Living in wine country, I’m surrounded by people who enjoy pairing wine with cheese as much as I do. But my fellow beer-with-cheese fanatics are harder to find. I know you’re out there. And with Napa Valley becoming more of a craft beer destination, it’s time to proclaim what we beer lovers know: that craft beer is easier to match with cheese, with more predictable successes and fewer disasters.
I frequently encounter cheeses — especially super-pungent or stinky ones — that give wine a hard time, and there are a few cheeses that no wine can handle. But I’ve never met a cheese I couldn’t find a compatible beer for.
After several years of “research” (with many more ahead, I hope), I’ve developed some strategies for matching cheese and beer in a way that flatters both. Whether you start with the beer or start with the cheese, you can create pairings that highlight aromas and flavors you didn’t notice before.
Use the following pointers from my book “Cheese & Beer” (Andrews McMeel Publishing) to get started on your own exploration. Cheese and beer are both masterpieces of fermentation, with humans and nature collaborating to transform basic ingredients — milk and grain — into foods that deliver tremendous pleasure.
For a deeper dive, join me on Tuesday evening, Aug. 6, at the Silverado Cooking School in Napa for “Seven Beers for Seven Cheeses,” a pairing class designed to build your confidence in matching fine cheese with craft beer. See accompanying story for details.
1. Pair delicate, low-alcohol beers like kölsch and hefeweizen with young, fresh cheeses.
Example: Calicraft Coast or Reissdorf Kölsch with fresh mozzarella, burrata or Laura Chenel Cabécou
Kölsch, a pale, crisp, easy-drinking German style, rarely tops 5% alcohol. The aroma is faintly malty but subtle, the flavor fresh and zippy, the finish dry and not notably bitter. An aged cheese with buttery, mushroomy or nutty aromas would overwhelm it. Keep the cheese fresh and simple. This is the beer for summer’s mozzarella and tomato salads.
2. Pair malty beers with nutty or “sweet” cheeses.
Example: AleSmith Nut Brown Ale with Gouda, Manchego or Comté
Brown ales are mellow, malt-forward beers with low to moderate alcohol and aromas of toasted grain, caramel, nut and toffee. Match them to cheeses with similar scents, like a butterscotch-scented Gouda, Manchego with its warm-butter smell or a nutty alpine cheese like Comté, Le Maréchal or Gruyère.
3. Pair hoppy beers like pale ales and IPAs with tangy, peppery or herbal cheeses.
Example: Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA with Grafton Village 2-Year Cheddar, Bellwether Farms Pepato or Cypress Grove Purple Haze
The palate-refreshing bitterness of an IPA is pleasing with many cheeses but especially with tangy Cheddars and palate-coating goat cheeses like Humboldt Fog. With their floral, piney and citrus scents, hoppy brews love cheeses that respond in kind, such as the lavender- and fennel-scented Purple Haze or the herb-coated Fleur Verte.
4. Pair strong, high-alcohol beers like Belgian-style quads with blue cheeses and hard aged cheeses.
Example: Ommegang Three Philosophers or St. Bernardus Prior 8 with Point Reyes Farmstead Bay Blue, Pleasant Ridge Reserve or L’Amuse Gouda
Match strength with strength. Dark Belgian-style dubbels and quads smell like fruitcake, raisins and gingerbread and pack some serious alcohol. They would trample a delicate cheese. Give them a substantial sparring partner, like a buttery blue cheese; an intensely nutty aged cheese like Vella Dry Jack Special Select or Pleasant Ridge Reserve; or a dense, caramel-scented Gouda.
5. Pair a yeasty, fruity saison with buttery Brie, Camembert or triple-cream cheese.
Example: North Coast Brewing Le Merle with Jasper Hill Farm Moses Sleeper or Von Trapp Farmstead Mt. Alice
Saisons are the ciders of the beer world, with full effervescence, a complex, spicy fruit-bowl aroma and a dry finish. Like Normandy cider, they flatter mushroomy, buttery bloomy-rind cheeses such as Brie and Camembert and their many American relatives.
Try these matches, then launch off on your own. Beer and cheese, separately and together, are subjects for lifelong learning.