Pairing Cheese and Beer
After selecting a beer from the thousands of choices available, the next step, pairing it with food, can be intimidating. We like to stress that anything that a drinker enjoys with their food is entirely appropriate, but if you want to make the most from your experience, there are some pairings that work much better than others.
Don’t worry if you are confused by the vast number of different types of cheese. The staff at a good cheese shop are there to help explain what each cheese tastes like, and guide you to the best choices for pairing.
First Things First: The Cheese
If the opportunity is there, choose the cheese first as opposed to the beer pairing. Unless you have a great taste-memory, or are completely familiar the beer in question it’s easier to start with the cheese.
Typically two or three different cheeses are plenty, as each one will be distinct, and pairing different beers with the same cheeses will bring out the different characters in each. Be sure to have separate knives to cut or serve each cheese–mixing the chèvre with the Muenster will confuse everyone.
Just like craft beer cheese flavours are reduced at very cold temperatures. Take your cheese out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving. Be careful that the room isn’t too warm, however, so that firm cheese doesn’t start to sweat and soft cheese won’t run off the plate.
To simplify pairing choices, it helps to (roughly) divide cheese into four broad styles, each with a distinct character that matches with specific styles of beer and wine.
- Fresh and light: cheeses that have not been aged, or are only lightly cured. These mild and creamy, and have a high moisture content and soft texture. Think chèvre, mascarpone, feta.
- Aged/Firm: ranging from mild to sharp/pungent with a body that ranges from firm at room temperature, to hard grating cheeses. Think sharp cheddar, aged gouda, Parmigiano-Reggiano, anything described as ‘nutty’
- Creamy and/or funky: cheeses with a rind that covers a creamy interior that ranges from mellow to eye wateringly ripe, and usually runny at room temperature. Think triple-creme brie, cambozola, Epoisses.
- Blue: these cheeses that have blue/green veins, from penicillium mold, added during the cheesemaking make process, giving them a distinct flavour ranging from mild to very assertive. Think Danish blue, Stilton, gorgonzola.
- Sweet and Salty are no accident: perceptibly salty cheeses like Feta, Blue, or Asiago will highlight the sweetness in your beverage. A beer with a sweeter finish will show very well with these.
- Consider texture: a lusciously creamy Camembert paired with an effervescent, crisp German wheat beer will counterpoint and highlight that creaminess.
- Match intensity: avoid Mascarpone and Oak Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout. Keeping each side of the match within the same level enhances them both.
A Word About Wine
Most consumers automatically think of red wine as the perfect match for any cheese. In reality, it’s fairly low on the list of pairings for most of them. Red wine that’s bold or full-bodied will bind to all of the protein and fat in a light cheese, completely overwhelming it, leaving the a dusty metallic aftertaste. Surprise! Beer often pairs better with cheese than wine does.
Serious pairing of food and beer is still relatively novel for most people. North America has almost always regarded beer as a beverage on its own, or for straightforward foods like barbecue or burgers. With caramelised and roasted flavours, along with varying levels of bitterness and carbonation, the range of foods beer can match with is impressive, especially with rich or spicy food, where it can refresh the palate in ways wine can’t–with the added bonus that beer is usually lower in alcohol, so drinkers can enjoy a bit more without becoming intoxicated.
If you’re already familiar with the flavours of wine, it can help to relate each style of beer to a varietal and go from there
- Pilsner/Lager – Crisp dry whites like Riesling
- Pale Ale – Chardonnay or lighter Pinot Noir
- India Pale Ale – Full-bodied dry red, heavy oaked Chardonnay
- Wheat beer – Sparkling wine, very dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc
- Belgian Ale – Complex, fruit-forward wines
- Porters, Stout, Barleywine- Blockbuster reds like California Cab, Amarone or LBV Port
Pairing: Fresh and Light
Fresh cheeses are typically delicate, but many have a subtle tartness. Remember to match the intensity of the cheese to the beer or wine.
Pair Feta or chèvre with German-style wheat beer or a Belgian Wit. Not only will the tartness balance the cheese, but the subtle spiciness of these beers is very inviting, while the crisp carbonation will cleanse the palate. Less tart cheeses like Ricotta or Mascarpone work well with fruit beers, especially raspberry or cherry-based Belgians.
It’s important to understand the difference between aged and aged: cheddar is technically an aged cheese, but the grocery store brand is only a few months old and won’t carry the same weight as 7-year old English Cheddar. For semi-hard or medium-aged cheeses like Emmenthal, Gruyère, Jarlsberg, young Cheddar, or Manchego go with Pilsner, Brown or Amber Ale.
Well-aged cheeses like Cheshire, aged Gruyère, or Gouda, Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano need the bitterness of hops and some residual sweetness to tame their nuttiness and saltiness. IPA and Imperial or Double IPA, along with sweet Stout, or specialty beers like Belgian Trippel will stand up to these cheeses.
Whether mellow or ripe, runny cheeses show better with more subdued aromas and flavours to complement rather than compete with them. Brie, Camembert, Époisses, or Taleggio all work with amber lagers or brown ale, as well as British Mild or Bitter.
Traditionally paired with LBV or vintage Port, these cheeses need muscularity, alcohol, and intense flavours to match their salty/savoury body and sometimes impressive funk. Double IPA, aged Barleywine and Russian Imperial Stout will all handle Blue with ease, along with the added bonus that they go well with nuts, the other traditional accompaniment to this pairing.
Last Minute Pairing
If you’re behind and need a quick choice to match up with your cheese platter, there’s always a perfect beer to the rescue: a good, crisp Pilsner. Light grainy notes, a firm but not too sharp hop bitterness and an effervescent head perform just as well as sparkling wine in most cases, from Chèvre to Danish Blue.