Beer and cheese pairings play up contrasting elements: nutty, sweet, sharp and funky.
While wine and cheese pairing parties and events are common, beer also offers tremendous potential for pairing with cheeses.
As Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and editor of “The Oxford Companion to Beer” (Oxford University Press, 2011), said, “Traditional and craft beers have a very wide range of flavor, far wider than that of wine. … Many ingredients may be used: grains can be caramelized or roasted, spices can be added and fruit may be infused.”
Oliver also cited variations in alcohol content, carbonation and yeast aromas as additional elements of flavor diversity that lend themselves to successful pairings with a wide variety of cheeses. Beer and cheese, along with bread, share a centuries-old relationship, having been created alongside each other in farmhouse kitchens.
While the possibilities are virtually endless for potential beer and cheese pairings, I performed an experiment comparing and contrasting four different dimensions of flavor that beers and cheeses can share: nutty, sweet, sharp and funky. Of course, all of these products contain complex flavor components – none is simple or one-dimensional – but for purposes of comparison, they were assigned to categories based on the dominant taste profile. I selected four California cheeses and four California beers to represent each of the flavor dimensions.
• Nutty: Nut Brown Ale from AleSmith Brewing in San Diego, 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV)
• Sweet: Maltopia Wee Heavy Scotch Ale from Hermitage Brewing in San Jose, 9 percent ABV
• Sharp: 3 Flowers IPA from Marin Brewing in Larkspur, 6.6 percent ABV
• Funky: Supplication from Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, 7 percent ABV
• Nutty: Fiscalini Cheddar from Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese in Modesto
• Sweet: Mt Tam Triple Crème Brie from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station
• Sharp: Midnight Moon Aged Goat Gouda from Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata
• Funky: Original Blue from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese in Point Reyes Station
Assessing the combinations
In tasting the 16 different combinations of beer and cheese, some worked in perfect harmony, some beers overwhelmed the flavors of certain cheeses (and vice versa) and some absolutely clashed in unpleasant ways.
• AleSmith Nut Brown Ale was very smooth on the palate, demonstrating a bready, toasted aroma and flavor with hints of chocolate and a delicately earthy bitter finish. The beer complemented the nutty, mild flavor of the cheddar, but it really shined next to the smooth, rich, slightly sweet butteriness of the Triple Crème Brie. The sharp tang of the Goat Gouda brought out a subtle smokiness in the beer, which was not unpleasant but not as rewarding as the brie. The pungent blue cheese completely overwhelmed the delicate flavors of the Nut Brown Ale.
Best pairing: Mt Tam Triple Crème Brie.
• Hermitage Maltopia Wee Heavy Scotch Ale had a distinctive bready, caramelly aroma of malt sweetness, with a flavor that highlighted sweet caramel and toast, balanced by a hint of hop bitterness. The beer hides its 9 percent ABV well – it is smooth and easy drinking for a beer of such strength. While the buttery brie would seem to be a natural pairing with the toasty beer, the combination fell flat, failing to bring out the best qualities of either the beer or the cheese. The smooth nuttiness of the cheddar, on the other hand, accentuated the toasted and caramel notes, bringing out the best of both the beer and the cheese. While I had initially thought that the alcohol and sweetness of the Scotch Ale might cut through the pungent flavors of the blue cheese, they ended up clashing, as did the Goat Gouda.
Best pairing: Fiscalini Cheddar.
• Marin 3 Flowers IPA has a firm, earthy bitterness with a pungent, slightly spicy aroma with notes of passion fruit and other tropical fruits. The addition of rye contributes a hint of a sharp bite in both the aroma and the flavor. While not as aggressive as many IPAs, the 3 Flowers is potent enough to overwhelm the restrained flavors of both the cheddar and the brie. The slight tang of the goat cheese clashes with the fruitiness and spiciness of the beer. The blue cheese, however, is a delightful match for the IPA. The bitterness of the beer cuts through both the piquancy and the creaminess of the cheese. Both the beer and the cheese boast strong, sharp, pungent flavor characteristics that are different in a way that is difficult to articulate, but definitely complementary.
Best pairing: Point Reyes Original Blue.
• Russian River Supplication is a sour brown ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries. Decidedly funky, the beer showcases farmhouse aromas like horse blanket alongside the tart cherry nose. The flavor is grassy, tart and fruity all at the same time. As with the strong flavors of the IPA, Supplication overwhelms the brie and the cheddar – these cheeses are just too delicate to match up. On the other hand, the sharp, earthy funk of the blue cheese paired with the sourness is just overpowering. The pairing is like trying to listen to two conversations at the same time – overwhelming, confusing and you can’t really make out the details of either one. Supplication does highlight the rich complexity of the Cypress Grove Midnight Moon – the sweet, creamy, tanginess of the cheese is offset by the acidity of the beer, while the tart blast of the beer also cuts the sharpness of the cheese.
Best pairing: Cypress Grove Midnight Moon.
Ultimately, it may come as no surprise that contrasting but complementary pairings worked best. To my palate, the two more delicate flavors worked best together – the sweet cheese went with the nutty beer and the nutty cheese was quite enjoyable with the sweet beer. Likewise, the two different strong flavor components harmonized with each other – the sharp beer and the funky cheese stood up to each other, as did the funky beer and the sharp cheese.
I encourage you to try your own pairing experiments – bon appetit, and cheers!
Derek Wolfgram is chief communications officer for the Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.