Hands up if you’ve had this experience: you’re at a party with an impressive cheese board or you order the cheese course in a restaurant and feel socially obligated to spread that well-ripened brie on an artisanal, nuts-and-fruit-filled cracker or (even worse) a toasted slice of baguette. Just about everyone? I thought so. One bite and there’s nothing but regret for saddling the pinnacle of dairy-based perfection with bread at its most bland and desiccated. Usually by the second bite, I’m searching for a scrap from an un-toasted loaf or just popping unadulterated cheese straight into my mouth.
Bread or crackers aren’t entirely without charm or positive contributions as a cheese-and-whatever match. (After all, a world without grilled cheese sandwiches would be a sad place indeed.) But, what if we could get our bread in liquid form? All of the roasted and toasty flavors of grains and yeast in a glass. Wherever could we find such a marvelous invention?
Semi-sarcastic joking aside some truly sophisticated writing has been devoted to the excellence of this pairing. If beer writers were a basketball team, Randy Mosher and Garrett Oliver would both be on the court for the opening tipoff, so I paid attention when the former quoted the latter in his best-selling book, Tasting Beer. Here’s the excerpt: “cheese is grass processed through a cow and modified by microbes. Beer is also grass processed through a microbe – yeast. So it is not surprising to find a wide range of common flavours from which to draw when seeking pairing possibilities.”
The craft modifier for the beer is in this story’s title and even in the URL. The quality of the cheese is just as important. If you’re unwrapping a cheese slice in a moment of guilty, midnight hunger I think you understand that the best pairing for that is whatever is open.
The rules that apply generally to matching food with beer also hold for cheese: Try to match partners with like intensities; cut saltiness with bitterness; and don’t forget about wildcards like the integrated herbs or smoke flavour.
Here are a few more specific signposts that should lead you to delicious beer and cheese adventures.
Brie and Brown Ale
Soft cheese with a rind on the outside is one of the most troublesome types for wine. By contrast, the toasty malt notes of a brown ale will do an excellent job of backstopping the creaminess and rounding the edges off the funky bloom. Match pungent Camembert-type cheese with American brown ale that has the hops to balance the increased intensity.
Saisons Paired with Nutty Italians
With their nutty flavour and standout texture, good quality, hard Italian cheese (Parmigiano reggiano is the best known of a much larger family) deserves more frequent airtime on cheese boards. Belgian farmhouse ales have the right floral, malty notes to complete the flavour picture and just the right amount of acidity to lift milk fat and refresh the palate.
Big Guns with Aged Blue
Often, both parts of the best pairings come from the same place. English-style barley wines and crumbly, salty blue cheese like Stilton are an excellent example. All of the alcohol and nutty richness in the beer will counter and also highlight the saline funkiness of the cheese.
Take these pairings as starting points and build your own favourite matches. The essential appeal of hosting a party with several open bottles and a variety of cheese is that everyone gets to create their own preferred pairing.