Andy Becker – Baseball Jock, Cheesemonger, Pool Shark, Math Geek, Sausage Smith

by Matt Hart in Cheese

Come summertime, our focus turns to grilling and outdoor entertainment. I’ll be honest, when the Southern heat hits this California boy, I tend to stay indoors unless I’m playing outside with my kiddos, taking the puppy out to pee or cooking something tasty on the grill. Last year I talked about my favorite easy-peasy, instant appetizers one can make with their favorite cheese al fresco. This year I’ll be taking a different approach to grilling season. I’ll be talking a little less about cheese and a lot more about one of my cheesemongers. His name’s Andy Becker and although he’s way too tall for me to see him as my equal, I do have solid feelings toward him and feel he deserves a little recognition for his skills.

Ladies and legumes, meet Andy Becker.

Andy pictured in front of hideous break room poster with brass frame and Plexiglas

Andy’s a multi-faceted character here at Southern Season who, like most of us, wears many hats (Andy collects hats actually… hats of the minor league baseball variety). Andy Becker’s a baseball jock (hence the aforementioned hat hoarding), a fairly new-to-the-game cheesemonger, a pool shark (if you get a chance, check out his “Eight ball with crossing pool cues” in a skull n’ bones formation tattoo), a self-proclaimed math geek and last, but not least: a sausage smith and charcuterie freak! I dubbeth Andy “charcuterie freak” not because he does strange things behind the scenes at the sausage factory. (Oh no, no… on the contrary, Andy makes magic happen!). I call him freak because the young man’s a bit obsessed with all things related to charcuterie. Everyone needs a hobby, right? Well, charcuterie exceeded the hobby stage for this young cheesemonger around 10 or so years ago…

Last fall I needed some extra hands at the cheese counter. Every counter I’ve been a part of hires a few extras before the big, surreal Thanksgiving movie is played on endless loop until the year ends. Our cheese counter is no exception. Although we sell our share of cheese year round, we do see a huge spike in the 4th quarter and therefore require additional staff. Fortunately for us, Andy had just moved back from Charlotte and was searching for work, nearing–but not quite arriving at–desperation. Before he could apply for a deli gig within the company, knowing Andy’s love for cheese and hunger for knowledge, I snatched him up for one of our own!

I met Andy several years ago on the job. He worked at the meat counter doing mostly production, but also making and hand selling his own branded sausages a few days a week (they consistently sold out before the next batch could be made). I worked at the cheese counter a couple departments down from where Andy was stationed. The section between cheese and meat was cluttered with wine stacks and wine racks and highlighted by–darn near overrun with–a product Andy and I shared a mutual respect and admiration for: beer. GLORIOUS BEER! I distinctly remember Andy wearing a “Victory Prima Pils” t-shirt to work one day and because of it, he and I became fast friends, friends who could often be found discussing and debating favorite beers and beer styles. More often than not, these discussions happened while Andy tasted & purchased cheese, asking endless questions along the way. I do believe I sold more cheese to Andy each week than any other employee who haunted that counter. Within a month or so we’d learned a lot about each other. Andy learned that I made beer at home and I learned about Andy’s delicious homemade charcuterie, which he’d occasionally bring in for the cheesemongers to sample.

Around a month ago I had a meeting with one of my bosses, a gentleman named Nick Ghitelman (I use the word “gentleman” very loosely). Nick asked that I poke around and see if there were any local charcuterie folks we weren’t already showcasing at the store. That meeting took place at the store café, a stone’s throw from the cheese counter. I turned around, pointed at Andy and said, “That guy right there makes the best local charcuterie, hands down. We should have him make some in-house.” Nick loved the idea. Fortunately, Andy did too. So we got the ball rolling and now I’m here to let you folks in on a little secret: Andy’s charcuterie is now available at Southern Season!

Andy was kind enough to sit down for some Q & A about his passion for charcuterie… check out what he had to say:

M: When’d you first start getting interested in food in general, cheese and charcuterie specifically?

AB: I became more conscious of ingredients and the quality of food when I started cooking around the age of 18. My first exposure to artisanal cheese was while attending Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. My interest in charcuterie began on a trip to Portland, Oregon the year before I moved to Colorado in 2004. I was at Powell’s Books and discovered a book by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn. A book entitled, “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.”

Andy blames this book for turning him away from a career in mathematics and propelling him towards the specialty foods industry. At this point in the interview Andy insisted that I mention that his love of great food really began with enjoying his father’s cooking at the family dinner table (Andy’s Dad happens to be professor of Economics at Duke University so it’s safe to say that his love of academics likely stems from the same familial root as does his fondness for fine foods).

By 2005 Andy returned to his then home in Boulder, Colorado after attending his first year at college in Beloit. He immediately began experimenting with sausage making, shortly thereafter investing in equipment in order to feed this exciting new habit he’d acquired. In ‘06 Andy took a meat counter job at Wild Oats Market and, within a year or so, ended up in North Carolina working as a sausage smith for Whole Foods Market in Chapel Hill.

As I’d mentioned, Andy’s also a baseball jock whose tenure included his first year at Beloit College (a private liberal arts college well known for its sports programs). Respectfully declining an invitation to continue to play his sophomore year at Beloit, Andy left baseball behind in order to better focus on his mathematics studies (Andy was a math major). Out of curiosity, I asked Andy if math played a part in creating new recipes, Andy visibly recoiled a little and replied in a deep, but playful monotone boom:

AB: Not really actually. I mostly develop my recipes by taste and exploration. Math does play a part in the fine tuning process as well as the record keeping, but not in the development.

Dear friend of fine foods, as I said before, I’m excited to share news that we’re now offering six of Andy’s favorite sausages at the Southern Season deli in Chapel Hill. What’s even more exciting? Hmm? Our dear friend Andy soon will travel to the other Southern Season locations in order to do staff trainings as well as teach someone at each store to recreate these in-house beauties!  

The offerings are as follows (as described by Andy):

Kielbasa: A Polish favorite, heavy on garlic, with an herbal undertone. Kielbasa’s great for grilling, roasting or adding to stews or savory dishes. Great with cabbage, potatoes and legumes!

Bacon-cheddar bratwurst: Andy’s personal favorite! This brat is inspired by Andy’s college years spent in Wisconsin. Expect a mild brat with sweet spices, crispy bacon and cubes of aged cheddar. Poach this one before you grill it, to keep the cheese from running!

Merguez: A beloved spicy lamb sausage in both North Africa and France, with a powerful aroma of toasted cumin. These sausages are often grilled and eaten on a baguette or over couscous.

Loukanika: A mixture of lamb and pork. Versions of this sausage are made all over Greece. For the unacquainted, the unique flavor combination of garlic, oregano, orange zest, and spices is a deliciously exciting experience.

Boerewors: A must have for a South African Braai (or barbecue), Boerewors has both beef and pork, as well as bacon and is heavily scented with toasted coriander and several other sweet spices. Grill gently and serve at your next cookout!

Green-chile cheddar brat: Medium-hot, flame roasted poblanos and sharp cheddar make this a decadent sausage for many dishes! A Southern Season favorite!

I’m not just saying this because Andy’s my friend, nor am I saying this because he’s my employee, but Andy Becker’s sausages are some of the best I’ve tasted. My personal favorite is the Loukanika, but they’re all amazing. I’m excited to see them fly out the door each week, filling the carts of folks who know good foods! When I asked Andy what was in store for the future at Southern Season as far as in-house charcuterie goes, he replied:

AB: Salamis for slicing, corned beef, deli style sausages (hung and air dried), fermented sausages, head cheese, pâtés and deli meats for slicing!

In case you need a translator, that spells gooooood news for you good peoples. Andy’s been sampling every Saturday.

 Alright, enough about Andy Becker’s sausage, we’ve got some fun cheeses to promote this month! Let’s get to it!

 cheese1 In honor of grilling season this year, we’ll be featuring our favorite raw milk smoked Spanish sheep cheese on a table: Etxegarai!!! Hailing from the Basque region of País Vasco, Etxegarai is an unpasteurized, smoky sheep cheese aged three to six months. Etxegarai is smoked with hawthorne and cherry woods, has a sweetness and nuttiness you’d expect from a sheep cheese, while also maintaining a pleasantly gamey finish.

Etxegarai will be $1 off/lbs for the month of July!

 

 

cheese2

In honor of Columbia Cheese’s Jonathon Richardson and having zero to do with grilling, we bring you one of the tastiest, most accessible and versatile Alpine cheeses currently gracing American soil, Nufenen! Nufenen’s a regional mountain cheese that’s remained unchanged for 150 years. Isolated in a high Alpine location, Sennerei Nufenen’s cheese is a reminder of a time when village cheeses were meant to be consumed by the co-operative’s families and neighbors all day long- its flavors are deep and resonant without being too strong.

cheese3

At six months of age, Nufenen brings to mind rich floral pastures, concentrated into cream and distilled into a cheese with deep minerality, blasts of grassy, rich cream and a slight whiff of the aging cellar. Its paste is semi-firm but toothsome, full of chewy, juicy texture.

 

Nufenen will be $2 off/lbs for the month of July!

 

cheese4

Another beautiful Alpine cheese that, regardless of how warm it is outside, I simply cannot pass up is Rolf Beeler’s Sbrinz! Oh man, I’m excited about this one! You should be too!!!

Sbrinz, a surprisingly mellow, yet powerful cheese, is believed in many circles to be the oldest European cheese. Production dates back to the times of the Roman Empire and believe it or not, Sbrinz is considered by historians to be the origin of the great Parmigiano Reggiano (I’m sure I’ll get at least one nasty email for regurgitating this info… bring it on!).  One huge difference between the two cheeses is Sbrinz is full fat while Parmigiano is partially skimmed. That extra fat gives way to fuller flavors and a rounder mouthfeel. The name Sbrinz is said to have originated from the Lombard word “Sbrinzo”, a word for hard cheese. I guess those Italian traders got tired of making that treacherous mountain trek and eventually hunkered down one winter and figured out how to make something dramatically similar. 

Sbrinz will be $9 off/lbs for the month of July

What are you waiting for? Get your cheese-loving self down here and have a taste!