Neal’s Yard Dairy, Borough Market, London, England
How do you develop a beer and cheese pairing – what are some of the flavours/tastes you look for?
You have to taste the cheese first and then write notes while thinking about whether there are flavours that need highlighting or things such as high saltiness in the cheese that might benefit from having the saltiness subdued so that other flavours in the cheese might step forward. What happens in the mouth when cheese meets beer reveals as much about the cheese as it does about the beer being tasted. Sometimes you hit a brilliant combination on the first go round and without much effort. And sometimes it requires some educated guesses and some serious tasting to hit just the right flavour notes in the mouth. Having said that, everyone’s palate is different and it changes day to day depending on the food and drink consumed by an individual. Fatty foods, cigarette smoking and spicy foods deaden the palate. People have different thresholds to different tastes, from salty to buttery to bitter, which can heavily impact on the recommended cheese and beer pairings. It may be perfect for me but not necessarily to everyone else at the tasting, which is fine. After all, any exercise in finding matches, perfect or otherwise, is really about finding what works for the individual.
Some of the main cheese flavour components are saltiness, nuttiness, butteriness, creaminess etc., depending on the style of cheese.
Then I think of one or two beers that might cozy up to the cheese and accentuate certain flavours, depending on the cheese. I also check out the contrasting side of things. Then I taste the cheese again, then one of the beers, write more notes, and then have a bit of water and or plain bread. Then on to the next one, cheese, beer, water and so on, writing down initial and secondary responses to each, while building a profile of each beer and cheese combination. What do I like about each cheese and beer pairing? Is there an unusual flavour that maybe I hadn’t expected, which would cause you to drop a given pairing? Then I rank what I have tasted and then drop half of the beers and then re-taste, thereby narrowing toward what should be the best match.
Do you think there are specific styles of cheeses that go best with craft beer styles, and if so, please mention a few favorite pairings? (See pairings below.)
Depends on the specific cheese. You can find a microbrewed beer match for just about any cheese but it truly involves some trial and error. But with an educated palate, you can narrow the field quite quickly. Craft beers by their nature offer such a variety of flavours that you instantly have a head start to finding something in a beer to pair up with a given cheese flavour.
When presented with a pairing of beer and cheese unfamiliar to you, do you recommend tasting the beer first or the cheese first, and why?
I’d always taste the cheese first, get inside its essential flavours and then think about the presented beer match. I usually already know or have a very good idea of the essence of many beers, either from the stated beer style and therefore expected flavour profiles, or from personal tasting experience. I’d also make a few tasting notes, especially of first impressions of the cheese and then when the cheese meets beer.
What advice would you give to a consumer who wants to set up a beer and cheese tasting party at home?
Unless you know all of your guests are really big into hops, I’d leave the IPA and double IPA pairings out for the first time. When it comes to a mixed group of people, the maltier beers seem to have more of what the majority would think of as a good match. It’s really quite a subjective thing when trying to find a beer to match a cheese but with a little practice it becomes much easier.
Go up the scale, starting with a mild cheese go up to full flavoured cheeses such as blue cheese and parallel that with the beers, from light lagers to stronger, full bodied beers such as stouts. At the same time, go from low hopped beers up through to highly hopped, bitter beers.
Try three cheeses, say a soft goat cheese, a firm cheese such as the Reserve Gouda, and a blue cheese alongside a variety of beers and then taste away. It’s a learning experience. You can’t go wrong. Try a variety of beer styles to see what works best for you and for each type of cheese. You simply have to do some tasting with various beers to find what will make the best match with a given cheese.
A few other things of note about beer and cheese
Beer and cheese form a natural partnership as their origins are both from the farm. Originally, women known as brewsters made beer, and they also made cheese, and they would have wanted the beer and cheese to be complimentary.
There are now over 100 clearly defined beer styles in the world, from understated lagers to highly complex Belgian ales.
There are over 120 malts and malt variations, more than 57 hop varieties, over 207 yeasts, plus variants, different water combinations, as well as fruit and even vegetables such as hot peppers–all are available to the brewer to create a vast array of flavours in beer, resulting in far more potential flavour combinations than wine.
Hop bitterness in beer equates to the acidity in wine.
One thing that beer does very well, is cut through the richness and fat in cheese, and thus cleanses the palate.
For best tasting results at home, serve bottled beer at cellar temperature of 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. But please don’t open the beer until you are ready to serve it. While oxygen may be good for opening up a wine, it can oxidize beer rather quickly and leave it smelling and tasting like wet cardboard.
Try a variety of beer styles to see what works best for you and for each type of cheese. You simply have to do some tasting with various beers to find the best match with a given cheese.
Cheese and Beer matches with tasting notes
Violet Hill, Milky Way Cheese, Shelbourne, Ontario, Canada, sheep milk
A beautiful ashed pyramid with cool, mushroomy aromas at the rind, and a delicate citrus freshness at the core. Gentle, sweet and slightly tangy, as you’d expect from someone named Violet Hill.
Denison’s Weissbier, an unfiltered German style wheat beer, is made with at least 50 percent wheat malt, barley malt, German hops and a Bavarian yeast. Weissbier conveys the goods in spades. An invigorating and spritzy wheat beer at 5.6 percent abv, Denison’s Weissbier delivers a refreshingly fresh banana and cloves aroma and lively citric notes on the palate. Denison’s Weissbier is contract brewed at the Cool Brewery, Toronto.
The citric notes in Denison’s Weissbier slip past the damp cellar taste and envelope the lemon zest at the core of the Violet Hill cheese, enriching this flavour, while standing in gentle contrast to the hint of blue cheese from the ash.
Comfort Cream, Upper Canada Cheese, Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada, Guernsey cow milk
The velvety bloomy rind smells of white mushrooms, and the paste of melted butter with an earthy undertone. Extra rich Guernsey milk gives the cheese a dense, fudge-like texture, and clean lactic flavours. It’s impossible to eat this cheese and not say the word ‘cream’.
Black Oak Nut Brown Ale is a 5 percent abv Brown Ale brewed by the Black Oak Brewing Company Ltd., Toronto, Ontario. This rich ruby red coloured ale has a mocha coloured head. Aromatically, embracing nutty aromas with underlying chocolate notes surface alongside roasted ones. Medium in body. Mouthfeel is of roasted and toasty elements smoothed out by a good dose of sweet pale malt. Roast, nutty, chocolate and hop flavours all vie for attention in the middle. Roast, chocolate and a defining hop bitterness play on the palate in a fairly elongated and drying finish. Brewed with reverse osmosis water, which allows the brewery to add minerals and salts back in according to the water required for each beer style brewed. Tastes very much like a lighter porter. Also, hoppier than most brown ales.
Black Oak Nut Brown Ale adds complexity and a certain nuttiness to the cheese, while achieving a better overall flavour balance as it seemingly reduces the tangy saltiness found in the Comfort Cream. It is interesting to note that during a tasting another beer similar in flavours to the Black Oak Nut Brown Ale actually intensified the saltiness of the Comfort Cream.
Snow Road, Back Forty Artisan Cheese, Lanark, Ontario, Canada, raw sheep milk
The sticky pinkish, brown rind is very aromatic, with piquant, fruity/floral, blue-cheese-like notes. Luscious paste melts smoothly delivering balanced sweetness, acidity and salt, with nutty, woodsy flavours. Seriously sensual.
Black Oak Pale Ale is a 5 percent abv Pale Ale brewed by the Black Oak Brewing Company Ltd., Toronto, Ontario. It’s a burnished orange amber coloured ale with a fine, off-white foam. Fruity aromas in the lead here, with fresh malt and then hops in tow. Malt quickly gives way to a lasting hop attack. Medium in body. Mouthfeel is of peppery hops poutingly playful on the palate. Long finish sees a continued hop bitterness pressing down on a malty spine, with a distinctive and defining dryness throughout. Also brewed with reverse osmosis water.
Black Oak Pale Ale makes for a very interesting interplay of flavours in the mouth, while counter-balancing the intensity and chalkiness of the Snow Road cheese, as well as highlighting the delicious bittering hops of this fine beer.
Bonnechere, Back Forty Artisan Cheese, Lanark, Ontario, Canada, raw sheep milk
An unusual cheese with a toasted rind, inspired by examples from the Pyrénées. The semi-firm paste absorbs smoky, hickory-wood aromas and slightly sour flavours from the charring. Well-balanced and ultimately gentle, considering all it’s been through.
Hockley Dark is a 5 percent abv English style dark mild ale brewed by the Hockley Valley Brewing Company, Hockley. It’s quite a tasty dark chocolate brown coloured ale with reddish hues and a heady nose of roast, toast and chocolate tumbling forth. A fairly full bodied ale, on the palate, Hockley Dark delivers chocolate flavours set on a firm malt base, with a roasted element stepping out boldly from beneath this malty cloak. The middle has chocolate and roast dancing evenly together with a little background hop bitterness present. The finish is fairly extended with roast, toast, and a developing dryness from the roast barley, as well as a backdrop of malt sweetness, with a late surge of warming alcohol from beneath.
The roast element of the Hockley Dark marries with the charred rind and enriches the natural nuttiness of this cheese, while reinforcing and complimenting the underlying caramel flavours found in the Bonnechere cheese.
Reserve Gouda, Thunder Oak Cheese, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, cow milk
This traditional gouda develops complex aromas and flavours through long aging. The very firm but melting paste smells caramelized and spicy, and tastes sweet and gently tangy. The long finish expresses wood, soy and cumin spice. Can you say “umami”? Okay, just say “yummy”.
King Pilsner is a 4.8 percent abv Bohemian Style Pilsner brewed by the King Brewery, Nobleton, Ontario. This polished golden coloured lager is packed with highly aromatic Saaz hops, much akin to sticking your head into a hop pocket just after harvest. Low end of medium in body. Hops pepper the palate increasingly, releasing joyful hop notes that sing merrily to the taster throughout. It has a long, lingering bitter finish with a strong supporting malt quotient to keep it all together. Resolutely bitter but not overpowering. It’s the real deal. This well crafted and delightful pilsner, slots nicely in between world classics Pilsner Urquell and Budvar from the Czech Republic.
The hop bitterness in the King Pilsner positively sings with this aged gouda, creating a harmonious whole in the mouth. Don’t hops grow on the barnyard fence?