How is Brie like a Sam Adams beer? I have a theory. To me, Sam Adams is the in between beer. It is for people who are ready to graduate from Bud Light, but not quite ready for the extra money and commitment it takes to wade through an endless sea of unknown labels. This is not a bad thing. I think people need these stepping stones. Brie is the equivalent in the cheese world, but there is one caveat. Real brie, the sort of cheese you can't get in this country, is a different, far more pungent animal than what most people perceive as "brie".
When a customers comes to the counter and asks for "a brie", I have a bit of a problem knowing what they really want. Strange as it may sound, "brie" means different things to different people. To some, it means any soft cheese with a bloomy-rind (that wonderful fluffy-white outside caused by spraying the aging cheese with penicillium candidum), which can include triples-cremes and camemberts as well as other varieties. To others, "brie" is the one-dimensional buttery affair currently masquerading as brie in supermarkets and inferior cheese shops around the country. The good brie, the real thing, that's a different story entirely. Real brie tastes strongly of mushrooms and garlic with a strong earthy smell that can cause the less informed to think something has gone horribly wrong with their cheese.
If you are looking for the taste of real brie, you're not completely out in the cold. There are some perfectly legal cheeses that come very close to that signature flavor. Brie de Nangis, a thermalized, single producer cheese is an excellent substitute and pretty reliable, though it is slightly milder and not quite as creamy. Fromage de Meaux, marketed as a substitute for Brie de Meaux (a traditional French brie), can be even better, but it needs to be approached with caution. When I worked at Murray's I noticed a large discrepancy in the flavor of different wheels we got in, ranging from a close match to the raw milk brie to bland and uninteresting. Recently I discovered that the taste discrepancy has to do with the maturity of the cheese. A young Fromage de Meaux has nothing for taste buds to grab onto; the aging is what truly brings the flavors forth.
Whether you're going for Brie de Nangis or Fromage de Meaux, always look for the cheese to be almost unmanageable in its gooeyness, where the rind has taken on a light brown or yellow hue at the top of the rind's white ripples. A little cracking is even okay, as long as it's obvious that it is due to the rind no longer being able to hold the gooey interior and not just because the cheese is dried out. Beware of a dense or chalky interior. This is a sure indication of an underripe cheese. Since bries are young cheeses, they have a very short window of perfect ripeness. If you find a good example, buy only as much as you'll use within the next few days and be on the lookout for an ammoniated smell (you'll know–the strongest catbox smell I've ever whiffed was from a wheel of overripe brie), because that is a sure indication the cheese is dead.
Brie is available at every cheese shop around the country, so finding it should not be difficult. The most common examples are industrially produced by companies like President and should be avoided. In addition to the varieties I mentioned before, Brie de Melun is also excellent. Over at Murray's Cheese, they have two types: Fromage de Meaux for $15.99/lb. as well as Brie de Nangis for $12.99/lb. In the Artisanal camp, they have the same: Brie de Nangis for $14.25/lb. and Fromage de Meaux for $20.25/lb.