Grab a beer and a wedge of cheese—it's time to pair 'em up! We partnered with Allagash to share cheese expert Elena Santogade's tips for pairing beer and cheese, plus how to host your own tasting party.
Beer and cheese go together like malt and milkshakes—or bread and butter, if that’s more your thing. You can navigate the delicious terrain of pairing them up by mastering three basic concepts, trusting your own senses, and (most importantly) tasting beer and cheese as often as possible.
To get the full effect of a beer and cheese pairing, take a sip of the beer first and then taste the cheese, and wash it down with another small sip of the beer. The key is to make sure you taste both together at the same time, and pay attention to how the flavors mingle and change throughout the tasting and in the finish.
I like to think about this concept as a see-saw. Generally, you never want the intensity of one item in a pairing to be wildly out of balance with the other. A strong, bitter ale is a good beer to play around with in learning this concept, since it has a pretty punchy flavor and can be tricky to pair well with cheese. A tip: Try pairing it with a traditional clothbound Cheddar. The bold flavor of the Cheddar will match the hoppy pale ale because they share a similar bitter intensity on the finish. (See: A nice, evenly-weighted see-saw.)
If you want to get a sense of an out-of-whack coupling, pair a light, refreshing white ale with a super-aged, dense, bourbon-y Gouda. It’s like a sad magic trick: The beer disappears on your palate.
Though you could cast beer all in one category as “bubbly,” try classifying the textures in different styles of beer. Here are some general trends when it comes to beer and texture, to help you get a grasp on this one:
Once you get the hang of identifying beer textures, it’s fun to then dial in on the variations within a style. A milk stout is rich and creamy, where a good old-fashioned Irish dry stout is actually pretty light in body.
Cheese texture is pretty straightforward, and has a lot to do with the cheese’s fat and moisture content—not too hard to spot. A creamy blue cheese is high in moisture, and the butterfat can create a mouth-coating feeling. Combine that with a bubbly sour ale and you’ve got something interesting: The texture of the beer contrasts with the cheese and suddenly your taste buds are AWAKE! Get to know what happens when you pair on all ends of the spectrum: Try creamy blue cheese with a rich stout and you’ve got a boozy milkshake—a totally different experience.
Now that you’re able to identify intensity levels and textures, bring it all together and aim for one of two pairing styles when eating beer and cheese: Contrasting or complementary.
In a contrasting pairing, you’re bringing dissimilar elements together in harmony. The best pairings in this category can yield a previously undetected flavor, which, to a cheese expert or cicerone (essentially a beer sommelier), is the holy grail. For example, try tasting a rich, roasty black stout with a bright, herbaceous goat cheese—the beer is transformed into a much lighter version of itself; a bite of Parmigiano-Reggiano followed with a swig of sour ale and suddenly pineapple and mango flavors emerge; the normally intense flavors in blue cheese and tripel ales become surprisingly relaxed when paired together. Contrasts are exciting and a little daring—and can easily result in disaster flavor-wise, so be ready for a little trial and error to get this pairing method right.
A bit more forgiving is the complementary method of pairing beer and cheese. Identify flavors and elements that are similar between the beer and the cheese and they’ll most likely co-mingle nicely. A funky, yeasty washed rind cheese pairs wonderfully with a similarly barnyard-y, wild, yeasty saison; taste a tripel ale with an aged Gouda and the bourbon-y element in both gets amplified. On the delicate side, a light white ale and a spoonful of seasoned fresh ricotta feels like a dance, with equally mild, refreshing flavors that just plain “go.”
By considering these three concepts—equal intensity, texture, and contrast/complement—in tandem when you’re planning a beer and cheese pairing, you’re likely to land on something delicious. There are many other elements that you can dissect when it comes to pairings, but starting here and going with what tastes good to you is the best way to jump right in.
3 pieces of construction paper (poster-size)
Washable markers, as many colors as people you’re expecting at the party
Some amount of wall space for hanging the construction paper (a large table also works, and the floor can stand in as a fine last resort)
My suggestion is to choose a variety of styles from across the spectrum—I’d suggest starting with 3 different beers.
Snag 4 cheeses of your choosing, a variety of styles. (Try out different milk types too!)
Each beer gets its own piece of construction paper. Label the top of each paper with the name of the beer. Divide the rest of each paper into 4 quadrants—one for each cheese. Give each guest his or her own color marker, for use throughout the party. Set your cheeses and beers out for tasting with labels, so that your guests know what’s what. Encourage guests to jump around a bit, tasting different cheeses with each beer and writing their tasting notes in the proper quadrant on each beer’s paper.
Note: If your crowd is not super up on cheese or beer terms, get the verbiage flowing with some suggested descriptors. Check out our infographic for inspiration!
By the end of your party, you’ll have a sizable roster of tasting notes to ponder. Compare the tasting notes to the intensity and texture concepts. Did cheeses and beers with similar levels of intensity do better among the crowd? What textural pairings worked? What flopped? How do other peoples’ reactions relate to your own?
There aren’t many absolutes when it comes to traditional, ever-changing fermented products like beer and cheese, but with a little mindful practice your own taste memory can become a trustworthy guide (...and you’ll be a guaranteed hit at parties). Cheers!
Got a favorite beer and cheese pairing? Tell us in the comments below!
Grab a beer and a wedge of cheese—it's time to pair 'em up! We partnered with Allagash to share cheese expert Elena Santogade's tips for pairing beer and cheese, plus how to host your own tasting party. Get a start on your pairings here, with Allagash's many, many Belgian-inspired beers.