The relationship between beer and cheese is a high-wire act. It’s a narrow walk between contrast and complement. Between sweet and sour or, in other terms, like the songwriting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney that brings out the best in both.
Consider the edginess of John Lennon’s writing that, in my mind, is akin to a bitter West Coast Style IPA. The citrusy resinous character of an IPA becomes more than just a tongue-buckling experience with a well-paired cheese. Fresh cheeses that are moist and tangy, dare I say it, like Paul McCartney’s Beatles songwriting provide that contrast; simple, unfettered, and approachable. Try the interplay Fleur de Vert (tarragon and peppercorn laced chevre) with Three Brothers Admiral Double IPA to create unforgettable harmonies. The second side of Abbey Road is a good example of how this can, “come together.”
If a rich, magnificent bloomy rind cheese like Kunik, Brie, or Explorator is weighing down your palate (think dense love songs), the prickly carbonation from a crisp Belgian or Biere de Champagne can cut through and cleanse the palate enough for another magnificent taste of a triple cream. Specifically, thinking of Kunik, with its seductive aromas of clotted cream and cultured butter contrasted by Deus, a Biere de Champagne, yeasty with the persistent bubbles and hint of sweetness that make the experience musical. Listen to “Getting Better” or “We can work it out” as examples of the interplay.
Beyond contrast, there’s complementing beer and cheese to each other. Beer is basically liquid bread and cheese, well like butter. That harmony is easy to understand, but change a few things and it can be complicated. Dark beers (and breads) can have an intensity that overwhelms lighter cheeses. Similarly, hard-aged cheeses will make delicate quaffable brews taste like tap water. The trick is that middle ground. For example, one where aged Gouda’s pronounced caramel (or butterscotch) notes can dance with a Young’s Double Chocolate stout. The combination is moving. Listen to “She Loves You” to remember this pairing.
Perhaps the most harmonious beer and cheese pairings are with dark beers and blue cheeses. The weightiness of porters, stouts, and quads is brilliantly matched to the richness of blue cheeses. Dark beers (generally) bitter roasted notes offset the peppery notes of a blue. In turn, the cheese tastes richer and brings out the nuttier flavors in the beer, creating goodness beyond words. Buttermilk Blue on a salad, served with Dogfish’s Indian Brown can make believers of people who don’t like blue cheeses or dark beers. “I should have known better,” sums up the experience.
With the expanded world of craft beers and artisanal cheese, now is a good time to step in and explore both. Though the bevy of choices may be daunting at first, your senses will guide your heart to epiphanies of taste (and maybe some misses) as you explore the space between contrast and complement. Soon, however, the pairings will become second nature and like the songs you can sing from memory, comforting.