“If I were to say, ‘Fill in the blank: Cheese and ______’, most people would say ‘crackers’ right away. Well, beer is made from the same ingredients as crackers (plus a few extras), so to me it just makes sense to put them together,” says Jesse Vallins, Certified Cicerone and Executive Chef at The Saint Tavern in Toronto. But of course, when it comes to beer and cheese, some matches turn out tastier than others.
A few basic guidelines can help guide your choices. “The general principle for pairing beer and cheese is the general principle for pairing, period,” continues Vallins. “You’re looking for balance. The biggest factor is weight or intensity. For example, trying to match a huge, high-alcohol barrel aged beer with a mild fresh cheese probably isn’t going to work very well.” Chris Cohen, author of the The Beer Scholar Study Guides, emphasizes that you should first and foremost be concerned about intensity: “The flavors of the pairing are irrelevant if the intensity of one overwhelms the other. A pilsner paired with a powerful blue cheese is going to fail just as badly a barleywine with a light salad.”
Once you’ve chosen a cheese and narrowed down the possible beer styles to those with a similar intensity, you’re hunting for beer flavors that are complementary or contrasting. “Some cheeses show their best qualities when the beer is completely different, while others shine when paired with one that features many of the same flavors,” notes Mark Reinwald of Shelton Brothers.
Want to make it really easy? We asked a few beer pros for their favorite pairings to get you started.
“With fresh and bloomy rind goat cheeses, like a basic soft chevre, I like Belgian and German wheat beers,” says Jesse Vallins. “The clean citrusy flavours of a witbier, like Blanche de Chambly, resonates very well with the similar flavors in a fresh goat cheese and the spritzy carbonation keeps everything fresh.” Mark Reinwald adds the option of pilsner: “The floral notes of the cheese are echoed in the herbal hop flavors of pilsner,” he says. Reinwald’s personal favorite: “Saison and chevre! The unique earthiness and tartness of the cheese finds many of the same flavors in saison. Plus, the high carbonation of saison helps to clean and reset the palate.”
What about fresh cheeses like mascarpone or burrata? Vallins holds that “fruit beers can offer an interesting perspective. One of my favorites is a sour cherry beer, like New Glarus Belgian Red, with burrata. The acidity and carbonation of the beer cut through the buttery richness of the cheese, and the intense fruit flavor makes a berries and cream combination.”
Some call this the ultimate type of cheese for beer pairing, especially for those who love malty brews that offer nutty and caramelized flavors. “Amber Ales are very caramel, malt forward beers,” notes Lauren Salazar, of New Belgium. “Consider this a clue: caramel. Then think of cheeses that share that same component, like aged Gouda. Yep, they pair well because they complement each other.” Along the same lines, Chris Cohen suggest pairing aged Gouda with a doppelbock such as Weihenstephaner Korbinian, thanks to its “rich malt, dried dark fruit character, and deep caramel flavors.”
Neil Witte, a Master Cicerone who works at Duvel USA, recommends keeping an eye on how long the cheese was aged: “For a moderately aged Gouda, for example, I would be thinking about a light to medium bodied American brown ale or a brown porter. I may even try an Oktoberfest or Vienna Lager. As the cheese ages even more and develops more intense character, I’d look to step up the intensity to something like a Bock, Old Ale or a sweet stout.”
For classic British Cheddars with earthy undertones, Jesse Vallins recommends a best bitter, like Fuller’s London Pride, or a British IPA like Worthington’s White Shield. If you’re going with “a ballsy new world Cheddar like Fiscalini Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar,” Vallins says, turn to an American IPA, like Dogfish Head 60 Minute. Natalie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing says Pliny is her pick for sharp or aged Cheddars.
Jesse Vallins recommends amping it up a bit: “With funkier, washed rind, creamy cheeses like Epoisses, Vacherin Mont d’Or, or Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, your beer partner needs to be big and bold.” His pick: “a Double or Imperial IPA, like Three Floyds Dreadnaught. These beers often have tropical and citrus fruit flavors, and in place of high acidity they have bitterness.” Big IPAs not your thing? Look to farmhouse ales. “This style of cheese usually always boasts some level of barnyard, earth, and yeastiness—very common qualities in Belgian and French farmhouse ales. A funky and yeasty saison or a classic, earthy Biere de Garde will resonate with those qualities and bring everything together.”
“I like beers with more fermentation aromas for funky cheeses,” says Neil Witte. “With the creaminess of the cheese, you’d need to be able to balance that out with either some hop bitterness or a higher carbonation. You’d find those characteristics in some of the strong Belgian ales. You can also work with beers that have an acidic balance like a Flanders red or brown or some of the classic Belgian lambics.” Mark Reinwald agrees: “Funk needs more funk! Beers that include brettanomyces in their fermentation display a range of earthy, leathery, and barnyard flavors and aromas that have a natural partner in funky cheese. And because these beers are often bottled with a higher level of carbonation, that extra spritz provides scrubbing power to rinse the palate clean after each taste.”
When it comes to blue cheese, you have a few options. If you’re a hop lover, Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing Co. recommends pairing IPA with creamy blues: “I love their texture and mild pungency that works so well with the hop bitterness of an IPA.” Mark Reinwald agrees: “American-style IPA’s broad bitterness serves as a blade through the creaminess and richness of the blue cheese. And the fruitiness of the hops finds similar flavors in the cheese, too.”
Others recommend a big malty beer: Chris Cohen points calls “a deeply caramelly, rich, sweet, and malty English style Barleywine” an “amazing classic pairing. “The earthy and nutty malt flavors will match up and the sweetness will provide flavor contrast, while the English Barleywine’s high level of alcohol and moderate carbonation will cut through the fat and cleanse your palate.”
Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery (and author of beer pairing tome The Brewmaster’s Table) tells us that has “a great many” favorite beer and cheese pairings, “but a real stand-out is Colston-Bassett Stilton with a big imperial stout.” His preference, of course, is for Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout. “This is a pairing where 2 + 2 = 7; the beer’s residual sugar is a fine counterpoint to the Stilton’s salt, and then the fruity and roast malt flavors of the beer bring forward a chocolatey side to the Stilton that was previously hidden. It’s a perfect after-dinner pairing.”