I caught up with Kent Walker Artisan Cheese
owner and head cheese-maker Kent Walker
during the midst of an ambitious construction project that will transform the former Diamond Bear Brewing space at 323 Cross St.
into a space dedicated to making, aging, learning about and (most important to me) eating cheese. A cheese-tasting room in Little Rock? When you hear him talk about how it will work — cheeses matched with various local beers and wines, all in the cozy former taproom — it sounds so crazy (and crazy delicious) that it just might work. After all, Stone's Throw Brewing
has been offering a popular Kent Walker cheese plate since their inception, and armed with ample knowledge of cheese flavors work and how they pair with alcohol, Walker is the perfect man to lead the charge in the fight to bring back the classic cheese tray in his own space.
The main construction work is right in the beginning stages, and will see the former brewing area transformed into offices, a cheese production area, and a cheese packaging area. This is a bigger undertaking than it first appears, requiring the installation of drop-down ceilings and other safeguards that will allow the cheese to be produced in a clean environment. Cheese is, after all, the product of an intricate dance between bacteria, enzymes, and sometimes even mold, and the goal is to maximize the critters that make cheese delicious while keeping out any foreign bodies that could contaminate the process. Because of the care that goes into insuring a clean production space, Walker doesn't plan to move his production to the new space for at least two months.
Walker has moved one element of the cheese-making process to the new space: aging. The last time I was in what is now the Kent Walker Artisan Cheese Cave, it was ice cold and filled with six packs and kegs. Now, the temperature is kept at a steady 55 degrees, with just the right touch of humidity needed to allow the wheels of cheese to develop their characteristic flavors over time. There's an earthy, deep aroma hanging in the air between the cheese racks — think of it as the rich aroma of science at work. Some of the cheeses that Walker produces only spend a short time in the cave before being sold, but one rack holds what Walker calls his "reserve," and it contains cheeses that have been hanging out for quite awhile, multiple years in some cases. Aging develops and matures the flavor of the cheese, and the loss of moisture from each wheel changes the texture, which means that two wheels of cheese from the same batch will have significant tastes differences with the only added ingredient being time.
As luck would have it, Walker was holding a cheese-tasting over the weekend in support of the debut of Sixes and Sevens
and Earl Grey ESB
from Moody Brews
(which Scott previewed here
, and which were spectacular). It was fun to see Walker working the crowd, explaining the method behind his cheese-making madness and educating the public (including yours truly) about just what it takes to turn milk into cheese. On the menu were three of Walker's creations: the Goat Gouda
, a creamy cheese with just a touch of wildness to it that I found brought a nice touch of complexity to the style; a sharp and tangy Leicester
that is certain to appeal to fans of cheddar cheese everywhere, and a deliciously nutty take on asiago that Walker has dubbed "Roccina,"
which is, naturally, Italian for "Little Rock." What always impresses me is that these cheeses start off as the same stuff (milk) and are transformed into vastly different flavors by a combination of the cheese-maker's skill and some time. It's all chemistry and biology of course, but I'm not convinced there isn't witchcraft involved somewhere.
Walker is still unsure of when he will be able to open the tasting room (despite reports in other media outlets listing dates), because although there aren't any major renovations that need to happen to the space, balancing the building of an entirely new production area coupled with operating a retail space is a burden he's unsure he wants to shoulder at this time. One major change planned for the taproom: the area behind the bar where Diamond Bear's tap lines ran is to be replaced by a large window that will allow visitors to see the racks of aging cheese in the cheese cave without danger of contamination. That alone provides a unique aspect to the tasting room that should appeal to fans of homegrown foodstuffs everywhere.
I've eaten a good deal of Kent Walker cheese over the past couple of years, and I think he's improved and refined his technique considerably over the past year. That's not to say that Walker's cheese was ever bad — it certainly wasn't — but the cheese I had at the Moody Brews tasting was beyond good, it was excellent. Soon, we'll have a space where we can go grab a glass of beer and enjoy that ancient and magical process by which fresh milk turns into something far better: pungent, creamy, and always delicious cheese.