Cheese and beer go really well together. They have for centuries. They grew up hand in hand in small settlements where early people first harvested grains and domesticated milk-giving herds. That may be old news. The newsbreak, though, is that today we live in a global village ensconced in thousands of cheese and beer choices. We have limitless possibilities to pair artisanal cheeses with craft beer from any place, anytime we want.
So why not get together with a few of your friends, or a few hundred of your customers, and orchestrate a perfect cheese and beer pairing?
Let’s begin with some precepts and traditions that leave your audience clamoring for an encore.
For cheese pairings that are not tied to a specific brewery or distributor’s line, it is best to select your cheeses first, then find the beers that harmonize. Fine cheeses are expensive, and at least in most places in America, selection is limited. If you have access to a huge variety of cheese or are planning on a tasting that pairs beers from a single source, say a brewery or a locality, choose a variety of beer styles to allow more flexibility in cheese selection.
The amount of cheese you serve depends on the event. If it is a course in a dinner, choose two or three cheeses and provide no more than one ounce of each cheese per guest. For full blown cheese and beer tastings you will want four to six varieties, serving between an ounce and an ounce and a half of each. A beer size of four ounces works well. You may also have some condiments, crackers, plain bread, and drinking water.
Cheese flights ready for the curtain to come up. (Source: ontolondon.blogspot.com)
There is a tradition in cheese tasting of working around the plate clockwise from the 6-o’clock position. Your guests may not be experts in cheese and may not recognize which cheese is which simply hearing the name of it. Starting at a set position allows everyone to stay together and pair the right cheese with the designated beer.
Just as with tasting a flight of beers, there can be palate fatigue. It is generally advised to move from mild, low acidity cheeses to blues or washed rind cheeses of greater intensity. Occasionally, the cheeses will be ordered more in relation to their milk type and age, putting younger goat’s and sheep’s cheeses first, then the older cow’s milk cheeses. The tasting order is really up to the planner where the judicious juxtaposition of textures, age, and rind can create exciting cheese drama. (Yes, I said that, cheese drama.)
First timers will benefit from a straightforward methodology for the tasting. Each should begin by getting familiar with the beer by sniffing and sipping some. This is a good time to recognize the major flavors in the mouth, including: grainy, toasty, malty, fruity, bitter, resinous, herbal and floral. More on beer flavor can be found at beersensoryscience, along with a nice version of the famous Meilgaard Beer Flavor Wheel.
After the beer has cleared the throat, place some cheese in the mouth. If the cheese has a distinct rind, start with some pâté from the center of the cheese, leaving the rind for a subsequent bite. Let that cheese soften on the tongue forming a paste. This only takes a moment, but it can be hastened by pushing the tongue upward until the cheese hits the roof of the mouth. Make a mental note of the principal cheese flavors and textures, which might include: creamy, buttery, nutty, sweet, tart, minerally, salty, musty, mushroomy, herbal or grassy. More cheese flavors are listed in this Italian cheese wheel, this French wheel specifically for Compté, and this source, too.
With the cheese soft on the tongue, add a sip of beer and notice how the cheese and beer combine in the mouth. At the very least there should be a happy balance between the flavors and intensities of both. Notice how the beer lightens the cheese texture and lifts it from tongue. Though we don’t usually eat this way, swishing the cheese and beer in the mouth enhances the reactions between the two and brings about a crescendo of flavor. In the best pairings you will observe harmonies, where the beer and cheese ennoble each other releasing hidden tones related to terroir and ingredients.
Providing a note card for people to jot down impressions is essential for commercial tastings. Casual sessions at home will benefit from this, too. It is common for a guest to enjoy a particular pairing and not be able to remember the names of a peculiar cheese or beer the next day.
Cheese-beer tastings do not require a theme, although thematic pairings can be instructional. One approach is to have a “milk vertical.” Start by picking a type of milk, specifically, cow, goat, or sheep. Offer a range of cheeses made with that one kind of milk, working from the mildest to the strongest and saving blue mold and washed rind cheeses for the end.
You might pick all cheeses with a manufacturing similarity. For instance, bloomy rind or blue mold cheeses, or perhaps cheeses made by the cheddaring process. Cheeses could be grouped by texture, by region, or even a crazy, aesthetic theme. You might plate various cheeses that all have holes in them. On game day, say if you’re a Princeton fan, you could play off team colors with orange cheeses paired with black beers.
Your cheese tasting can only be as good as the cheeses. You must find a reliable cheese monger and take the time to explore new styles. Most will happily give you a small taste of cheeses that interest you. Grocery chains may have the best price, but most of these cheeses will be produced by large factories and will typically be tamer in flavor. You want idiosyncratic cheeses from smaller producers that have been handled and sold by cheese experts.
Seek out local cheese producers. Their products haven’t suffered in transport, you can support local agriculture, and save a few dollars. As with craft beer, it is possible for artisan cheese makers to make almost any style they set their mind on. Absolutely first rate cheeses of many classic and emerging styles are now made in America. You just have to find where they’re hiding. Of course, finding treasured cheeses offers value to your guests, who can now purchase good local cheese instead of industrial imitations.
Researching pairings is key to finding the best combinations. Here a flight of mostly goat's milk cheeses are tasted with three different styles of wheat beer: German hefeweizen, Belgian witbier, and American wheat beer.
If holding a professional tasting for a paying audience, you must conduct trial tastings. What people are paying for is not just some cheese and some beer. We’ve probably all been let down by ill-rehearsed food-beverage events. Guests deserve to be entertained, educated, and wowed. Time permitting, trial tastings are even a good idea for a home pairing.
Trial tasting can allow you to discover where the cheese and beer you thought would surely match… simply don’t work. While each is good on its own, together they somehow get metallic or ammoniac or sour. Just as one pale ale differs from the next, cheddar is big universe, from young, bland and rubbery to grassy, nutty, crumbly, minerally, sharp and quixotic.
There is no substitute for knowing your audience. If hosting a casual tasting among friends there’s no need to be formal. Set out the cheeses on a nice wood or stone surface, provide cheese knives, and a little sign with each cheese name, milk variety, and place of origin. You may find that even in the most casual settings your guests will want to jot down their favorites for later, so provide a pen and paper.
In a more commercial environment, make sure you’ve done your homework on each cheese and each beer. Anticipate audience questions and be an authority. Know the manufacturing basics for each cheese. What type of milk? Pasteurized or raw? Special finishing with white mold or washed in beer? What season of the year was it made? Who makes it, a nunnery in the Pas de Calais or an old woman in the Alps or a huge factory in Lille? Understand why this cheese is special. Know why you chose it and rejoice in the complexity and balance of the beer pairing that you have chosen.
And there’s one last thing, that little three-letter word: fun. Any two persons’ tastes will differ as much as two blue cheeses. There is no absolute answer. Approach your cheese and beer pairing with a healthy attitude of discovery and you will excite and inform while the ancient and magical rhythms of cheese and beer do the rest.
p.s. If you are in Nebraska, don’t miss the Cheese & Beer – Far & Near tasting. Friday, March 4, 2011, 6 pm at the Derailleur Tap Room in the Bricktop, 1427 O St., Lincoln, NE. Tickets are $45 and on sale now. Here’s the poster for the event and more details on the pairings are found here.