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Nothing says ‘holidays’ like beer & cheese

You’ve heard of the ever-popular wine and cheese pairing–perhaps you’re even a big fan.  But you may not know that even wine experts says you haven’t tried a good pairing until you’ve had cheese and beer.  While the combinations of beers and cheese are seemingly infinite, Garrett Oliver points us in the right directions with a few suggestions.  The pairings listed below were excerpted from The Oxford Companion to Beer.  Enjoy, and if you have a favorite beer and cheese pairing, be sure to let us know. – Lana Goldsmith, associate publicist, OUP USA.

Cheese (pairing) is one of the finest food partners for full flavored beers and also among the most traditional. Made side by side in farmhouse kitchens for centuries, cheese, beer, and bread once made up a large proportion of the caloric intake of many societies, particularly in Europe. Indeed, at a stretch, one might even say that all three foods come from the same original source given that both barley and wheat are grasses, and grasses make up much of the diet of cows, sheep, and goats. Today, wine is often thought of as the most appropriate partner for great cheeses, but many wine experts feel differently, with some going so far as to suggest beer as a superior substitute.

Traditional and craft beers have a very wide range of flavor, far wider than that of wine. This is partly because brewing is actually a form of cooking, at least before fermentation is involved. Many ingredients may be used; grains can be caramelized or roasted, spices can be added, and fruit may be infused. Common strengths for beer range from 3% to 12% alcohol by volume, and this allows a wide variation of intensity. The level of carbonation, ranging from a mere prickle to a Champagne-like mousse, will influence texture. Yeasts may bring very different aromas, ranging from bright fruit to pungent earth. All of these features may be brought to bear in the service of cheese pairings.

Cheese itself is a very diverse food, but what nearly all cheeses have in common is relatively high amounts of both salt and fat. Beer generally brings some residual sugar from malt, and this makes a pleasant contrast with salt—anyone who has ever eaten potato chips or other salty snacks with a beer knows this. Both carbonation and hop bitterness provide cutting power that breaks through fats, refreshing the palate. Without carbonation to work through it, the fat in such foods as cheese and chocolate can coat the tongue, physically shielding the taste buds from the flavors of a beverage. This is a common problem for wine and cheese pairings.

Because cheese and beer are so diverse, it is impossible to explore all possibilities here. However, it is possible to provide some ideas about where to start. This is probably best done by looking at the three different milks from which cheese is commonly made and the general types of cheeses these milks produce.

Soft Cow’s Milk Cheeses
Here we include bloomy-rinded cheeses such as brie, Camembert, and triple crèmes such as St André and Brillat-Savarin. The paste of these cheeses is usually mildly flavored, with sweet buttery and lactic notes posed against the salt. Many beers will pair well with the paste, but with many of these cheeses, the bloomy rind itself can be the determining factor in the success of the pairing. Bloomy rinds, which are formed by white molds, give an earthy, mushroomy character when the cheese is young. This flavor pairs well with softer farmhouse ales, particularly French bières de garde, which often have their own earthiness. Belgian-style tripels work especially well with triple crème cheeses. As these cheeses age, they become more pungent and the rinds may give a bitterness that interacts poorly with hops. Here it can be best to stick with Belgian and German wheat beers that will match the cheese without adding bitterness to the equation.

Washed-rind Cow’s Milk Cheeses
These are what we often call the “smelly” cheeses. Good classic examples are Taleggio, Livarot, and Epoisse. Descriptors for the earthy aromatics range from “forest floor” to “barnyard,” but the actual flavors of these cheeses are often very mild. The aromas are derived from the rinds, which have been washed with brine, beer, wine, or sometimes a form of brandy. The washing encourages the growth of certain molds and bacteria, which give the rind orange and green colors and ripen the cheese from the outside in. French bières de garde once again work well, but the best pairings are with non-sour barrel-aged beers showing Brettanomyces influence. The earthy “brett ” character mingles perfectly with washed rind cheese aromatics, and the vanilla-like flavors derived from oak work nicely against the sweetness of the milk. Many Brettanomyces-influenced sour beers can work here too, but pairings are best found individually because they will partly depend on the degree and type of acidity in the beer.

Semihard Cow’s Milk Cheeses
This category covers a wide range, from tommes to Beaufort and various types of cheddar. Most will have notable acidity, some grassy and fruity flavors, and plenty of salt. Pale ales and India pale ales are a good place to start here. Most of these cheeses work well against hops, meld their fruitiness nicely with ale yeast character, and can pick up on caramel notes derived from specialty malts. German-style and Bohemian-style pilsners also pair well with most of these cheeses.

Hard Cow’s Milk Cheeses
Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, well-aged gouda, gruyeres, and aged farmhouse cheddars fit here. Most have concentrated, almost explosive fruit and salt, some caramelized flavors, and plenty of umami. Here there are two good directions. One direction is the use of contrast—here once again saison and pilsner are good—with the brightness of the beer balancing the concentration of the cheese. The other direction is to use harmony, and here barley wines make a good choice. The rich malt and fruit character melds with these cheeses, and the residual sweetness of the beer makes a good foil for the salt.

Goat’s-Milk Cheeses
Goat’s milk cheeses have a bright white paste and tangy acidity. When fresh, goat’s milk cheeses have no rind. Fresh goat’s milks cheeses are usually at their best when they are only a week or two old and not very far from the farm. These cheeses are very brightly flavored, and good examples show a range of citrus notes. They pair especially well with dry saisons and with wheat beers, especially Belgian-style witbiers. They are also excellent with gueuze. Semiaged versions such as crottins or buttons will have rinds; here saisons may or may not work, depending more on the state of the rind than on the beer. Aged goat-milk cheeses can become very cakey and mouth coating; very high carbonation, usually developed by bottle conditioning, tends to help these pairings work well. Once again, think gueuze and saison.

Sheep’s Milk Cheeses
Sheep’s milk cheeses are often characterized by a soft , earthy nuttiness. They actually retain a smell of lanolin, an aroma recognizable in lamb chops and even in damp wool. Among the best are made in the French Pyrenees, including the excellent Ossau-Iraty, but the American Vermont Shepherd is also very good. This cheese and others of its type are very well paired with brown ales and porters; the nutty character of the sheep’s milk mirrors caramel and chocolate malts particularly nicely. Manchego, although much sharper, is also a good pairing for these two beer styles.

Blue Cheeses
Some blue cheeses are quite difficult to pair because of the sharpness developed by the bluing molds. Danish blues and Roquefort can develop an almost tongue-numbing bitterness that tends to clash with hops. Fortunately, many other blues are full bodied but milder, and these can pair very successfully. Stilton is the royalty of this type, and it combines a powerfully earthy aroma with a rich, buttery, salty paste. Barley wines are very good here, particularly the strong British variant, where plenty of residual sugar teams up with caramel and dark fruit notes to wrap around the cheese. When these beers have a few years of bottleage, the pairing can be profound. Although it may seem counterintuitive, imperial stout often works very well with Stilton also. The roasted coffee and chocolate notes can bring out fudge-like flavors in the cheese, and the beer is one of the few styles capable of matching Stilton’s intensity. Aside from Stilton, Gorgonzola Dolce, even when it has become quite runny, can often manage a very fine pairing with barley wine or imperial stout.

Of course this only scratches the surface of pairing possibilities, and the serendipity of the unexpected pairing always awaits. Pairings of fruit beers with fresh dessert cheeses, flights of older cheeses with older beers—those with adventurous palates will surely be rewarded by further explorations.

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One Response to “Nothing says ‘holidays’ like beer & cheese”
  1. [...] are well-aged beers usually over 9% ABV, bring concentrated malt and dark fruit flavors that are great with cheeses, especially the British Christmas classic, Stilton. Many years ago, shortly after Christmas, I [...]

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