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Beer and cheese have a natural affinity. In fact, they are almost the same thing. Both start with grass; barley and wheat in the case of beer, and actual grass in the case of cheese. Dairy cows are often even fed the spent grains left over from making beer. In each case the grasses are broken down into simple sugars through natural enzymatic processes. The starches in barley are converted to maltose during malting and in the mash stage of brewing. Enzymes in the cow's stomach convert grass to lactose. Finally, in both cheese and beer, those simple sugars are fermented by yeast and other microflora. After a period of aging, voila: beer and cheese. It's no wonder they go so well together.
Beer and cheese also share similar flavors: nutty, tangy, floral, and earthy. They can both offer a sharp, dry texture or a smooth and creamy one. And where there is no complement there is delightful contrast; the sweetness of some beers is an ideal foil for cheese's saltiness. And beer's scrubbing bubbles work to whisk away the mouth-coating richness of cheese.
Putting together a beer and cheese tasting is as easy as assembling an assortment of cheeses of different textures and types and choosing a bevy of beers to go with them. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Fresh and Bloomy Cheeses
Fresh cheeses like chevre and mozzarella are light and tangy in flavor with fruity and floral notes and sometimes a touch of salt. Gooey, creamy, bloomy cheese like Camembert and Brie come encased in an edible white rind. While the flavors are still light, they can sometimes incorporate darker earth and mushroom flavors.
Pilsner, witbier, and hefewizen work well with both of these. The perfumed hops of Czech pils pick up on the floral notes in the cheese. Wits and wheats have some fruit and light acidity to tie in to the tang. As you move to the riper, stronger-tasting cheese, the beer can become fuller-flavored as well. Try a Belgian saison, for example. The higher levels of yeast-derived fruit and spice flavors as well as the earthy funk will work nicely with similar flavors in the cheese.
Some pairings to try:
P'tit Basque with Pilsner Urquell: This mild-tasting, sheep's milk cheese has subtle nutty flavors and a bit of salt that bring to mind salted peanuts. What's better than peanuts and beer? Pils-malt sweetness counters the salt and pulls out the creamy sweetness in the cheese.
Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog with Ommegang Hennepin: A full-flavored saison stands up well to this delicate-yet-pungent, ripened goat cheese. Spicy, fruity, and earthy flavors in the beer latch on to the herbaceous, earthy tang of the cheese. And saison is fizzy enough to tackle the gooey fromage. Pilsners are also great with this cheese.
Brillat Savarin Triple Crème Brie with Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen: This is a match that makes the angels sing. Think canapés with brie and cured meat. Add a pinch of smoked salt and it becomes a mind-blowing experience.
Washed Rind Cheeses
Cheeses like Taleggio and Epoisses are washed with brine or a liquor like beer or wine during aging. The brining process gives them earthy, mushroom and barnyard aromas and flavors that can often be quite intense. Making a match requires a beer with some funk and plenty of oomph. Stinky cheeses work well with stinky brews. Beers fermented with the Brettanomyces are perfect. They have enough leathery, barnyard character to match the cheese one to one. They also tend to be highly effervescent, so they wash your palate clean. Strong dark Belgian ales are another good partner for washed rind cheese. They are bold enough to stand up to the pungent cheese and their dusky, dried-fruit flavors provide a tempering counterpoint like chutney to spicy Indian food.
Some pairings to try:
Meadow Creek Grayson with Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza: Funk meets funk when you bring this barrel-aged brett beer together with this semisoft cow's milk cheese. The oak, barnyard, and light acidity of the beer is a perfect match to the grassy, nutty, mushroom tones of the cheese. Both beer and cheese also have a light sweetness that provides another layer of agreement.
Cereta Alt Urgell with Ommegang Bière de Mars: The beer has a light caramel malt profile that supports a rich cherry and plum fruitiness that provides a sweet counterpoint to Cereta's saltiness. Brettanomyces fermentation brings the two together in a dance of briny, goaty funkiness.
Chimay à la Bière with Chimay Grand Reserve Blue Label: The monks make both cheese and beer, and wash the cheese with the beer. It's an obvious match, but a good one. Dark fruit and caramel envelop the cheese, tempering its mild aromatics. The beer's creamy texture is a good match for the creamy cheese.
Aged, Hard Cheeses
Aged cheddars and aged goudas have concentrated flavors that require bold beers. Nutty and fruity flavors in these cheeses are extremely beer-friendly, pairing nicely with hops and roasted malt. Although they can be brittle and dry, the high fat content of many hard cheeses can coat your mouth a bit. Some serious palate cleansing power from hops or carbonation is called for in the beer.
English or American IPA with their fruity hop flavors and high levels of bitterness are a perfect choice for farmhouse cheddar. Porters and brown ales work well too. Roasted malt bitterness matches the cheese's sharp edge, while underlying caramel sweetness checks in with its softer side. Saisons sing with aged gouda, providing a fruity counterpoint to the nutty taste and crystalline texture of the cheese.
Some pairings to try:
Montgomery's Cheddar with Alaskan IPA: This complex clothbound English farmhouse cheddar has pronounced grassy and almost musty flavors and lightly tangy, fruity background notes. The intense citrus and tropical fruit flavors of the beer pulls out those fruity notes and counteracts the grass and must. The cheese is intense enough to stand up to all those hops.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve with Surly Bender: Nutty notes in the cheese speak to the nutty and roasty flavors in the beer. Grassiness from the grass-fed cow's milk complements the hops, while Bender's light caramel picks up the cheese's buttery, sweet-cream. Carbonation and hops leave your palate cleansed and ready for the next cheese.
Ewephoria Aged Sheep's Milk Gouda with Saison du Pont: The dry finish and peppery spiciness make this beer an excellent match for the sharp tang of Ewephoria. Stone-fruit flavors in the beer bring out a light fruitiness in the cheese.
Salty, sweet, tangy, and piquant, the range and complexity of flavors in blue cheese is as varied as it is vivid. A good blue cheese can handle a weighty beer. Rich and roasty stouts are brilliant, be they milk, oat, or imperial. The roasted malt melds with the mold to deep, earthy effect.
A toffee laden English barleywine provides a sweet counterpoint to the salt; if you like salted caramel, this is a pairing to try for sure. But don't rule out hoppy beers, either. An IPA or hoppy American red ale is terrific with a pungent blue. The hops tie in to the moldy tang while the underlying sweet malt provides a counterpoint similar to the barleywine, but less intense.
Some pairings to try:
Northern Lights Blue with Summit Horizon Red Ale: Both complement and contrast is at work here, with the earthy, peppery hop flavors blending spectacularly with the earthy/spicy bite of the blue cheese mold. Sweet caramel and biscuit malt support the buttery sweetness in the cheese like butter on crackers.
Gorgonzola Picante with Left Hand Milk Stout: Milk stouts are a bit sweeter than some other styles, with less intense roasted character. The milk-chocolate sweetness envelops the cheese while the subtle roast punches through the middle to create an earthy harmony.
Shropshire Blue with Sam Adams Griffin's Bow Oaked Blond Barleywine Ale: Honey and caramel flavors dominate this beer, offering a pleasant counterpoint to the sharply tangy and slightly sour Shropshire. The cheese is bold, but the barleywine is big enough to handle it.
Of course, the possibilities for great beer and cheese pairings are almost infinite, and much of the fun is in trying out different options. What are your favorite beer and cheese combinations?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint