JDub’s monthly event redefines the cheese tasting experience.
It’s a crowded Thursday night at JDub’s Brewing Co., but the roar of the crowd is hushed when Jim Keaveney takes a spot at the head of the table. When he begins describing the flavor of the Basque etorki — the first of the four cheeses he’s chosen for tonight’s tasting — everyone leans in to listen.
“This has a little bit of caramel flavor to it,” he says. “This is a pressed, uncooked cheese from the Basque region in France — really nice, interesting cheese that’s been made and perfected for a long, long time — and not a style you hear very much about.”
Dressed in a casual V-neck T-shirt and loose gray shorts, Keaveney doesn’t exactly look like a cheese connoisseur.
But then again, this isn’t your average cheese tasting.
Every third Thursday of the month, JDub’s Brewing Co. plays host to a beer-and-cheese tasting event, led by Keaveney. Attendees sample four JDub’s brews, each paired with a chunk of gourmet cheese from local stores such as Morton’s Gourmet Market and Artisan Cheese Company. After a year and four months of leading the tastings, he still offers new pairings at each event.
JDub’s Director of Hospitality Brian “BK” Klimek says the event typically draws 15 to 25 people per tasting, but JDub’s doesn’t really limit the number of people who can attend. The brewery always asks Keaveney to bring a little extra cheese, he says, just in case someone in the taproom wants to join in.
The idea for the event was somewhat inspired by the classic concept of a wine-and-cheese tasting — but with a casual twist.
“We were talking about doing something different that nobody in town was really doing,” says Klimek. “We figured there are always wine-and-cheese pairings, why not do it with beer?”
AHEAD OF THE CRAFT CRAZE
Keaveney’s background is largely in beer. He started homebrewing in 1991, and it has been a huge part of his life ever since. He’s traveled around the world — mainly Belgium and Germany — and developed not only a love for beer, but also for pairings, and a passion for sharing his knowledge.
After moving to Sarasota from New Jersey in 2009, Keaveney decided to open a gastropub. In 2010, he opened Stairway to Belgium on Main Street, a 150-seat restaurant that boasted a full menu and 180 types of beer.
Although he gained what he calls a tight cult following and attracted notable guests, including the brewer from St. Bernardus brewery in Belgium, the restaurant closed before its one-year anniversary.
Keaveney started the Sarasota Craft Beer Lovers meetup group in 2012 as a second attempt at doing what he says he came here to do: introduce people to craft beer.
It was through this group — which has grown to include nearly 600 members — that he got the idea for a monthly event that combined his two favorite fermented products. The result is the beer-and-cheese tastings at JDub’s, which are open to the public with purchase of a ticket.
BEER VS. WINE
Keaveney isn’t much of a wine guy. He says he prefers beer because wine is limited in the amount of flavors it can offer drinkers, while beer has an unlimited array of tastes.
“Beer, and I’m obviously biased, is better than wine by a million miles,” he says. “Why? Because there’s so much diversity. There is that amazing variety of flavors and aromas, which is the same as cheese.”
Keaveney says he loves cheese because, like wine and beer, it’s a fermented product that changes character over time. Just like any food pairing, serving a piece of gourmet cheese with the perfect well-made beer can result in an artful harmony.
After getting to know the staff and becoming a mug-club member at JDub’s, Keaveney knew he had found the kind of place to present that harmony.
It seems to work because the crew at JDub’s has a similar goal: create a fun, comfortable environment, where all kinds of people can appreciate craft beer.
JDub’s CEO Jeremy Joerger says his team is always trying to do something different, but not just for the sake of being different.
“We’re always trying to make a special experience here,” he says. “So when you’re doing something like this, it’s introducing people who might not be craft drinkers, using a culinary item that they’re used to. And in that pairing, they’re learning more about craft beer and the varieties that are out there.”
Their educational efforts appear to be working. Looking down the table of beer-and-cheese tasters, it’s clear that the craft beer scene in Sarasota comprises people of all ages and backgrounds.
One devout attendee is Debbie Terry. She has driven up from Venice for nearly every tasting, for what she sees as the artistry of the pairings.
She has her own theory on why beer, or what she calls “American wine,” works so well with cheese.
“Beer and cheese are both alive,” she says. “So when they get in your mouth together, there’s chemistry.”