Last weekend marked the fourth annual Beer & Cheese party at Vignola restaurant here in Portland’s Old Port. As I mentioned before, this has quickly become one of my favorite annual Maine beer events. You can literally pig out on some of the best cheeses and beers in the world until you feel like you’re going to burst — in the best possible way — for a mere $25.
It’s great, too, because there are two very different sessions to this event. The first, which runs from 12 noon to 2:00pm is very relaxed. This is the session we always choose to attend and this year my party of four made up quite literally about 1/3 of the entire crowd (you do the math). It’s a great intimate setting where you can really take your time with each beer and each cheese, have good conversations with the distributors and chefs and generally just feel relaxed and not rushed or pressured. However, the evening session (which runs from 3-5pm) had nearly 70 reservations before the session started and I’m sure there were plenty of walk-ins. So I’m guessing that session is much more of a party atmosphere (if any readers out there can attest to this, that’d be appreciated, since I’ve never been to the later session). Point being, whichever style of “festival” you like better, you’re sure to find it at the Vignola event.
The setup of this year’s festival differed slightly from the last three years, and definitely for the better. Last year each distributor had their own table with their own beers (so no table had any rhyme or reason as far as beer style was concerned) and all 25+ cheeses where just laid out on the bar. Granted they were in order from lightest/creamiest to darkest/bluest/funkiest, but that was about it. It was very much a “here, drink some beers. okay, now eat some cheeses” sort of setup.
This year, much more effort was made toward actual “pairing” of the two. There were 4 tables set up throughout the restaurant (which had been cleared of most chairs to provide enough room for everyone to move about); the first featured a handful of IPAs and Pales to match with 4 or 5 different cheddars. Next you moved to a table of soft, creamy cheeses and meads (another new and welcome addition), which is pictured above. From there, to belgians and hard, aged cheeses and lastly to porters & stouts and the blues and really funky cheeses (my personal favorite of the stations). I definitely preferred this set up to the way the event was run in previous years and from the few other attendees (and employees) who had been to previous years, I think that sentament was universal.
The only downside, I felt, to this year’s event was that the selection of both beers and cheeses, although better arranged, paled in comparison to last year’s. The cheeses certainly never fail to impress — although I’d say at least 10 or 12 of them this year came from the same farm in Vermont; not bad, just not much variety — and, as I mentioned, the meads were a nice touch, but other than that, the beer selection was pretty unimpressive.
I will absolutely attend the event again next year (and every year Vignola continues to put it on), and I appreciate the improvement in set up. I just hope next year they can find the right balance between improved presentation and the better selection of years past. See you next year!