Not only do beer and cheese have an ancient heritage, beer is the de facto complement for cheese in many cultures worldwide. In fact, the combination has long been a staple in Belgian cuisine. During the Middle Ages, monasteries were known for their exceptional beers and cheeses.
According to educator and writer Max McCalman, author of Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maitre Fromager, we are eating three times the amount of cheese we ate in 1970.
Over the years, many culinary experts, sommeliers, and wine connoisseurs, have conceded the fine dining territory to wine. If you have a porterhouse steak, by all means, grab the corkscrew and open up a big tannic cabernet sauvignon.
Enter beer. “As in craft brewing,” McCalman explains, “less of the enthusiasm is for the processed cheese or the industrial style of beer. There is a growing connoisseurship for fine cheeses.”
So, why do they go together so well?
Traditionally, beer and cheese are farmhouse products. The flavors of beer and cheese are earthy, yeasty, musty, fruity, rich, toasty and floral and contrast and harmonize in a way that many feel those of wine and cheese cannot. Perhaps that’s because both beer and cheese are based on grain.
Keep in mind pairings are very subjective. As a longtime cheese aficionado and beer lover, I find it difficult to make an awful pairing out of beer and cheese. But it can happen. If you cringe and look for a trash can, well, it probably wasn’t a great pairing. Alternatively, the best pairings can be otherworldly and wonderfully unexpected.
Both cheese and beer owe their character to the fermentation. Following the metabolic, transforming process of microorganisms, is where brewing and cheese making can become an art. One of those creamery’s who has been making cheese with panache is Rogue River Creamery. Dating back to the 1930s, the shop became one of the first in the west to make a cave-aged blue cheese in the Roquefort style. In 2002, David Gremmels and Cary Bryant bought the creamery and introduced Rogue River Blue. A new take on blue cheese, it’s wrapped in grape leaves macerated in brandy and won Best Cheese in America at the 2009 American Cheese Society. Rogue Ales and Rogue River Creamery connected and Rogue Chocolate Stout Cheddar was born. Rogue Chocolate Stout Cheddar, my God, the name of their cheese is three of my favorite things. Brilliant. The curds are bathed in the brewery’s stout and chocolate syrup, giving the finished cheese a variegated appearance and buttery, cocoa and coffee flavors.
The harmonious marriage of beer and cheese has even brought forth beer and cheese festivals. That’s right. A whole day dedicated to suds and curds. One of these Beer Cheese Festivals in Winchester, KY showcases cheese made with beer, much like the small hometown shop called, “River Rat” Beer Cheese.
Beer and cheese shops, like the Grand Cru Beer & Cheese Market in Rhinebeck, NY, are also popular. They specialize in craft beer from around the world, with a strong focus on NY state beers….my kind of shop. Grand Cru also has a small cafe area where customers can enjoy a glass of beer or wine paired with a cheese plate.
Where should you start with your pairings? My advice is to experiment, have fun with it. But here are some guidelines:
A simple way to pair is to start with Belgian pale ales, saisons and triples, like Duvel, Saison Dupont and Allagash Tripel. Due to their lighter flavors, these beers can pretty much work with any cheese.
Another good rule? Try pairing complex beers with complex cheeses.
The nut and caramel aromas found in aged cheeses are also present in malty beers like brown ales, stouts and porters. Goat's milk cheeses are especially exciting to pair with beer, because both light and heavy beers can highlight different aspects of the flavor.
Harmonic convergence takes place when a bitter, hoppy IPA meets a high-acid cheddar; or when a Mascarpone, a cow's cream formless cheese, pairs with a complex fruity ale, like Sam Adams Cherry Wheat or Great Divide’s Wild Raspberry Ale. They contrast the buttery richness of the cheese. Seriously, try it.
The textural contrast that beer carbonation provides in the marriage of beer and cheese is nothing short of elegant. Cheeses are high in fat, mouth coating and usually creamy. Beer is brisk, because of its carbonation, therefore acts as a palate scrubber.
It can be a challenge to pair cheese with Stouts and Porters; their bitter, cocoa-like flavors tend to overwhelm even the strongest of cheeses. But when it works, it’s heaven. Porter will pair well with a smooth and sweet aged Gruyere, with its caramel and coffee notes. Pair Gruyére, Emmental and Swiss with Bock Beer, Oktoberfest or Dark Lagers. Their substantial maltiness plays well against the meaty nut-like character. Sam Adams Octoberfest or Double Bock, Harpoon Maibock, or Brooklyn Oktoberfest, Celebrator and Paulaner Salavator Double Bock are all nice choices. Stronger porters or stouts also match well with a nice, stinky piece of blue cheese. A nice, easy appetizer pairing is a Caprise salad (Mozzarella and tomatoes). Pair it with a toasty, rich dark lager, it contrasts with the sweet dairy flavors of the fresh Mozzarella.
Wheat beers are full of high notes, so pair them with cheese that can balance the notes. To that end, match sweeter Weizens with more lactic cheeses, like young, earthier or soft-ripened cheeses. Typically the more character the beer has, the more pungent the cheese should be. Derek Kennedy, Cheese Aficionado, recommends New Belgium Sunshine Wheat. “Creamy French brie or an Italian fontina is perfect in that they have their own character but won't hide the fruitiness or mild spices.”Noted for its streaks of edible blueish mold and sharp flavor, Blue can be an awesome pairing to stronger beers. Gorgonzola is part of an illustrious family of blue cheeses, with a buttery-yellow, tangy base and greenish-blue mould that imparts a sharp, spicy flavor. A robust, yeasty ale in the Trappist brewing style harmonizes perfectly with the distinctive mold-ripened cheese taste. Think Orval or Chimay. And, Chimay Grand Reserve Trappist Ale has even created the perfect complement, Chimay Trappist Cheese.
Here is a simple cheat sheet from Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery, and the American Dairy Association (ADA):
- Sharp Cheddar - Pale Ale
- Feta - Wheat Beer
- Mascarpone - Fruit Beer
- American Cheese - Pilsner
- Colby - Brown Ale
- Gorgonzola - Barleywine
- Gruyére - Bock Beer
- Swiss Cheese - Octoberfest Beer
- Parmesan - Amber Lager
So, put down the corkscrew and grab the bottle opener. The imprecise science has given new life to this versatile, oh-so-tasty collaboration. Cheese has a true soul mate, beer.