Saturday, 14 May 2011

Ultimate beers for cheese

The pairing of beer and cheese can be quite an opinionated subject amongst beer enthusiasts. There are plenty of no brainer pairings, for example IPAs with cheddar, barley wines with Stilton and smoked beers with smoked cheese. Not every variation of every textbook pairing works, and everyone seems to have slightly different opinions on the best pairings. Trying to pair beer and cheese randomly can also be a bit of a minefield. But put aside pairing individual beers and cheeses, what beer would you pair off with a cheeseboard?   

Now I could have just done some sort of list for this, but that would miss the point. What the literature tells you is that the first rule of the cheeseboard is to choose a beer capable of standing up to the strongest cheese on the board. So usually something relatively strong and flavourful is the way to go, but it doesn't always have to be overly alcoholic. If a Belgian yeast is involved, this usually helps. Many of my favourite beers for cheese are Belgian. Belgian yeasts bring funky, earthy, phenolic characters to beers that strengthen affinities with cheese. Another feature that often helps is a bold malt sweetness. This can contrast sharp acidity whilst letting the natural malt flavours of the beer pick up on grassy, earthy textures from many cheeses.

For me, Westmalle Dubbel was probably the first mega cheese versatile beer I discovered. A big funky Belgian Dubbel that's fantastic with cheese and great with rich red meat and game preparations. Later I found that Belgian Saison style beers or a French Bier De Guard can also have great versatility with cheese. You get the idea, it's no wonder the Belgians have been into beer and cheese for so long.

Looking to British beer though the general consensus is that Barley wines are kings of the cheeseboard. Extra or Imperial Stouts work well with strong blue cheese or some hard nutty Swiss cheeses. But it's not always about the high abvs, plenty of classic IPAs and malt balanced strong ales have great cheese versatility. A pint of best bitter with a Ploughman's lunch never goes wrong either.

But perhaps the most interesting beer vs cheeseboard experiment I ever did was with a Belgian Gueze. Its sharp acidity can contrast and cut across the fat heavy nature of any cheese on the board. Some are a fan of Gueze with goat's cheese. Though what I haven't had much success with is the pairing of overly hoppy beers with cheese. There's been the odd one, but apart from that I haven't had much success with aggressively hopped beers.  

So at the end of the day a lot of it is about experimentation and finding what works for you. Guidelines can help, but seeing what works yourself is the way to go.

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