Wine and cheese pairing has been the bright shining light that has guided many a semi-classy house party here in our fine country over the last several decades. But it is time for that sun to set, I say. Beer and cheese pairing is primed for its own period of luminescence—with craft beer's boom in popularity, good beer is more and more widely available. And interest in what well-made beer can do has never been higher.
You may not be ready to host a full-on multicourse beer-focused pairing dinner, but with the tips I have for you today, you'll be primed to host the most awesome beer and cheese tasting party ever...and you and your guests might even learn something along the way. Shall we get started?
Setting the Table
In order to avoid getting frazzled (no one likes a frazzled host!) it's best to do as much as you can in advance. Set your table with a single large plate for each guest and, if possible, two glasses for tasting.
We're going to be dealing with small pours (I like to serve about three ounces of each beer), so you'll want to pick a glass that will capture the aromas of such a small pour—and also showcase the beer's color and clarity. Don't worry; you probably already have the right glass on hand: standard white wine glasses are perfect for this task. Giving each guest two glasses will help take off the pressure to chug or dump the remainder of one beer as you move to the next one. Still, be sure to have a bucket available for dumping excess.
Silverware should be mostly unnecessary for your beer and cheese extravaganza. Let your guests use their hands for all but the runniest of cheeses, and provide a butter knife for each cheese that requires one.
Be prepared to serve lots of water and palate-resetting neutral foods as well. Bread and crackers can help prevent palate fatigue.
When you serve, place the cheeses around the edge of the plate, starting at the top, and moving clockwise with your desired progression. Make every plate the same so that all your guests can follow along as you go. The complex flavors of cheese will come out at the cheese nears room temperature, so feel free to serve the cheeses 30 minutes before guests arrive, so that they'll be at ideal temperature when everyone's settled and ready to get started.
Alright, your table is looking nice and fancy, but we haven't told you what to put on it!
A Group Effort
Hosting a tasting like this can be nerve-wracking...What if my guests don't like my pairings? What if the store doesn't have the exact beer I'm looking for? How much is this all going to cost? I've found that the best way to avoid a lot of this anxiety is to encourage a little audience participation.
Tell your guests that you will provide the cheese, and ask each of them to bring a beer that falls within a certain range of styles or flavors. The goal is to explore the fullest range of beer flavors possible. Try to get eight pairings set up. This will allow you to really showcase a range of beers, cheeses, and the flavors that can occur when you match them up. If you stick to three ounces of beer with a half to three-quarters ounces of cheese for each pairing, we're looking at four to six ounces of cheese and 24 of beer. Not a totally crazy amount to consume over the course of a couple hours.
Gathering the Beer
Assign each guest one of the following beer categories. Ask them to choose one beer to bring, and make sure they provide enough of that beer for each guest to have three ounces—this might mean purchasing a few bottles of the same brew, depending on bottle size.
Light Lager: Pilsner, helles, Kölsch (not really a lager)
Wheat Beer: witbier, hefeweizen, dunkelweizen, Gose
Amber/Brown: amber ale, brown ale, doppelbock
Stout/Porter: the roastier the better. An aggressive black lager will work here too.
Farmhouse Ale: saison and biere de garde
Abbey Ale: dubbel, tripel and Belgian strong Dark Ale/quadrupel
IPA/Double IPA: anything with a dominant hop character
Sour Ales: the more sour examples are likely to leave the biggest impression
If everybody takes one category, you'll get to experience a huge range of beer flavor, and everyone will feel involved in the experiment.
It's time to make friends with your local cheese monger. Ask them for tips choosing cheeses in each of the following categories, and then serve the pairings in the order below.
For the light lager: fresh, ash-ripened cheese or mild cheddar.
Mill Valley Beerworks' Sweetwater Kölsch recently wowed me with Capriole's Wabash Cannonball—the beer's soft malt sweetness provided a satisfying counterpoint to the salty twang of the cheese, while the earthy hops in the beer matched the earthiness of the cheese's ashy rind. With a cheddar, you're likely to find a fantastic interaction between grassy flavors in your cheese with similar flavors coming from the European hops most commonly used in Pilsner, helles, or Kölsch.
For the wheat beer: fresh mozzarella, burrata or chevre
The bright, fruity, spicy, and tangy flavors you'll find in these beers make an excellent match for the similarly fresh and lively flavors of the cheeses mentioned above. The fruity and spicy yeast character in these beers will provide complexity to your pairing and really wow your guests. Note: the wetness of fresh mozzarella and burrata may make for a more difficult presentation on what will become a crowded cheese plate. Put this cheese in an accompanying small bowl, or stick to the more manageable chevre.
For the amber/brown beer: aged gouda
Heavily-aged gouda is loaded with nutty and caramelly flavors. This makes it a spectacular partner for amber and brown beers that typically have similar character from the roasted and caramelized malts used in their production.
For the stout/porter: Parmigiano-Reggiano
Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most umami-dense foods in the world, and that makes it especially great with stout, especially when the beer is on the drier end of the spectrum. Roasty bitterness balances all of that meaty mouth-filling flavor, and calls to mind the charred consequences of a steak thrown on the grill.
For the farmhouse ale: something big, creamy and funky
The wide range of earthy, grassy, herbal, spicy, peppery and funky flavors in these beers pretty much qualifies them as the ultimate cheese beers in my mind. Their high carbonation thoroughly scrubs the palate of the mouthcoating richness that can come with many cheeses. Throw a big, funky cheese at this beer. I recently enjoyed Jasper Hill's Harbison with Brasserie St. Sylvestre's Gavroche and the same brewery's Trois Monts with Sequatchie Cove's Dancing Fern. In both cases, the beer's sweet malt character tamed the funk, while offering a spicy yeast character to complement the funky, woodsy flavors of the cheeses. Drier saisons may be more appropriate for firmer, grassier and more herbal cheeses, but you won't really know what you're getting until your guest arrives!
For the abbey ale: washed rind cheeses
Ultra-pungent washed rind cheeses are great with big abbey ales. Again, we're working with a beer that is extremely carbonated here, which will help keep your palate refreshed after being coated with a thick paste of dairy-laden funk. Many of the dark fruit and caramel flavors associated with abbey dubbels and Belgian strong dark ales offer a nice contrast to the bracing funk of these stinky cheeses. Maybe push your guests toward buying a bottle of Chimay Grande Reserve, as Michael Agnew suggests, to pair with the monastery's own cheese, Chimay à la Bière.
For the IPA: blue cheese
The sharp kick of blue mold integrates neatly with the pointed bitterness of an IPA. I tend to prefer maltier beers to help temper and integrate all that intensity, but these categories tend to produce some surprising pairings, so go into it with an open mind.
Sour ale: dessert course
After seven beer and cheese pairings, it may be difficult to leave a lasting impression with an eighth. Mix it up a little bit and prepare a light, cheese-based dessert like this ricotta cheesecake pie to pair with a sour ale. The beer's acidity will liven up the bright strawberry-rhubarb flavor in the compote and cut through any fattiness from the cheese or crust. Fruit sours will amplify this affect.
Have At It!
If all goes as planned, your beer and cheese tasting will be filled with lively discussion about which pairings work, which don't, and why. Not every pairing is going to be a total winner, and that is completely okay. It is at least as interesting to discuss why something doesn't work as why it does, and the casual pot-luck format dilutes the pressure for the host to create perfect pairings.
Have you ever hosted a beer and cheese tasting party? Got any more tips to add? Please share in the comments!
About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone and Co-Director of Beer at the Monk's Kettle and Abbot's Cellar restaurants in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.
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