Pairing Beer & Cheese

Homebrewers, and the beer-consuming public, are getting to know the wonders of pairing different beer styles with a variety of cheeses that complement, enhance, and interact in a variety of taste experiences. Here are some tips that are diverse and tasty.

Pairing Technique

Cheese should be taken out of refrigeration at least a half-hour before serving. Cold cheese has less aroma and flavor, not unlike beer that is served too cold. Cut a piece that includes the rind, if edible and desired, for a fair investigation. Swirl your beer in the glass to aerate it and activate the carbonation that sends the aroma upward.

Take a sniff. Now take a sip and swallow slowly. Next, sniff the cheese to be paired. Take a bite. Chew thoroughly, allowing it to completely coat your tongue. Finally, take a sip of beer while your tongue is still coated, allowing it to wash over, and lift the cheese off. Carbonation aerates the cheese to better deliver all the nuances to both your taste buds, and to your olfactory senses, where well over half of what you taste is perceived. The carbonation will have a scrubbing effect, allowing you to try the evaluation repeatedly.

Complementary Pairings

Here are some examples of pairings involving beers and cheeses “that play well together,” are harmonious, and/or share some flavor components common to both. They may mimic each other, or inspire thoughts and memories of familiar taste combinations.

Aged Gouda (at least two years) with Scotch ales, doppelbocks, and other beer styles containing strong malt flavors with low hopping. Both cheese and beer contain elements from the heating and fermentation of their respective sugars, playing up the intense caramel, toffee, and butterscotch qualities of both.

Fresh Chevre with witbiers, hefeweizens, gruits, and other lighter wheat beer styles exhibiting citrus and/or spice notes. These two beer styles pair well because the low level of lactic acid present in the cheese gives it a slight tang, which echoes and reinforces some of the light lemony, clove and spicy esters in certain wheat beers. Also, low-gravity beers that use low-acid citrus, flowers, herbs, and spices as adjuncts can be complementary.

Alpine style cheeses like Jarlsberg, Comte, Gruyere, and Raclette are all semi-firm cow cheeses that have elements of butter, nuttiness, and broth. Paired with clean-tasting lagers possessing cereal flavors like Pils, Kölsch, helles, and dunkels, the combination of the bready flavors of the beer with the buttery character of the cheese remind one of buttered toast, pie crust, and toasted nuts.

Dynamic Pairings

These types of pairings tend to elevate the flavors of one or the other component. Or, they may subjugate one, allowing the other to shine comparatively brighter than if it were tasted alone. Sometimes the cheese flavors are accentuated, and sometimes it’s the beer that gains more attention. But neither can do it independently of the other — they work in tandem to create the effect, mostly due to chemistry factors in their combination.

Salty, high-fat blue cheeses with stouts, porters, schwarzbiers, and milk stouts. This combination tamps down the musty, acidic, and salty characteristics of blue cheeses, and elevates their fudgy, buttery, and creamy side using the sweet malt and roasted flavors of the beer to transform it into something that mimics salted caramel or chocolate-covered pretzels. The cheese tamps down the beer’s tannic character, but preserves its roastiness. Sweetness is a flavor that effectively mitigates the harsh sensations of salt and acid on the tongue. Roastiness plus butteriness begets dark chocolate flavors. The beer makes the cheese shine as something very different on the palate, and soothes some of its rougher edges.

Bloomy-rind cheeses like Camembert and Brie with brown ales, red ales, and pale ales. This combo employs the somewhat neutral, low-hopped, medium-malty character of a brown or pale ale to accentuate the earthy, buttery nature of bloomy-rind cheeses in all their moldy glory. The mushroom aroma and flavors reside in the penicillium rind, while the buttery component resides in the rich interior paste of these cheeses. The balanced malt character of those beer styles tamps down mold flavors but accentuates buttery flavors, lessening the mushroom. You can accentuate the mushroom flavor with a saison, whose yeasty esters play up the mold.

Cheddars with ESBs, IPAs and DIPAs. Cheddars can have very herby, grassy flavors. Younger ones are more lactic (milky and mild) while aging brings out amino acids causing formation of crystalline particles, acidic tang, and sharp flavors. High IBU beers have a grassiness all their own due to their hop content. This is a pairing of worthy opponents — will the cheese or the beer shine brighter? Younger, creamier cheddars temper the hops in the beer and allow the fresh grassiness in the cheese to pleasantly pair . . . but dominate. It turns around in aged cheddar as the cheese dries out and continues to develop, and the herbaceous flavors are replaced by more complex, earthy, and astringent ones that accentuate hop bitterness, instead of the more floral aspect. So choose your cheddar based on what you enjoy out of high-IBU beers — younger for a more floral effect; older for more of the bitterness; and medium to showcase both effects equitably.

Issue: March-April 2017