When you're preparing a cheese plate, your first instinct may be to crack open some bottles of wine, but beer and cheese have been paired together for centuries. Monasteries and farms frequently produced both, and so cheese and beer played a major role in those monks' and farmers' diets. But what should you pour if you're trying to pair beer and cheese at home?
If anyone understands the relationship between cheese and beer, it's Steve Jones, owner of Portland, Oregon's Cheese Bar. Jones has spent over 20 years in restaurants and markets, building up an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese and stashing his shop with complementary brews. He even collaborates with local breweries to create cheese-friendly beers. At Cheese Bar, you can consult with Jones or his staff on which brew to pair with any cheese they sell—their beer selection ranks among Portland's best.
Besides supplying seemingly every restaurant in Portland with its cheese plate, Jones often curates the cheese selections at local beer festivals. Most recently he supplied four cheeses to match up with the eight beers featured at the Breakside/10 Barrel Fruit Beer Event at The Upper Lip, a terrific bar above Bailey's Taproom in downtown Portland. I sat down with Jones before the event to discuss his approach and get some advice on pairing beer and cheese at home.
Between beer and wine, which do you think pairs better with cheese overall? Or do you think it's just a matter of personal preference?
"There's very little connection between grapes and cheese, but there is a very direct connection between grains and cheese."
Beer's better. And there's a couple reasons, in my mind, for why that is. First is the effervescence. Beer is constantly scrubbing your palate clean with carbonation, whereas with wine your palate becomes more and more dead with every sip. Also, beer and cheese are parallel in terroir, because the animals that produce cheese eat grains, and beer is a grain-based beverage. There's very little connection between grapes and cheese, but there is a very direct connection between grains and cheese. When you taste beer and cheese together, the cheese will draw out the grain qualities in the beer and tie it all together.
Do you remember your first eye-opening beer-with-cheese moment?
It would have been at the Schlafly brewery in St. Louis about 15 years ago. I became friends with the brewers, and I would bring over a bunch of different cheeses and they'd have tons of beer available. We would lay everything out on the table and taste them together, just having a blast. I don't remember the exact pairing that gave me that eye-opening moment, but it was probably a barleywine and a blue cheese.
How do you go about choosing cheese to pair with beer? Is there a step-by-step process or questions you ask yourself?
I usually begin with the beers and start with the lightest, brightest beer, and then work my way up the scale in color and alcohol from there. Alcohol is hard, hops are hard, so the bigger the flavor of your beer, the more you have to think about a bigger flavor to go with it.
On the lighter end, you want something with more acidity, and on the heavier end, you're thinking about weight. Quite often I'll serve a light beer like a Belgian table beer or a weisse and pair them with a higher-acid cheese like a fresh Ladysmith cow's milk cheese from Samish Bay that's only a couple days old. It has a bright acidity and a nice lactic tang that works great with light, bright beers.
As you go up the scale, you'll want to pair bigger flavors with bigger flavors, without overwhelming either. For example, with an imperial stout, instead of trying to trump the massive flavor in the beer, you'll want to pair it something like a triple creme that helps envelope the beer with fat.
The three aspects I try to think about when pairing beer with cheese are Comparative, Contrasting, and Regional. Comparative, I'm hitting acid with acid. Contrasting, I'm hitting that big chocolate stout with a fat, creamy cheese. And Regional, it goes back to the phrase "If it grows together it goes together," and that's quite often true, especially with cheese and beer. The closer a cheesemaker and brewer are, the more their matches seem to work. It's really odd, but you see it again and again.
What are your general guidelines for pairing fruit beers and cheese?
Acidity is key. Fruit has an innate brightness, so you have bring acid with your cheese pairing. A lot of cheeses can be very salty, and fruit beer has a tendency to magnify that saltiness, so we quickly realized that high-acid cheeses were the way to go. We tried some flabbier, less acidic cheeses, but the fruit beer quickly overwhelmed them.
How did you select each pairing for the Breakside/10 Barrel Fruit Fest?
Instead of overwhelming people with a different cheese for each of the eight beers at the festival and risk losing their individuality from palate fatigue, we decided to go with just four, each of which pairs well with multiple beers. As soon as we started tasting the beers, we realized that certain cheeses would go well with at least two or three of them, so it made sense to limit the number we served.
The honest truth: that fresh Samish Bay Ladysmith cheese—we could have chosen that cheese alone for every beer at the event, it's such a great match for fruit beers.
What kinds of cheese just don't work with beer?
I love sheep's milk cheeses, but I'm always frustrated by how hard they are to pair with beer. The sweater-like lanolin notes you get from sheep's milk cheeses really become prominent alongside the esters in beer. It's funny, because with wine, it's not really the case, but with beer, it's the one kind of cheese that's always tough.
What kinds of beer just don't work with cheese?
Really hoppy beers are the hardest to pair with cheese. If you really want to pair a cheese with a super-hoppy beer, you need to go with a really sharp, 10-year aged cheddar or something similar. Something that has a lot of sharp acidity. Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue is another one that has enough guts and a little bit of smoke to handle the hops. It doesn't quite make sense to me why it works, but it's one that consistently I lean on in those situations.
What are your personal favorite beer and cheese pairings?
One of my favorite combinations is Russian River Supplication and a really funky Camembert. If someone just wants to be blown away, that's the direction I'll push them. Sour beers and funky, bloomy rind cheese is one of those eye-opening matches. Usually if someone's up for drinking a sour beer, they're also open to a really funky cheese, and the two together can really go places.
Any other tips for people at home?
Don't try to go too crazy with your tasting sessions. Try to narrow your choices to about five at most in one sitting. Sometimes people want to bring out something like 20 cheeses and everything from a pilsner to a barleywine, and I typically like to be more focused.
And don't be afraid to fail when you're matching beer and cheese, because the failures are great learning experiences. Sometimes you can learn more about what does and doesn't work by the failures than the successes. It teach you to ask, "Well, why didn't this work?" That's how you learn.