Two weekends ago I hosted my second-annual birthday beer tasting, which is pretty much what it sounds like (or not, as I’m usually pretty sober at the end of the night). Most of my friends aren’t craft beer drinkers, so it gives me an opportunity to show them the light without them complaining because it is my birthday and I can make people do things they don’t want to. Last year I tried to show off how the different ingredients of a beer (malt, yeast and hops – sorry water) affected the taste of the beer. This year I wanted to change it up and try out a beer and cheese tasting. Cheese has become a minor obsession and I wanted to give the tasting a try after attending of number of similar beer/cheese talks in the past two years. Ontario is producing a lot of great cheese right now and the evening was also a celebration of that fact.
The weeks leading up to the tasting resulted in a lot of research – books (The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver and Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher), my notes from other events and, of course, eating cheese and drinking beer. The books were somewhat helpful, but it soon became obvious that their specific pairings were impossible to pull off because there was no access to either the American beers or cheeses. They were guidelines, but it was obvious that those guidelines were quite similar to any other beer and food pairing. You either want to compare or contrast flavours, keeping in mind aspects like the intensity of flavour in the beer or cheese. Sometimes I had a beer in mind and tried to find a cheese to match, while at other times the process was reversed. None of the pairings were tested beforehand, but I had usually tried the beer and cheese on their own (buying the cheese from farmers markets was a great help – just ask some questions and they’ll start giving the stuff away). My ideal pairing is one that elevates both components so that the taste of both combined is better than when separate.
The first pairing went for contrast in flavours. It is always best to start with something light and work up to the bigger flavours and I really wanted to start with the Fifth Town Lemon Fetish. The Lemon Fetish is very much like feta, but with added lemon zest. The Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier seemed like a natural pairing with the lemon playing off the bananas and esters, while the saltiness of the cheese would play off the rather sweet beer. The cheese was a big hit, though I found it a little too salty for the beer to come through.
Up next was Fifth Town’s Quinte Crest with the Muskoka Mad Tom IPA. This pairing went for the classic IPA and cheddar match, even though the Mad Tom isn’t a British IPA and the Quinte Crest isn’t a cheddar. The bitterness of the beer really worked with the sharpness of the cheese, which was exactly the idea (*pats self on back*). As an added bonus, the dry finish and funky washed rind ended up working as well.
Continuing to serve the bigger and badder beers, next up was the Koningshoeven Tripel. Tripels tend to have a high ABV (this particular one was 8%), but don’t need a big cheese. Simple, creamy cheeses, like the Monforte pecorino fresca, really help bring out all the nuances and accents in the beer. The pecorino fresca looked a bit odd and scared people at first (it looked like curds smushed together into a cheese wheel), but the lactic notes really brought out the apricot flavours in the beer. Probably my favourite pairing of the night.
Not many people are fans of blue cheese, but double/imperial IPAs and blue cheese are such a popular combination that the evening wouldn’t be complete without some stinky blue. (Before you say that a barley wine would be better, just remember that it is July and barley wines aren’t exactly thirst quenching.) A bottle of Southern Tier Oak Aged Unearthly and a small slice of Bleu d’Élizabeth were chosen for the pairing. Blues aren’t my thing either, but the cheese was rather tame and the Oak Aged Unearthly was strong enough to match the intensity level. Hard to call this a win when the cheese isn’t your taste, but I can see how the flavours make sense.
The last pairing was a bridge between the previous beers and the rest of the beer samples, so a palate cleanser was appropriate. Sour beers are always great as a bridge between intense beers because the acidity cuts through any lingering flavours while preparing the tongue for the next beer. The delicious Fifth Town Cape Vessey was called upon to match the great Panil, hoping that the complex washed-rind cheese would be able to withstand the beer. The pairing was good but not overly remarkable, though the peculiarity of the beer drew people away from thinking about the cheese.
Overall, I was happy with my first beer and cheese tasting. None of the pairings were horrible, which was my main fear. If you’re comfortable with finding the right beer for your food, then matching beer and cheese shouldn’t be a problem. It doesn’t have to be a cerebral exercise – your tongue will be able to tell you what works and why. Just remember that the quality of cheese should match the beer – you wouldn’t serve a cave-aged cheese with buck-a-beers, so don’t have no name gouda with your craft beer. And always remember it’s supposed to be fun, whether it’s a backyard birthday party or your turn to host a dinner party. Eat, drink, enjoy!