Wine and cheese are a seemingly perfect combination. Both equate with craftsmanship and quality and are held in high regard in the food world. They are served together so often that the phrase “wine and cheese party” has entered our daily vocabulary. Unfortunately, the pairing of wine and cheese is often a disastrous one, with two strong flavors neutralizing each other on the palate and diminishing the overall flavor effect.
Most wines, red wines in particular, are loaded with tannins that coat the mouth and prevent your taste buds from capturing the subtle flavors in food. While there are many brilliant wine and cheese pairings, all too often it is difficult to successfully marry a good variety of cheeses with many popular wines. Many of the best cheeses from around the world display a depth of flavor and aroma whose delicate nuances are lost when paired with the wrong kind of wine.
As an alternative, fine beers go very well with cheeses and always have. Traditionally, both beer and cheese were dietary staples of the common man. In fact, brewing and cheese making were often done on the same premises. Both were less expensive and readily available to Europeans who couldn’t afford the wines and opulent meat dishes that we take for granted in modern times.
Take the example of a Ploughman’s Lunch, a dish found in English pubs for hundreds of years. A pint of ale is served with bread, cheese and perhaps some raw veggies or sausage. Though it seems spare, this was a typical meal for many people for centuries. In the US today, those simple cheeses are expensive and exclusive as a result of importing costs and popularity with the gourmet “foodies” who have elevated so called ‘peasant style’ food to haute cuisine. Because US beer was of poor quality for so long, the link between domestic brews and cheeses was lost, having been replaced by wine.
The greater variety of beer flavors makes it an easier match with cheese. Strong beers like abbey ales or barley wines stand up well to the bold flavor of blue cheeses. A dry, salty cheese like parmigiano likes the juicy flavor of an IPA for balance. Try a French biere de garde or Belgian Saison with mild cheeses like gouda or mimolette, as the herbal notes in the beer draws out the subtleties of the cheese. Brie and other soft cheeses go well with fruit and are easily complemented by a fruit ale or lambic. Though already familiar to Superbowl snackers, a cheddar and pilsner works nicely, though I’d skip the Velveeta and Bud and go for a tasty Vermont sharp with Czechvar. Whatever your favorite kind of beers and cheeses, experiment with flavors and combinations to find the ones that you like best.
When selecting cheeses, try to find the freshest, highest quality available. Bread and Circus, the Wine and Cheese Cask, and Formaggio Kitchen all have a knowledgeable staff to help you choose from their large selections of fresh, distinctive cheeses. For best results, serve cheese at room temperature and allow your beer to warm up to cellar temperature (50-60 F). Have some bread or crackers available for neutrality and some other finger foods available for variety’s sake.
Under the right circumstances, beer and cheese will give you a newfound appreciation of each, leaving you to wonder why you never thought of this before.