, women said to me “do you even know the gyms are?”  Yep, I’m overweight but I’d like to think that my shoulders and pecs speak to a non-sedentary history.  Also, my thighs still exhibit hundreds of hours in spinning and step classes and thousands of miles on a bicycle.  In other words, it’s the midsection that needs work.  Yet rather than turn those words into a current day guidance counselor, I’m often prone to despair about how my panic over declining career fortunes led me to ignore my health and worse, ignore that physical achievements usually spurred me toward professional ones.

Instead of keeping the slights in view, I’ve had to dismiss them in favor of just keeping focused on what a better future might look like.  Perhaps it will involve publishing a book or two, or perhaps a real job at a college (adjunct? been there/done that).  Maybe it will involve my own beer and cheese place.  The game is to get all of that on the table while I work toward reducing the middle and invigorating the rest of the body.

Some of my 26 year old peers don’t grasp what I mean when I tell them I don’t have time to fool around in my career quests.  But when it comes to naysayers I have found that I have to adopt the “haters gonna hate” attitude. I ain’t got time for that.  I have places to go and people to see and I need every ounce of present energy to get there.  Anger no longer seems empowering; instead it seems irrelevant.



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