Let’s face it: in the beverage world, beer’s got a lock on revelry and good times. It’s served cold, requires no glass, and is usually opened with a pop or a crack. And while you can drink it alone, it’s always better with friends.
And what do friends do? They order pizza.
Beer and pizza not only taste great together, they’re both often consumed in quantity. Here in America, more is more: we slug beer, we house pizza, life is good.
Wine and cheese, however, are a different story. They like to be sipped, nibbled, and fondled at garden parties. But in terms of taste, do they truly complement one another? All too often, the answer is no. I spent years making wine, and even more years teaching and writing about her. She’ll always be my first love, but when it comes to playing the foil to stinky, fermented milk, beer simply kicks her ass.
The Science of an Ass Whoopin’ Part 1: Bitterness
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The magic trick of converting milk into cheese is primarily the work of cultures and rennet. The cultures convert milk sugars into lactic acid and shape the flavor profile of the cheese, while the rennet coagulates the curds, separates them from the whey, and allows the cheese to be formed. But there’s a third ingredient which, while crucial to cheese, is even more important to beer: salt.
According to Melissa Iacono, Senior Manager of Business Development at Murray’s Cheese in New York City, “Salt adds flavor to cheese; it dries the curds, and acts as a preservative. Salt is also a tamer of all things bitter, making cheese the perfect antidote to IPAs (India Pale Ales) by toning down the intensity of the hops, allowing citrusy notes and other flavors to shine.”
Having never been a huge IPA fan (judge away), I needed proof. Out came a couple bottles of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, and a hunk of Tomme de Chèvre Aydius from France’s Pyrénées mountains. And boy, was I was schooled. Hard.
As expected, my first sip of the Dogfish was bitter. But after a hunk of Tomme, and another sip, I went cross-eyed. This was no David Copperfield sleight of hand, this magic was real. It was clean, fresh, and racy. And it was still bitter, without being bitter. The bark without the bite. I had been humbled.
The Science of an Ass Whoopin’ Part 2: Acidity
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Salt may take the bite out of bitterness, but it also lowers the perception of acidity. So if vitality and freshness gets your palate on the dance floor, be careful how you wash down that cheese. Many wines, especially reds (lower in acid than whites) are rendered flat by fromage, especially high salt variants like cheddars, goudas, and anything that hung out in a cave for a couple years. Beer, on the other hand, has no qualms hitting below the belt with its secret weapon: bubbles.
The carbon dioxide found in beer does two things to give it the upper hand over still wines: First, it heightens the perception of the acid naturally present; second, it lends refreshment courtesy of a tactile snap, crackle, and pop.
Iacono obliged me once again by pouring a bottle of Golden Monkey, a Belgian-style Tripel from Victory Brewing Co., alongside a wedge of Flory’s Truckle, a clothbound cheddar from Milton Creamery in Iowa. Not wanting to be impolite, I produced my own offering, a bottle of 2011 Château Taillefer from Pomerol, in Bordeaux, France.
The supple, yet sturdy, Merlot-based wines of Bordeaux have been slaying at wine & cheese parties since before there were wine & cheese parties. Going into the impromptu showdown, I was confident on the outside; smug on the inside. And guess what? I lost.
After a bite of truckle, Iacono noted, “The wine works ok, but it’s flatter with the cheese, while the beer retains its cut and lift.” I didn’t disagree, noting that it also unleashed a bonanza of sweet, malty flavors. Humbled once again.
Into the Unknown (the less scientific)
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In the absence of scientific proof, we’re left to observe, speculate, and stare at the moon. We’ve been at it now for millennia, resulting in countless adages, old wives’ tales, and conspiracy theories courtesy of your Uncle Ted. And while the future of science will no doubt cast many theories into the hooey bin, others will survive, turning what was once a hunch into common knowledge.
“It’s quite logical, really,” reasons Agatha Khishchenko, founder of Belle Cheese in Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market. “Beer is made from grain, and most animals eat grain. Of course they love each other.” Her suggestion reminded me of the adage “what grows together, goes together,” which, if nothing else, sure sounds nice (to hell with the science).
Meanwhile, Keith Adams, founder of Alemar Cheese in Mankato, Minnesota, loves marrying cheese with beer so much, he decided to put beer in his cheese (yeah, I chuckled too). Adams produces Good Thunder, a cow’s milk cheese that spends three weeks in a bath of Bender, an oatmeal brown ale from Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Good Thunder is a decadent square of melty butter, barnyard, and fresh cut hay -- but it tastes nothing like the beer. “Beer-based brines require a PhD in alchemy,” Adams explains, “because the flavors you get never match up with what you’d expect, requiring endless experimentation, trial, and a dose of luck.” I say hats off to the results, however it happened.
A Display of Dynamic Duos
If the previous pairings got your motor running, try some of the following beer and cheese combinations for yourself.
Aged Gouda + Amber Ale
For those who love the nutty, caramelized flavors of malty brews, aged gouda is the perfect fit. Amber ales, in particular, are all about caramel and malt, which echo the rich, savory notes of this classic Dutch cheese.
Prime Example: Beemster X.O. 26‑Month Extra Aged + Tröegs Brewing Co. Nugget Nectar
Triple Crème + Porter
Agatha Khishchenko loves this pairing, “Combining the sweet, butter notes of a triple crème with the chocolaty richness of a porter essentially yields a boozy, ice cream float.” I have nothing to add.
Prime Example: Délice de Bourgogne + Elysian Brewing Perseus Porter
Bloomy-rinds + Wheat
Delicate, bloomy-rind cheeses are young and fresh, making them a perfect partner for equally fresh, yet subtle beers. Neither will knock out the other, allowing both to sing, softly, gently. Think Gordon Lightfoot, Rogers Centre, Toronto, circa 1979 (can you imagine!?).
Prime Example: Pico Picandine + Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier
Blue + Stout
Nothing beats salty and sweet together, which is why I love putting salt on my ice cream. Try it. Better yet, try a blue cheese with a stout -- preferably a rich, chocolatey one. It’s all about contrast here: the yin and the yang.
Prime Example: Rogue Creamery Caveman Blue + Rogue Ales Chocolate Stout
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Note: Elysian Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.