In all of my (brief) time as a cheese monger, it never once happened that a customer walked up to me and asked, “Could you recommend a cheese to pair with this beer?” And it breaks my heart. Hundreds of times: “I’ve got a Cabernet… could you help me?” I could try. “I think this is… umm… a Chardonnay? What cheese goes with an oaked Chardonnay?” For the life of me, I have no idea. I can’t help you. But beer? That’s easy. It’s really more of a question of which beers don’t work.
You think I jest? Follow me: the dairy fat of cheese — that yummy but eventually icky film that coats your mouth — begs for what the wine snobs call spumante, or what the rest of us call carbonation, to come and wash it away. Take a bite, wash it down, and take another. Each bite should taste as good as the last. Sparkling wines often work with a lot of cheeses for this reason. Furthermore, there’s this dangerous teeter-totter game you play with wine and cheese because the flavors are so far apart. You have to get just the right wine, with the perfect fruit and acidity, to balance with the cheese that’s sitting on the other end of a very wobbly plank.
With beer, you rarely have to play that kind of game. See, cheese and beer share flavors more often than cheese and wine. Yeasty? Check. Malty sweetness? Check. Smoky? You can find a beer that’s got it in spades. A little overlap in flavor builds the bridge between the cheese and the beer. Finally, beer and cheese, at least in the serving sizes before gluttony truly takes hold, are both affordable. A serving for one person of even the most expensive, $30 per pound, 10-year cheddar is still only a few bucks.
And beyond all that, the Midwest has some of the finest of both beer and cheese. A few choice pairings:
Without exaggeration, Bent River Camembert from the Alemar Cheese Co. in Mankato is as good as anything available in the US of A. When this soft cow’s milk cheese is ripe and runny, it beats any of the pasteurized French brie or camembert sold here. Seriously. I once told that to a couple who laughed at me. And laugh they should, because they’re wrong as fools. It takes some very blind Euro-worship to not see that the States are producing comparable cheese these days, and Bent River is a prime example.
To enjoy this soft, exquisite cheese, you don’t need to break the bank on some white Bordeaux or get out your Riedel set. Just try a Saison-style beer like Lift Bridge’s Farm Girl. The light fruit — apples, apricots, general summery happy wheat beer flavors — do well with the two-tone texture of this creamy cows milk cheese.
The Bent River almost approaches a triple-crème (think Brillat-Savarin or Delice de Bourgogne) in its decadent richness, but without the general sense that you’re eating a stick of butter. The fruit and wheat in a bottle of Farm Girl from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewery does the trick.
The mouth-puckering hops of Surly’s Furious IPA are normally a red flag for cheese pairing — a flag as red as the beer can it came in. The bitter dryness of hops can be hard to pair with lots of foods. Fortunately, it’s a welcoming flavor for any real-deal aged cheddar like Widmer’s 8-year. The big, hoppy flavor and bold fruit of the Furious make it the perfect partner for the acidity and downright crunch of Widmer’s aged cheddar. The salt, the zing, the crumbling perfection of this golden gem: it was all made for IPA. Hops in pale ales of any sort can be tricky to match with a cheese, but the cheese gods were kind and they made the pairing easy.
Aged cheddar — and it doesn’t get any better than an old Widmer’s cheddar — is ready for the hops. And if your concern in pairing cheese with anything was that you’d look like some sort of dandy, don’t worry. With cheddar and an IPA, from Theresa, Wisconsin and Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, respectively, you’re no dandy. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a dandy.
Finally, and with the most ease, come the Pleasant Ridge Extra Reserve and Summit’s Great Northern Porter. The Extra Reserve is almost too easy to match. If you haven’t had Pleasant Ridge, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. It’s made in the style of Swiss mountain cheeses like Gruyère, another cow’s milk cheese that gets washed and aged. It’s got clear but not overbearing nutty, caramel flavor that works with a wide variety of beers. It could go just as easily with an amber or a coffee and chocolate-toned porter.
Basically, as long as it’s not wheat or a hophead beer, it’ll play fair with the Pleasant Ridge Extra Reserve. And the Summit Great Northern Porter plays well — the dark sweetness of the beer spins like a lithe dancer with the cheese like some rural Midwestern, true love, dairy barn prom. They just spin around and around. The Great Northern is on the mellower side for a porter, with a bit of sweetness and just a hint of hops. The chocolate is there, but lurking in the background. This all means the Great Northern will balance with the Pleasant Ridge Extra Reserve’s medium-bodied complexity without overshadowing it.
Think of these suggestions as three doors you can enter. There are no tigers beyond them, just expansive worlds of beer and cheese and beer. And rest assured that other beers work with these cheeses, and other cheeses with these beers.