It's Better Than Wine and Cheese
It’s widely assumed that wine and cheese are compatible friends. They’re paired together so routinely that phrases like “the white wine and Brie crowd” can be used to define a social set. But all is not well in this friendship. At least one wine writer has recognized this, according to brew master and gourmand Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing: Willy Gluckstern, a somewhat cranky New York wine critic, called wine and cheese a “train wreck in the mouth.”
Not many folks realize that beer and cheese have far more in common than wine and cheese. Both are simple and nutritious, each born of Graminae and carefully nurtured in an ancient fermentation process. Of course, the beer aficionado must be forgiving of the fact that cheese residue remaining on the lips will crash the finest head formations of any beer. If you can put up with that inconvenience, you’ll find that most beer styles are quite compatible with most cheese types.
The same cannot be said of wine and cheese. Naturally, some wines do go well with some cheeses, but the pairing is much trickier.
The wedding of Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces is fraught with perils of another nature. The marriage of milk and grain is a melding of fat and carbohydrates–calories compounded by more calories. This is not a diet for the weak hearted nor for weight-loss champions. Deal with it. Remember, losing weight is fun only if you have some to lose.
It is fascinating to consider that both beer and cheese are the result of ferments. That of beer produces alcohol, while that of cheese produces acid. Not to worry; both processes have matured over the centuries. Early beer was dark, overbearing and sometimes wild, whereas cheese evolved from a sour, semi-solid mess. Your beer, in those times, was limited to what your local brewer could produce, and the same was true of cheese. You took what you could get or could make yourself.
Over the centuries, beer has become the sophisticated and wide-ranging delight that we know and love. In recent years, large companies may have reduced the brewing process to the lowest levels conceivable in their attempts to satisfy the most people possible. Despite that, modern beer is undergoing a revolution in which the old styles are being brought back and new styles are evolving. Beer is alive and moving right along.
Cheese, too, has undergone a similar revolution. Cheeze Whiz and Velveeta are no longer the epitome of mass-marketed cheese, any more than “lite” beer is that of the beer industry. Small American cheese makers are undertaking the manufacture of ever more obscure cheese types from across the world, just as craft brewers have revived ancient artisanal brewing processes.
Moreover, like beer, cheese comes in many forms. Cheese ranges in density from very soft and gooey to relatively hard, and can be made from the milk of dairy cows, sheep and goats. Although rare, cheeses have also been produced from a wide-ranging bestiary, including such oddities as yaks, reindeer, camels, water buffalo, and even zebras. These are creatures on which one can barely imagine locating udders, let alone milking them. Indeed, there is a story of cheese made from the milk of manatees, although it strains the imagination to envision a method of milk extraction from that water-bound species.
What these milk-producers have in common is that they are all vegetarians–grass and grain eaters. Grass is indeed the common element for the relationship between beer and cheese.
Milk Types for Cheese
Most cheese is made from dairy cows’ milk. Cows are milked twice a day; cheeses are usually a blend of morning and evening milkings. Milk is higher in fat early in the calving cycle and at the end of the lactation cycle. High-fat milks are preferred for cheese making, but cheese can also be made from skim or partially skimmed milk, which may be pasteurized or unpasteurized.
Goats’ milk is popular. It is very high in fat content and freer of pathogens, so for that reason it is usually not pasteurized. Nanny goats have high yields and short lactation periods. Chevre (goats’ milk cheese) is usually strong and full flavored.
Some cheeses are made from ewes’ milk. Sheep thrive in harsh conditions, and ewes’ milk allows cheese making in geographic areas where cattle would not survive. The sheep lactation period is shorter than that of cattle and far more seasonal. These cheeses are usually sharper than cow cheese.
The higher the fat, the more vitamins A and D, and the higher the calorie count. Fat content is given as a minimum percent of the dry matter; thus, low moisture cheeses of a given weight have more fat than the same weight of high-moisture cheeses.
The cheese rind, when there is one, is usually distinctive and there are many variations. Dry natural rind is formed by the curds at the edges of the cheese as it dries out. This is tough, hard and thick. Soft bloomy, white rinds have a growth of mold from sprayed Penicillium spores on the surface. These rinds are white when fresh but darken with age. They may or may not be eaten, as desired. Washed rind cheeses are washed with water, brine, wine or beer, and sometimes they develop a bacterial growth that varies from yellow to dark red. These rinds are often smelly and rarely eaten. Sometimes cheeses are encompassed in rinds not originating with the cheese itself. Such rinds can be of herbs, leaves, wax, or even ashes.
Natural cheeses range in color from white through all shades of yellow to dark chocolate brown. Color depends on length of ripening and the butterfat content of the cheese. The richer the original milk, the more golden the cheese. Sometimes artificial color is added. Some cheeses (for example, feta) are actually bleached.
Flavor and Aroma
Flavors and aromas range from mild to strong. Smelly doesn’t always mean strong.
Cheese sampling is done in much the same way as beer is tasted. Look, sniff, taste, evaluate and post-evaluate. Different cheeses are approached differently. For example, authors Timperley and Norman (A Gourmet’s Guide to Cheese) tell us, “soft, semi-soft and blue cheeses are tasted by pressing them against the palate with the tongue(hard and sharp cheeses are tasted on the tip of the tongue.”
What Beer? Which Cheese?
Yes, beer does indeed go with cheese; but beer and cheese combinations only appear to be simple. The reality is that, at times, this wedding can be perilous and difficult to manage.
Most cheese authorities agree that there are some eight different categories or styles in the world of cheese. Let us examine each to see what beer types will complement them.
1. Fresh, very soft cheeses are uncooked and unripe or barely ripened; coagulated with rennet or by lactic fermentation, or even by using lemon juice; and packed simply into tubs, crocks, or molded by hand. Some are very soft, even spoonable. Very soft cheeses include pot cheese, cottage cheese, cream cheese and ricotta Beer: These cheeses have low taste profiles and go well with more mellow beers such as American wheat beer, American lagers, amber lagers, and Munich lagers.
2. Soft, spreadable cheeses, such as Camembert or Brie, have bloomy rinds. Beer: These go well with Euro-lagers, pilsners, pale ales, porters and American fruit ales.
3. Semi-soft cheeses include many monastic cheeses and washed rind cheeses that are cured with brine, beer, wine or spices. Trappist cheeses and muenster are good examples, as are Gouda, havarti, Tilsit, Liederkrantz, Port-Salut and American, Colby, Monterey jack and similar cheeses. Beer: These all go with more energetic beer at the lower end of the hop rate, such as English brown ales, amber ales, golden ales, bitters, and Belgian pale ales, plus Vienna lagers, mellow bocks, or Oktoberfest brews, not to mention rye ales and Bavarian whites.
4. Semi-hard, sliceable cheese. Cheddar (there are many varieties, including white aged cheddar), Swiss, Cheshire, Tilsit, and other sliceable cheeses, such as Edam, Gruyere, emmentaler, Jarlsberg, and aged Gouda. Beer: Good sandwich cheeses go well with pilsners, extra special bitters and pale ales, plus IPAs, double bocks, strong ales and almost any Belgian ale, particularly wits and fruit ales.
5. Hard cheese. These are very firm, grainy, cooked and pressed grating cheeses, such as parmigiano. But they are also nice nibbley cheeses and need something heavy in a beverage. Beer: Strong ale or doppelbock, stout or porter.
6. Blue vein, marbled cheese, strong flavored and crumbly, including Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola, and other blues, especially those from Wisconsin, but particularly including Maytag Blue from Iowa. Beer: Try stronger porters, stouts, and heavier dark beers, such as old ales, barley wines, and Imperial stouts. The latter matches Stilton especially well.
7. Goat cheeses–chevre–are usually a bit more flavorful than regular cheeses of similar types. Roquefort, romano and feta are good examples. We should note here that goat cheeses are at the cutting edge of popularity these days. Beer: Think IPAs, ESBs, American brown ales, stouts and porters.
8. Pasta filata are the stretched curd cheeses of Italy, such as mozzarella and provolone. Beer: They go well with Belgian wits, Bavarian whites, and heavier Bavarian wheat beers (doppelweizen).
Simple Cheese and Beer Tastings
This might be done rather simply by putting a good cheese board out, with samples of the eight cheese types. Allow your guests to choose from a wide-ranging beer selection. Guests could then sip and sample across the board to explore all possibilities.
Alternately, one might set a list of beers and then select cheeses to fit. These paired combinations are to be served one at a time. Both cheese and beer are best sampled in ascending order of strength and pungency.
Celebrate American Beer Month with a Beer and Cheese Tasting
We actually did a fine beer and cheese event here in Portland to celebrate American Beer month last July. We held it at Rogue Brewery’s Portland pub. They have a fine beer list, to which we added others of the best in the Northwest. We were also able to get some really fine American craft (not Kraft) cheeses.
I spent a goodly amount of time with Shannon Thorne, cheese monger at Portland’s nearby Elephant Delicatessen. America’s craft cheese makers are in a business that is every bit as complex as that of our small micros. For the fine Oregon beers I had available, I would have preferred all Oregon cheeses but that was not to be. There simply weren’t enough of the specific cheese types I needed to be found here, so I searched for cheese matches in Oregon, Washington and California. I allowed no national brands, not even Oregon’s famous Tillamook cheese, nor any imports, no matter how good. It would be small producers or not at all. Price was no object (we invested $7.43/person just for cheese).
I started by trying to locate well-made Oregon unpasteurized goat cheeses, and found the lovely Juniper Grove Feta and their excellent Tumelo Tomme (a washed rind, semi-soft, unpasteurized goat cheese) from Redmond. From Bandon, I took Bandon White Aged Cheddar and Bandon Jalepe–o Cheese, a delightful peppery jack cheese. Then Alan Sprints, Hair of the Dog’s inimitable owner, promised not only to provide some of his Fred, but also to make a simple “farm” cheese.
I still needed four cheeses to round out my list. I was depressed to discover that our famous Oregon Rogue Blue is now made in California, so that was out. I wanted no Oregon cheese from California. Instead, I went for the fine Point Reyes Blue from that state (we couldn’t get the Maytag Blue for this tasting).
Next, we ventured into nearby Washington. Sadly, there wasn’t enough time to get Washington State (University) Cougar Gold, for which I felt bad. I also wanted to get at least one sheep cheese, and for that we needed to deal with the legendary Sally Jackson. Ms. Thorne told me that she had a curmudgeonly reputation similar to my own. That clinched it; I had to have that cheese.
Sally Jackson makes her cheese near Oroville, located in the remote Okanogan area. She (reportedly) has no electricity but does have a telephone. I wanted her ewes’ milk Chestnut semi-soft cheese. I could settle for no less. What I got was spectacular: THREE (3)! Chestnuts. Because she didn’t have enough of one of them for our needs, she sent some of each: cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk cheese. Talk about a windfall. Here was a classic chance for tasting the same cheese made from three different milks at the same time! Wow!
I still needed two more cheeses. I found a wonderful aged Gouda in Bellingham, WA, where Sammish Bay Aged Gouda (6 pounds for $100) promised to fill the bill magnificently, although I would have preferred a smoked Gouda for that smoked beer.
My last cheese type was not available on the West Coast. No matter, I went to New York’s Hudson Valley for their Camembert, which was to be served warm, as you shall see. Originally, I had hoped to find a Brie, but Ms. Thorne warned me against any she had in stock or could get. The Camembert proved to be perfect for the job. A good cheese monger is indeed worth her weight in gold, if not cheese (nearly as dear).
Did I mention that the cheese bill was $743?
We had all of the cheeses anyone could desire, but what Oregon craft beers were needed to match these fine American cheeses? Here’s the final lineup. You be the judge, but about 125 happy folks enjoyed a real bargain. Jack Joyce, Rogue Brewing’s CEO, in a fit of magnanimous largesse charged each of them a paltry $10. Never was so much offered for so little in the world of beer tastings.
I could have saved him money by using only Rogue beers. Rogue is a prolific brewery, with something like 24 distinctive beers from which to choose. However, I wanted other Oregon beers as well. I wanted the best I could get for this American Beer and Craft Cheese Extravaganza. I’ve included, for the reader’s reference, both the alcohol content by volume (ABV), and the bitterness level (IBU).
Rogue Kells Lager 4.8% ABV, 28 IBU, Newport, OR. Cheese: Alan Sprints’ quick homemade “Hair of the Dog” cheese (an overnight prep, where boiling milk is coagulated with lemon juice). This was a very friendly combination, simple, low key, and a great way to start the tasting.
Deschutes Pine Pilsner 5.4% ABV, 50 IBU, Bend, OR. Cheese: Bandon White Aged Cheddar (Bandon, OR). Served as a simple “sandwich”: first a small pretzel, with a thin slice of fresh apple, and topped with a slice of the cheddar. I ask the reader, how could one have a beer and cheese tasting without at least a slice of apple?
Rogue Half-A-Weizen 5.1% ABV, 20 IBU. Cheese: Juniper Grove Goat Feta (Redmond, OR). A feta cheese choice was a natural for American wheat beer.
Rogue Hazelnut Brown 5.5% ABV, 33 IBU. Cheese: Sally Jackson Chestnut semi-soft cheese, in three varieties: unpasteurized sheep, goat and cow milk (Okanogan WA). This was my choice of “Best” combination, tied with the IPA-Camembert combination below. Actually, I personally liked the cows’ milk version best, surprising myself. The cows’ milk version was also the darkest (yellow) of the three.
Rogue Smoke (Rauchbier) 5.9% ABV, 48 IBU. Cheese: Sammish Bay Aged Gouda (Bellingham WA). This was the group’s choice as “Best” combination of the evening.
Terminal Gravity IPA, Terminal Gravity Brewing 6.5% ABV, ~65 IBU, Enterprise, OR. Cheese: Hudson Valley Camembert (Hudson Valley, NY) served warm on a slice of baguette. This was my choice of “Best,” tied with number 4 above. The combination of warm Brie and IPA was one I accidentally discovered while dining in Nashville, TN, with Fred Scheer, the brew master at Bosco’s.
Rogue Belgian 5000 7.4% ABV, 24 IBU. Cheese: Juniper Grove Tumelo Tomme, a washed rind, semi-soft cheese from Redmond OR.
Rogue Shakespeare Stout 6.2% ABV, 69 IBU. Cheese: Point Reyes Blue (Point Reyes, CA). This stout is especially delicious when accompanied by a good blue!
Hair of the Dog Thor
15.9% ABV, ~50 IBU, Portland. Cheese: Bandon Jalepe–o Cheese (Bandon, OR).
At the end of the evening, we took the vote for best combination. Everyone was invited to vote for as many beer-cheese combos as they wished but only once for each combo.
Garrett Oliver, whose tasting notes grace these pages regularly, told me about another memorable combination. He took Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, a soft, spreadable goat cheese of great renown, from California to Brae, Italy, in September 2000 for a Slow Food Cheese Festival. He offered it with New York Ommegang Hennepen (Belgian-style ale) for what had to be a great combination.
The next time you stumble on a hoity-toity wine and cheese “train wreck,” you might enlighten those darlings about the realities of grass and grain vis-à-vis the grape and mammalian nurturing. Those winos won’t believe you, of course, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you are right. Better yet, you’ll know what they are missing in their lives.
Fred Eckhardt lives, drinks beer, and eats cheese (and sometimes chocolate, or even ice cream) with that libation in Portland, OR.