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June 13, 2013

Pairing Cheese with Beer: an Art and a (Fun) Science

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When Jorel Pierce (and yes, he has heard all the Superman jokes) sits down to discuss beer and cheese pairings, he comes bearing gifts. Pierce, who appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef, is chef de cuisine of the nationally recognized Euclid Hall in Denver. He holds a plate with a slice of La Serena sheep’s milk cheese aka a “stinky cheese” and Yang, an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese wrapped in stinging nettles (better not to ask, unless you really want to know. Nope, we don’t). And a beer, of course, in this case, The Duchess of Bourgogne – all of which will provide teachable moments.

Pierce is an artist when it comes to these pairings, skipping the traditional “drink this with that” in favor of more subtleties. Although pairing beer and cheese would appear to be a relatively new idea given the explosion in craft beers and artisan cheese, the trend is as old as the middle ages. Monks would produce and eat both beer and cheese, even though they probably didn’t say much about it given the vow of silence and all. But pairing beer with cheese is even more complicated to pair than wine, Pierce says. “There’s more range with beer than wine,” he says, “you’re talking more texture, temperature and effervescence.” That can work for or against you, he notes, “but that leaves more room for discovering the undiscovered.”

Still, where to begin when we don’t know your elbow from a Weizenbier. Good thing we’re here with our handy dandy step-by-step guide to get you started.

Step One: The cheese. First of all, talk to your cheese provider for insight into the particular flavors of the cheese such as buttery, nutty, smooth, bold. Jorel Pierce uses a 1 to 10 scale for cheese, which has nothing to do with cheese quality or preference. A “1” is a cheese that “hits your palate and fades quickly like a Cheddar.” A “10” is a cheese that lingers for a long time on the palate like a Spanish ashen rind goat cheese. “You want a beer that finishes where the cheese is on your palate,” he says. A stinky cheese like the La Serena is a “10” because it will stay on the palate until the end of time; he considers the Yang to be a “3 to 5 on length.”

Which brings us to Step Two: Choosing a beer. Again a knowledgeable cheese provider will probably have a myriad of suggestions. For our stinky cheese and our milder Yang, Pierce chose The Duchess de Bourgogne. The Duchess has some of the qualities of wine – low alcohol, light bubbles, and a berry fruit - that’s going to totally rock the stinky cheese and please a person who is more of a wine than a six-pack kind of guy or gal. The beer is a revelation; shockingly it sweetens up the cheese – and mitigates the bitterness. And both are lingering in perfect harmony on our palate. Conversely, the same beer turns the stinging nettles cheese into something we’ll probably eat in our declining years at the nursing home. It’s the kind of ohmigosh moment akin to finally seeing the point of geometry or the Kardashians.

Step Three: Enjoy the game: There are no hard and fast rules, which opens up a wide playing field. Ask your cheese supplier for a recommendation for three or four cheeses, whether it’s a Fontina or a gouda or an exotic import, then try a beer with each one (after following steps one and two, of course. In the blue cheese family, Pierce rates Gorgonzola Dulce as a “1” meaning it has a good amount of fat, it’s sweet, and has light bluing. He’d put a Maytag Blue at a “7” and a two-year Stichleton, which is spicy and heavily blued as a “10.” The “10” needs a strong beer, with lots of alcohol, a medium dark to dark beer to stand up next to that cheese, but the Gorgonzola could use something a little tamer.

Which brings us to Step Four: What to drink with some of the more everyday cheeses – the kind where everybody knows their names. Suggests Pierce:

  • Brie, with its raw mushroom earthiness pairs with darker beers – nut browns or low alcohol stout beers.
  • A goat cheese would pair with a Belgium-style whitbier. The acidic goat cheese tang plays perfectly with the citrus and spice notes in the classic whit-ness.
  • An “everyday” cheddar pairs especially well with an everyday beer, Pilsnet, Kolsch, Pale Ale.
  • Dishes that use cheese as one of several ingredients, like brie in puff pastry or pizza with mozzarella cheese. “If you have a balanced dish,” says Pierce, “pick a balanced beer. It’s like a salad – you want the right balance of ingredients without too much dressing. Tank-7 or Damnation are good beers that pair well across the board.”

Which brings us to Step Five: What to pair with important foods that have never seen a cow, a goat, or a sheep, but have cheese in the title, like you know, Cheez Doodles and Cheese Nips.

Good news for the six-packers among us, smiles Pierce, “Whatever beer you usually drink - any beer goes with snacks.”

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