Pairing Beer and Cheese: Tips from the Pros

A great beer stands alone, but it is entirely more enjoyable with food — especially a piece of cheese. in fact, beer and cheese have a lot of complementary and contrasting characteristics. these three cheese and beer experts share some of the basics for pairing your homebrew with cheese.

Eric Meyer, Formaggio Kitchen in Boston, MA

When we’re pairing anything, we’re looking for the sum of the two elements giving us something new and enjoyable beyond what we get from each element on its own. For instance, carbonation can obliterate or enhance a cheese’s texture; it also tends to embolden flavors as they spread across your palate with the help of so many creamy bubbles.

Two of the key rules of pairing are 1) find characteristics from the beer and the cheese that complement each other or 2) find characteristics that contrast with one another.

Complementary examples:
* Nut brown ales pair well with the nutty flavors in some cheeses
* Sour beers — try these with bright and citrusy goat’s milk cheeses
Contrasting examples:
* Stouts work well because they have some sweeter and darker notes that work well with stronger blue cheeses
* Sour beers — try these with nice and rich cheeses (especially some with stronger flavors) to get the interplay of the acidity and the creaminess

Understanding beer styles is important when pairing. For example, if you are talking about a traditional lager style you already have a decent idea of what the beer will look, smell and taste like. The same goes for cheese.

Some of my personal favorite beer and cheese combinations include Cabot Clothbound Cheddar paired with Brooklyn Local 1, Bayley Hazen Blue with Dogfish Head World Wide Stout and Twig Farm Tomme with Jack d’Or American Saison.

Lucy Saunders, author of three beer-themed cookbooks in Milwaukee, WI

When I approach a pairing, I taste the cheese first and let it meld on my palate and think about its flavors, then I imagine how different beer styles might play well with that specific set of flavors. I’m also a fan of bridge ingredients and condiments – such as warmed raw honey drizzled over Gorgonzola cheese and paired with a honey brown ale, or toasted hazelnuts with Cheddar and a hazelnut brown ale to bring out the mellow flavors in the aged cheese.

It’s easiest to slice cheese when it is cold, and then bring it to room temperature before tasting — and also to serve beer (40–45 °F/4–7 °C) at near cellar temperatures, to let the flavors in the butterfat emerge. If the beer is too cold, the butterfat in the cheese will not be smooth, and I find that the chalky, mineral flavors of cheeses can be more pronounced. Also, if the cheese has a rind wash or ripened aromas, those will be most prominent at room temperature.

Try to find a cheese shop or retailer who will slice cheese at the time of purchase — the flavors of artisan cheeses are so intense that you don’t really need to break the bank by purchasing a huge amount.

As for some of my personal favorites, I’m partial to an unfiltered farmstead ale matched with the rind-washed brick cheese by Widmer Cellars. Also, the Capital Brewery amber ale with a burger topped with Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue.

Ruth Miller,  “The Beer & Cheese Maven” in Richmond, VT

Having some knowledge of beer styles helps you to pair cheeses with similar taste profiles, or create contrasting ones. Knowing what types of ingredients and adjuncts are typical for certain beer styles can help get you to a great pairing more quickly, or at least get you “in the ballpark” to explore the pairings further, using a standard pairing as a launch point. Conversely, learning something about cheese styles can work the same way from the other end. Also, don’t ignore geographic or historical aspects about styles from certain regions being compatible.

That said, there is a beer style for every cheese, with one caveat: strong hops in beer, and high salt content in certain cheeses can spell gustatory chaos for some tasters, so take care with those pairings. Styles that are malt-forward lend themselves well to big, stinky cheeses because the residual sweetness can tame the funk of a big cheese. Alternatively, a sharp, dry style like a geueze, lambic or Berliner weisse can contrast nicely with a soft, creamy bloomy rind or rich triple cream cheese.

Also, I’ve found Belgian beers with their low-hopping, fruitiness and yeasty profiles are outstanding partners for many kinds of robust cheeses, as well as bloomy rinds. There are several beer-washed-rind cheeses that work with not only their respective beers, but others of similar style or point of origin as well — Trappists being a classic example. Hoppy beers are very compatible with cheddars as the hops echo cheddar’s grassy, fruity taste. Wheat beers pair beautifully with goat cheeses like fresh chevre and crottins, as their citrusy aspects play well with the tartness of those cheeses, and their high effervescence is a foil for the sticky, fresher versions. Hard, nutty cheeses like aged goudas, cloth-bound cheddars and Parmegiana Reggiano, with their butterscotch diacetyl flavors and crunchy amino acid crystals are wonderful with super-malty beers. Stouts and porters are a fabulous pair for blue cheeses. The salt, malt sweetness and butteriness all scream chocolate-chip cookie dough to me!

Issue: September 2010