Cheese is one of my favorite foods. It’s complex, beautiful and sometimes downright weird. Anytime I go into a grocery store I find myself drawn as if by a magnet to the cheese counter where I hover for half an hour googly-eyed and nearly drooling on the glass. I’m pretty much always down to eat cheese, but sometimes its strong flavors and fatty, mouth-coating qualities can leave the palate a little bogged down. This is where beer comes in to make my dreams come true.
Beer lends a hand to cheese in a way that a lot of other beverages can’t. It all comes down to the carbonation and hop bitterness. These characteristics work their magic against the fat in cheese to cleanse the palate and make the cheese eating experience lighter and more enjoyable. In addition to carbonation and hop bitterness, malt sweetness and alcohol strength play a role in the experience as well. They help mellow out some of the saltier and stronger flavors in cheese. Malt sweetness also harmonizes beautifully with certain aspects of cheese—lighter malts blend beautifully with light, milky cheese and darker malts with rich, nutty aged cheeses.
Now that you know why, here are our favorite beer and cheese pairings!
1) Helles Belles Lager & Soft-Aged Cheese
French-style soft cheese is creamy, milky and sticky with a slight bit of funk. These types of cheese are really taken to new levels with the Helles Belles Lager. The milkiness harmonizes with and is elevated by the light, sweet malt flavor of the beer. The funkiness resonates really well with the clean, earthy noble hop aroma of the Helles. It also helps that this beer has a slightly zippier carbonation than some of our other beers which leaves the palate nice and refreshed. (For this one I went with the Organic Mt. Alice. It is an American take on the European-style. Really, look for any kind of soft, brie-like cheese and you won’t be disappointed.)
2) Pacific Rain Northwest Pale & Italian Fontina
This Italian alpine cow cheese has a beautiful, fudgy consistency. It’s lightly pungent, tangy and has a very nice nutty finish. The bit of creaminess that lingers on the palate is cut by the clean hop bitter of the Pacific Rain. The beer’s fruity hop flavors also help to brighten up this pairing in a very lovely way. (There are many kinds of Italian Fontina out there. Just ask your cheese monger for their recommendation. The ones produced in summer tend to have the best flavor.)
3) Total Domination IPA & Sharp Cheddar
The big, punchy tang and saltiness of a sharp cheddar make it a great cheese to enjoy with an IPA. The sharp aromas and flavors of this cheese resonate with the big floral and piney aromas of Total Domination. The strong bitterness and higher alcohol of this beer also help cut the fat in the cheddar. (Look for the sharpest you can find at your cheese counter. I generally go for Cabot Extra Sharp, Grafton Village Sharp, or Tillamook Extra Sharp, but there are so much more out there.)
4) Dawn of the Red & Gorgonzola Dolce
Gorgonzola Dolce is a younger, slightly sweeter and less intense version of Italian Gorgonzola. It is wetter than other blue cheeses, making it a nice cheese for spreading on a cracker or slice of bread. This pairing is a great example of matching intensities. The big, tropical fruity nose and flavor of Dawn of the Red IPA blends really nicely with the fruitier funk of this cheese. (Gorgonzola Dolce can sometimes be harder to find than the standard Gorgonzola. Ask your cheesemonger if they can get some in. Otherwise, just look for a Gorgonzola or other blue that is a bit softer in texture.)
5) Vanilla Oatis & Gouda
Until recently I didn’t think Vanilla Oatis could pair all that well with cheese. Then I experienced some Goudas that were rich, caramel-like and sweet. The strong nutty flavor of these cheeses harmonizes beautifully with the deep roasted malts in the stout. Vanilla helps lift the pairing, leaving you with a similar flavor of a salted caramel. (There are so many Goudas out there. For this pairing, I’d look for something softer and sweeter, like Beemster Vlaskaas.)
About the Author
Ben Prescott knows all things food, beer and wine. As Ninkasi’s Assistant Tasting Room Manager and a Certified Cicerone®, Ben’s knowledge extends far beyond beer styles. Want to learn more? Keep an eye out for his Beer 101 classes hosted monthly at the brewery!