Beer and cheese have a lot on common. As Brooklyn Brewing’s brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, is fond of pointing out, cheese is grass processed by microbes in the cow’s stomach, and beer is grass processed by the brewer and the action of a microbe, yeast.
The businesses share similarities, as well. At one end of the scale are industrial giants making vast seas of mass-market product, and at the other are craftsmen (and women) making rare, artisanal products, largely by hand. After more than a hundred years of the pendulum swinging in favor of industrialized food and drink, it’s starting to swing back the other way. People are realizing that convenience, efficiency and low price are not necessarily all that great a bargain.
The craft beer revolution really got going in here in the early 1980s. And although it is currently at about 3.5 percent of the total U.S. beer market, craft beer is starting to get a pretty good awareness and availability, especially in larger markets. Specialty cheese started here about the same time, but has grown more slowly. The American Cheese Society, the organization that represents small and specialty producers, was founded in 1983, but American specialty cheese is still flying under the radar. It’s out there, but you have to make an effort to track it down, as it can rarely be found in grocery stores.
Just as with beer, we’ve tended in the past to look to Europe for the finer examples of cheese, and it’s true that the Old World offers some genuine delights. But like, beer, American producers now offer products that are every bit the equal of European ones, and offer up the same creative, spirited approach as they do with craft beers.
The ACS divides cheesemakers into three categories: ‘farmstead’ cheeses are produced right on the farm where the entirety of the milk originates; ‘artisanal’ means small, often family operations that get the majority of their milk elsewhere; and ‘specialty’ is a broader definition: “limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles,” and which may come from larger producers.
Although the undercurrents of a desire to make sustainable, meaningful and, above all, flavorful products are the same for beer and cheese, there are some differences. Craft brewing was launched through the homebrewing movement as practitioners put a business plan together and started brewing professionally, a process that continues today. While there are some amateur cheesemakers, the hobby hasn’t been a big driver of the movement. As in beer, there are refugees from the corporate world, but just as often it is a new generation of farmers trying to move beyond the old commodities mentality of the past and build a future for their families based on value-added products.
Specialty cheesemakers are starting to realize that beer is a natural companion and great selling tool. And, as I myself have found out, it’s a small and comfortable step from beer lover to beer and cheese aficionado. A few cheesemakers are starting to pick up on this. Rogue happens to be the name of both a creamery and a brewery, although they do not share ownership. But the two have been working a lot together to spread the message of great beer and cheese.
Let’s Have a Taste
The wine world has done a pretty good job on installing the inseparability of wine and cheese into people’s heads. I love wine with a number of foods, but I’m afraid cheese isn’t one of them. The best you can hope for is a pairing based on contrasts, because the two share little in common. In fact, cheese does such a good job of disguising the flavors of wine that merchants are advised to “sell on cheese.” As legendary wine merchant George Saintstbury put it: “An overripe brie will kill a Burgundy stone dead.” But that same ripe cheese might be a stunner next to a Belgian style saison, with its brisk carbonation, clean palate and spicy, earthy perfume.
Beer is fantastic with cheese for a number of reasons. First is its amazing range. From straw to black in color, three to over twenty percent alcohol, sweet and malty to blisteringly bitter, and with a range of aromas to match, there’s a huge range of choices.
Carbonation is a big help with cheese. The physical action literally scrubs away fat and protein, which is important in keeping your palate refreshed. Alcohol has a similar cleansing effect, which is why higher-fat cheese usually works better with stronger beer.
Beer and cheese share a good deal of flavor vocabulary, something that’s useful when trying to find harmonies. Cheese displays buttery, nutty, caramelly, tangy, fruity, meaty and even toasty flavors. These are flavors that either mirror many of the flavors found in beer, or at least feel right at home with them.
Cheese may be made from a number of different types of milk: cow, sheep, goat or buffalo. Each has different properties and flavors. Goat and sheep milk have distinct, rustic, animal aromas that often match well with earthier beers, especially those using wild yeast such as Brettanommyces. The milk and curds can be processed in a number of different ways that affect the density, texture, mouthfeel and more. Cheese can be ready to eat with little or even no aging, or it can be formed into various shapes and aged under all kinds of conditions for brief or extended times. A variety of different types of fungus and bacteria are used to affect the outcome.
Beer and cheese pairings rely on the same commonsense techniques as any other kind of food. There are many different approaches, but I feel that there are three things that always need to be addressed for any beer and food match to really work. These do not need to be done in any particular order.
This is just a matter of getting the beer and cheese at each other’s level. It’s important that one doesn’t overwhelm the other. In cheese, intensity is a combination of milk type, fat content, aging time and auxiliary treatment of the kind found in blue or ripened types. In beer, it’s a combination of original gravity, alcohol, roastiness, bitterness and other flavors. In my experience, pairing is much trickier at the lighter end of the scale. Flavors are delicate and it’s harder to find sensations that are really thrilling and that spark one another. Perhaps it’s similar to finding a good session beer. Lightning isn’t going to strike right away; it’s an association that takes time to build, and eventually it develops into a mellow old friendship.
Find Complementary Flavors
This is an easy one, because there are so many common elements. Nutty tastes are common in medium-colored beers and medium-intensity cheeses. Earthy aromas from goat cheese blend with earthy Belgian style beers. The herbal notes of blue cheese mingle well with beers with abundant hop aroma. The caramelliness of an aged gouda leads right into the smooth toastiness of a strong porter.
Deal With Contrasts
This looks at specific elements in the beer and cheese that can interact with each other. In cheese, the two main players are butterfat and umami.* Either alcohol or hop bitterness can balance buttery/creamy flavors in cheese. For a really big, creamy cheese, you might try both. Umami has a long, lingering flavor that hops also do a nice job of countering, but toasty, roasty flavors seem to do the trick as well.
In addition, there are pairs that work because they bring together familiar flavors in a new context. Well-aged cheese like a three year-old Gouda has intense meaty flavors, as well as a fair amount of salt. All these are flavors we’re accustomed to enjoying in the presence of roasty flavors—think about a well-charred steak or beef roast. It’s those familiar flavors, but in a new presentation. The first pair in the sidebar recalls a sensation of peach ice cream, the milky cheese flavors mingling with the fruitiness of the wheat beer. The third pairing recalls a grilled cheese sandwich, with its comforting melding of toast and tangy, runny cheese. Naturally, these can be show-stoppers, and highly memorable pairs.
One Final Thought
Get the very best cheese you can find. Although if you’re used to grocery store cheese, the prices may seem high, in truth for the kind of rich experience, complexity and depth, great cheese is a true bargain. Sure, giant factories can turn out something that looks like cheese for a couple of bucks a pound, but artisanal cheese is a handmade product, and people in it are doing it because they have a passion and a mission to preserve these traditions that enrich our lives. They deserve our support.
*Umami is the fifth basic taste, and is a savory, meaty flavor found in meat, ripe tomatoes, certain fish and many other foods. Parmesan cheese is 10 percent by weight of glutamate, one of the umami flavor chemicals.
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer's Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.