Beer and Cheese Tasting

Posted by on Mar 26, 2014

When you’re as involved in beer as I am it’s very easy to forget things. Things like the fact that 99% of the earth’s population doesn’t give a hoot about ‘proteolytic enzymes’, that £5 is a lot to spend on a beer described as ‘sour’ and that any beer (or wine or whisky for that matter) is just a drink, whatever fancy words and flavours myself or anyone else will attribute to it. Randy Mosher, an authority on beer tasting and beer and food pairing, makes a valid point when he states that beer is really just organically processed grass.

Cheese happens to be as well.

And maybe that’s why the two seem to go together so well. They are a natural pair akin to milk and cereal, curry and naan, or chicken and waffles. But while you can pick a beer at random and pick a cheese at random and taste them together and they’ll probably work, when you know a bit about either (or both) you can really work some magic, and that’s where my obsession comes in handy. By identifying specific flavours or qualities in a beer and/or cheese you can then conceptualize the pairing and use the other element to enhance, downplay, or layer those flavours in the same way that you might do in cooking. At it’s most basic level pairing beer and cheese is as simple as taking a slice of toast and realizing that you can enhance your enjoyment of it by slathering it with butter.

Even though I burn my toast more than I care to admit, people seem to believe that I can put together something better than some thinly-spread Lurpak on whole-grain Hovis. So, in preparation for a sellout crowd I revisited notes and books and took my list of beers to our local cheesemonger (Herbie of Edinburgh) where I chatted about cheese. Sam was able to set me up with a delicious selection and I cycled back up the hill to put my alleged skills to the test:

1) Thornbridge ‘Sequoia’ paired with Comte St Antoine:

American Ambers typically have a more pronounced floral hop character than your basic Red Ale while the toasty, nuttiness is only slightly less. Focusing on these aspects of the beer I was looking for a cheese to match those lovely floral aspects but round out the slightly bitter finish of the brew. The Comte St Antoine had a fragrant, sweet, nutty quality that blended all of the flavours together very nicely.

2) Elixir ‘Conviction IPA’  paired with Bleu de Causses:

Conceptually, this is a pairing that can work: with fruity, dank, slightly phenolic hop aromatics harmonizing with the potent herbal notes in the cheese. It’s also a pairing that has practically worked for me (and others more qualified than me) in the past. Hindsight tells me, however, that I would have done better were the beer and cheese not on the opposite extremes of their relative spectrums. Conviction is an exceptionally bitter IPA and the mellow blue cheese I chose was slightly overwhelmed (though a few tasters considered the cheese to soften the beer in a good way). Tack one up for experience, and let it be a lesson that pairing food and drink is far from scientific.

3) Brasserie Dupont ‘Saison Dupont’ paired with Tomme de Savoie

Coming off a less-than-perfect pairing I was pleased to be able to move on to a beer style that can match almost anything you throw at it. The complexity of the spicy yeast flavours as well as the fruity hop components and the huge mouthfeel which the high carbonation levels lend to a Saison all mean that it’s a style that plays well with others. Saisons do particularly well with the more earthy, rich tones reminiscent of mushrooms and, would you believe it, strong cheeses. So called umami characteristics were rife in this cheese, giving a nice base layer for the flavours of the beer to play on: making it fruitier and more pineapple-y.

4) Einstok ‘Toasted Porter’ paired with Hawes Wenslydale

The moment I tasted this cheese I knew it would be a winner. When contemplating a beer with rich chocolate qualities and a hint of roast, I felt this sweet, creamy cheese with a lemony tang at the finish would wrap it all together nicely. When the two were tasted simultaneously the experience was much like a chocolate cheesecake or a chocolate-swirled yogurt. Yum.

5) Pauvel ‘Kwak’ paired with Isle of Mull Cheddar:

Belgian beers just seem to work with cheese, which is why I put two of them in the lineup. Kwak has a particular honey sweetness that is enhanced by the 8% alcohol and so I was looking for something to cut through it all. A sharp cheddar has a saltiness and the namesake sharpness that brings all of it into balance, making the beer more drinkable and the cheese more eatable.

6) Aecht Schlenkerla ‘Marzen’ paired with Aged Gouda (2 years):

You get a Rauchbier of any kind and your going to need a powerful cheese to back it up. The intense smokey, bacon flavours of a Rauchbier can easily dominate a more delicate cheese, and so an aged gouda, with its rich, strong flavours that are slightly smokey by themselves is a logical choice. While it might not be the most subtle pairing you can find, the idea of topping some heavy-smoked barbecue with this cheese while drinking a glass of Aecht Schlenkerla makes me more than a bit hungry.

By the end of the tasting we conducted three votes: favourite beer, favourite cheese, and favourite pairing. Saison Dupont was deemed the best beer by nine participants, crowning it the champion on the drinks front. The favourite cheese was voted to be the Comte St Antoine. Upon asking for the favourite pairing of the night, so many hands were raised before I even finished the word ‘Thornbridge’ that I didn’t bother to count the rest (though Jeremy emphatically demanded I register his vote for the Porter-Wenslydale pairing).