A natural pairing
by Peggy Paul
For decades, we’ve been told that wine and cheese are the “it” couple of the culinary world. But in the last few years, as small-batch artisanal cheesemaking has swooped in on the heels of America’s craft brew movement, it’s become clear that beer and cheese make quite the natural pairing. From intricate production processes and wide ranges of earthy, complex flavors and textures, to histories spanning thousands of years, beers and cheeses share many common attributes that have long been overlooked…until now.
At the most basic level, beer and cheese begin with the same thing: grass. The barley used in beer brewing is a cereal grass, and the milk used in cheesemaking is a by-product of cows, goats, or sheep eating grass and grains. As a result, both products complement each other with similar flavors and aromas—think nutty, tangy, floral, and earthy—and they can both offer textures that are either sharp and dry or smooth and creamy. Furthermore, both bitter and sweet beers play off the inherent saltiness of cheese, and beer’s effervescence cuts through rich, tongue-coating cheeses, bringing out many of the nuances that would otherwise be lost. “The effervescence in beer cleanses your palate in a way that wine (especially red wine) does not,” says Tenaya Darlington, cheese blogger and author of Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. “[And] beer is more forgiving. For the same price or less, you can pick up a mix-a-six and a nice hunk of Cheddar, and you get six tries to find a beer pairing that works.”
Of course, far before “pairings” entered the culinary lexicon, beer and cheese were consumed together as simple foodstuffs for thousands of years, usually made to preserve excess milk and storage grains. “You can’t talk about cheese and beer without talking about history,” says Franklin Winslow, the Quality Assurance Director at Yards Brewing Company. “Those two different foods have evolved together for so long that their flavors hinge upon each other.”
A Long and Tangled History
Up to 10,000 years ago, around the same time that Neolithic civilizations invented the wheel and settled down to form farming communities, they made two startling discoveries: milk curdled when stored in a sack made of animal stomach, and fruits and grains left in covered containers created alcohol. It wasn’t long before they learned how to harness the natural fermentation processes, and eventually cheese, beer, and wine production became important mainstays of early civilization. Cheese preserved animal milk, making it portable and easier to digest, and before proper sewage systems and reliable water supplies, beer and wine were consumed as safer, more nutritious (and much more exciting) alternatives.
From their humble beginnings to ancient Egyptian times, beer, wine, and cheese held equal status, but in the eras of the Greek and Roman Empires, wine veered off and began its ascent up the social ladder. Ancient Egyptians brewed beer in mass quantities for all socioeconomic classes, placing it in tombs along with wine and cheese, and associating it with the gods Osiris and Isis—an honor bestowed on few other foods. As time went on, however, people likely began to notice that wine had fewer nutrients and more alcohol content than beer, and when Egypt was succeeded by the Greeks and Romans, wine became known as an indulgence of the wealthy ruling classes, while beer and cheese maintained their reputations as simple foodstuffs.
The histories of all three foods remained relatively unchanged in the Middle Ages, when European monasteries supplied the merchant and noble classes with wine and produced beer and cheese to help feed the poor. Of course by this point, beer and cheese had developed a strong relationship as traditional farmhouse products. Farmers would often make cheese when they had an abundance of milk, and brew beer during the winter when they couldn’t farm. Hearty “ploughman’s” lunches—common in farmers’ diets and present on most medieval pub menus across Europe—consisted of little more than beer, cheese, and cold meat or pickled vegetables.
When the first European settlers moved to America in the 1500s, they were much more successful with beer and cheese production than with wine. Native American grapes were prolific, but their flavors were unfamiliar, and while winemakers grappled with the gnarly vines, cheesemakers and brewers adapted their time-worn techniques to the terroir—the unique environmental factors—of their new home. By the late 1700s, New England was known for its English-style Cheddars, New Yorkers churned out traditional Goudas, and the German and Swiss settlers of the Midwest were busy crafting Limburgers and semi-firm Alpine cheeses. Early settlers brought their beer brewing techniques with them, too, and in 1632, the first brewery was established by Peter Minuit in lower Manhattan.
In the early-to mid-twentieth century, as the Industrial Revolution swept America, followed closely by World War I and the Great Depression, American beer and cheese broke away from their European roots and struggled to find their own identities. The Industrial Revolution pushed artisanal cheesemaking operations out of the market in the early 1900s, and cheaper, mass-produced styles gained popularity. German beers took a hit during World War I and then prohibition caused a nearly 15-year hiatus in American beermaking. In the 1930s, to save money during the Great Depression, brewers were forced to reduce the aging process and use corn and rice instead of barley malt, producing the beginnings of the cheap, mass-produced American lager we know today. For those who enjoyed (and could still afford) the finer things, artisanal cheeses and expensive wines were imported from Europe, and they likely appeared together as posh after-dinner pairings in up-scale restaurants and homes.
It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that artisanal food production—similar to the traditions of early settlers—made a comeback in the United States. Sick of the pale, fizzy lager beers that saturated the marketplace nationwide, beer lovers began to craft higher-quality brews at home, and in 1976, the first microbrewery was established in Sonoma, California, spurning a true renaissance of American craft brewing. Around the same time, small-scale cheesemakers in California, Texas, Washington State, and other regions across the country perfected their craft and began to sell their products to the general public. In the late 1990s, the Slow Food movement took root in the United States, and to this day, Slow Food members continue to advocate for traditional and hand-made foods, promoting local fare and championing the farm-to-table philosophy.
Thanks to Slow Food and the artisanal food movement, which have made local, traditionally-made foods “hip” again, restaurants nationwide now boast artisanal cheese plates and entire lists of locally-made wines and beers. And though wine is still seen as the more sophisticated option—and remains the go-to companion for cheese plates in many posh establishments—craft beer is steadily regaining its position as a cheese’s natural mate. “There’s an absolute renaissance going on in both the beer and cheese industries here in America,” says Bill Covaleski, Brewmaster and President of Victory Brewing Company. “When Victory opened in 1996, there were less than 1,100 breweries in the US, and now we’re approaching 2,600—and cheesemaking in the US has followed a similar trajectory. These days, there’s always something new and interesting, and we’ve really trained people as producers to put a priority on the inherent values and attributes that local products can bring to the table.”
It’s All about the Process
To understand the deep connection between beer and cheese, you’ve got to understand the processes by which both are made. The quality of a beer depends greatly on the barley, water, hops, and yeast that are used to make it, and different brewing techniques create a wide range of styles, from mild, floral pilsners to rich, chocolaty porters. Similarly, the quality of a cheese depends greatly on the milk and bacteria used to make it, and different crafting techniques create a wide range of different types, from crystal-flecked aged Cheddars to oozing bloomy-rind Bries. Unlike winemaking, which requires little more than grapes, pressure, and time, beer and cheese making are more creative pursuits, involving numerous ingredients and essential steps, and responding well to the additions of spices, herbs, and other flavorings. As Garrett Oliver proclaims in The Brewmaster’s Table, “a brewmaster is more like a chef than he is like a winemaker.”
The Basics of Cheese and Beer Production:
1 The cheesemaking process begins when a starter or bacterial culture is added to fresh milk, which converts the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid and transforms the milk into solid curds and liquid whey.
2 Rennet (a complex of enzymes that are produced naturally in mammalian stomachs) is then added to the curds and whey, finishing the coagulation and forming one huge curd.
3 When it reaches the desired consistency, the curd is cut into uniform pieces, sized according to the type of cheese being made. (The smaller the curds, the harder and drier the cheese will be.) The curds are drained of their whey, and then they are heated—or not, depending on the cheese type—in order to tighten the cheeses’ protein network, firm the texture, and expel more whey.
4 They are then salted and turned into molds (or vice versa): the salt seasons and preserves the cheese, reduces its moisture content, and helps impede bacterial growth.
5 Once the cheeses are molded, they are pressed to extract more whey and set aside to ripen in a closely monitored temperature-controlled room, which is kept to around 50°F with consistent humidity (higher humidity for softer cheeses; lower humidity for harder cheeses).
It is during this time that the magic happens—flavors, textures, aromas, and characters are developed, bluing occurs in blue-veined cheeses; “eyes” appear in certain Alpine cheeses; and the rinds develop, either naturally or with assistance, as with washed-rind cheeses. The ripening process can take from a few days to several years, with longer ripening times producing drier, more intense cheeses.
Much like cheesemakers, brewers alter the physical and chemical properties of a raw material (barley) and then use specific yeasts and recipes to transform the resulting substance (wort) into a completely new, delicious thing (beer).The beer brewing process begins by sprouting and kiln-drying grains (usually barley) to make the malt. The malt is then steeped in hot water, where the starches are converted into a sweet liquid called wort. The wort is then collected and boiled with hops (and often other spices and flavorings) to counteract its sweetness and impart flavor, aroma, and bitterness. The hopped wort is then chilled, strained, and transferred to a temperature-controlled fermentation vessel where yeast is added to convert the
sugars to CO2 and alcohol. When the yeast has worked its magic and the beer reaches the desired gravity (sugar content), the beer is cooled and aged, during which time the flavors become more refined and more yeast and protein fall to the bottom of the tank. Before bottling, some brewers add more hops and steep them in the beer to add a touch more bitterness and another layer of flavor. The bottled beer is then aged (anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the type) to achieve natural carbonation.
A Note on Beer-Washed Cheeses:
Since craft beer and artisanal cheese have so much in common, it should come as
no surprise that in the last few years many small-batch cheesemakers have been collaborating with local craft breweries to produce beer-washed cheeses. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that IPAs result in intensely bitter cheeses or that imperial stouts add wafts of cocoa and coffee. Instead, when cheeses are brushed with beer as they age, different beers encourage different levels of bacteria growth that give the cheeses a range of strong, pungent aromas and creamy, earthy, sometimes even beefy flavors. “The yeasts [in beer] are really important in breaking the curd down [in cheese] and accentuating the aging process,” says Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm of Chester Springs, who collaborates with nearby Tired Hands Brewing Company on a biscuit-sized, washed-rind cheese called Red Cat. “The whole thing is to transform the cheese into something really different. In our latest incarnation [of Red Cat]—which is made with Tired Hands’ Guillemont beer—they actually brewed special batches just for us.”
When pairing beer-washed cheeses with beer, try brews that can stand up to robust flavors (like Belgian Dubbels, bock beers, and brown ales) or simply pair the cheese with the beer with which it was washed. Catherine Renzi of Yellow Springs Farm in Chester County washes one of her aged goat cheeses—Yellow Brick Road—in a mixture of Victory Brewing Company’s HopDevil IPA and Storm King Stout. “It’s really interesting to pair [Yellow Brick Road] with both HopDevil and Storm King and taste the cheese twice,” says Renzi. “The different flavors of the beer come
out more clearly when your palate has the reference note, so it really creates two different experiences.”
Other local beer-washed cheeses to try:
• Red Cat (Birchrun Hills Farm)
• Bathed in Victory (Doe Run Farm)
• Taleginator and Tommenator (Keswick Creamery)
• Cowtipper (Calkins Creamery)
Beer + Cheese = Magic
By now we’ve established that craft beer and artisanal cheese have a lot in common—they are farmstead products that have been crafted side-by-side for thousands of years, they both begin with grasses and grains and rely on natural fermentation, and the processes by which they are created are culinary in nature, resulting in wide varieties of aromas, flavors, and textures. But it isn’t just the similarities that make these two fermented foods a natural pairing. While cheese is earthy and pungent, usually with a creamy finish that coats the tongue and overwhelms other libations, beer offers carbonation, bitterness, and roasted flavors that can handle and play off of the richness and creaminess of most cheeses.
“Beer is a palate cleanser, and it isn’t a dominant partner,” says Bill Covaleski. “If you’re trying to discern the taste of multiple cheeses, I would say that beer has an advantage over wine because it adds a scrubbing effect that lifts the fat of the cheese and gets you ready for the next bite. And beer typically has lower alcohol by volume [than wine], and the lower strength allows you to put a little more volume into your body while you’re enjoying the cheese.”
Of course, beer is also (generally) inexpensive, which works in its favor, and especially in the Philadelphia area, where more and more craft breweries and artisanal cheesemakers are popping up each year, the variety of beers and cheeses to choose from is nothing short of exhilarating. In the last few years, Rolling Barrel Events, a Philly-based event planning firm, has responded to a growing interest in beer and cheese. “We can usually offer a much wider array of options for beer and cheese pairings (as opposed to wine and cheese) because our regional beer scene is so diverse,” says Corey Krejcik, Rolling Barrel’s founder. “We’re like kids in a candy shop. Only we’re all over 21 and the candy is replaced with amazing craft beer and artisan cheeses.”
So how do you go about pairing beer and cheese?
The most important thing to remember when staging a beer and cheese pairing is that there are no concrete rules—only suggestions. In general, bubbly, effervescent beers play well with rich, creamy cheeses; light-bodied beers complement milder, brighter-flavored cheeses; and complex beers stand up to cheeses with robust, multifaceted characters. Cheese tends to be best at room temperature, and raw-milk cheeses, made with unpasteurized milk, display fuller, richer flavors than their muted, pasteurized counterparts. Beyond that, the order in which you choose your pairings—whether you pick a cheese first and then find a beer to accompany it or vice versa—is totally up to you.
“The perfect pairing should naturally play with each other,” says Sande Friedman, who runs Tria Café’s cheese program and fermentation school in Philadelphia. “Start with what you’re really excited about—whether it’s the beer or the cheese—and then pair with that. You want something that is perfect as you’re having it but that also leaves you ready for your next bite. If one thing is really rich or really dry, the other thing should balance that out.”
Pairings are also great opportunities for trying new things. Pick up a mixed six pack of craft beers and a few local hunks from your friendly cheesemonger, and you’ll be amazed by the number of delicious and surprising flavor combinations you discover (that is, if you slow down enough to savor each bite and sip).
Building Your Vocabulary
The best part about a good (or bad) pairing can often be the conversations it inspires. Makeshift adjectives whiz through the air—potato-chippy! Footy! Bitey!—and heated debates form around different sensory perceptions. Just about everyone can physically ingest cheese and beer, and experience the sensations of various flavors, but not everyone is adept at articulating those sensory impressions in words that someone else will understand.
Here are some common descriptors to use at your next beer and cheese pairing:
Banana-like • beefy • bitter
• bitey • bracing • bready • brothy • butterscotchy • buttery • caramely • chocolaty • citrusy •
clove-like • coffeeish • earthy • floral • fruity • grassy • herbal • hoppy • jammy • juicy • malty • metallic • milky • nutty • raisiny • smoky • sweet • tangy • toasty • warm • woodsy • zingy • zippy
Barnyardy • beefy • bitey • bracing • brothy • bucky • butterscotchy • buttery • cavey • chlorine-y • citrusy, damp • fruity • goaty • grassy • hay-like • herbal • hot • intense • lardy • leady • leathery • luscious • metallic • milky • mushroomy • muttony / lanoliny • nutty • oaky • oniony • peppery • musky • piney • piquant • prickly • rubbery • salty • sharp • soapy • soil-like • stony • sweet • tangy • toasty • vegetal • wet dog-like • woodsy • woolly • zingy • zippy
Though pairing is hugely subjective, and therefore is far from an exact science, a solid set of guidelines can help steer you in the direction of a satisfying match. Based The Brewmaster’s Table, by Garrett Oliver (perhaps the most famous of all current beer connoisseurs), here are four loose guidelines for beer-cheese pairings: lighter beers with younger or fresh cheeses; malty beers with nutty, aged cheeses; bitter, hoppy beers with tart, sharp cheeses; and strong, sweet beers with blue cheeses.
Lighter Beers with Younger or Fresh Cheeses
Try fresh goat cheese (chevre), Robiola, or feta with wheat beers; mascarpone with fruit beers; and brie with saisons. “I love chevre and hefeweizen together,” says Sande Friedman. “The tang of the cheese cuts through the wheatiness of the beer and creates a really nice sensation in your mouth.”
Malty Beers with Nutty, Aged Cheese
Try gruyere with bock beers; Swiss cheese with Oktoberfest beers; and Asiago or Romano cheeses with brown ale. (Gouda, with its mild characters, bucks the trend and goes well with everything from pale ales to rich, dark stouts.)
Hoppy Beers with Tart, Sharp Cheeses
Try Cheddar with IPAs and Parmesans with Imperial Red Ales or Amber Ales. According to Franklin Winslow, “Cheddar with IPA is a classic pairing because of the chemistry behind it and the sensory aspects. The cheddar has lots of salt and fat—the salt to cut the bitterness and the fat to coat the tongue and protect it from some of the harsher characters in the IPA—but then at the same time, the IPA has the stronger hop characters and the effervescence to lift those things away. They limit each other and therefore bring out more interesting flavors.”
Strong, Sweet Beers with Blue Cheeses
Try Stilton with Barley Wines; Roquefort with strong Belgian Ales; and Gorgonzola with creamy Stouts. “To me, a perfect winter dessert consists of a bottle of really good coffee or chocolate or oyster stout and a few hunks of really good domestic blue (like Point Reyes Original) and a golden hunk of Beemster or L’Amuse Gouda,” says Tenaya Darlington. “I love a pairing that pulls you in two directions—sweet and salty.”
The number of exciting beer-cheese pairings increases almost daily, as the supply of local craft brews and artisanal cheeses grows and diversifies more and more each year. Since the two products share similar roots, their flavors make sense together—it’s just natural. So grab yourself a variety pack of local craft brews, pick out two or three different styles of cheese from your local cheese counter, and invite a few friends over to play matchmaker. What you find—and the resulting conversations—might just change everything.