I've been a cheesemonger for almost as long as I've been a beer lover. I took my first job where it was my responsibility to explain the nuances of production and flavor of cheese in 1984, a little more than a year after I had my first truly compelling beer, Niksicko Pivo, and no, I'm not here to argue that the Montenegran lager was the Pliny the Elder of its time, but after five years of whatever was on sale at the campus co-op or the corner bodega that Eastern European brew with its honeydew and celery overtones tasted great. So did the cheeses I was selling.
It took a few years for me to begin exploring how the cheese and beer go together, but now that I regularly teach classes on the matter and offer samples of pairings at my store, something has occurred to me. Too many people get it wrong. Beer and cheese are natural companions. In fact, they pair far more naturally and easily than wine and cheese. Most cheeses have a finishing note of salt, which makes beer's carbonation into a soothing balm. Also most beers and cheeses communicate at the same volume, unlike wines where a bruising California Cabernet can drown out everything near it or a super subtle Burgundy can be overrun by even the most moderately flavored cheese.
Where people go wrong with their pairings is that they forget about flavor. For instance, in pairing cheese and wine, people aim to put items from the same region together, which is fine if their flavors match and not so much if they don't. The parallel mistake that I see all the time in magazines and on websites is that people try to match items of similar intensity. Thus, on several occasions I've seen a big aggressive blue, Bayley Hazen Blue or Colston Bassett Stilton for instance, paired with a super hoppy India Pale Ale. Hmmm, big doses of pepper and earth followed by massive hits of pine and resin—that's not my idea of an ideal culinary good time. What will happen is that the cheese and beer will vie for superiority, turning your palate into the setting for videogame level warfare.
I'm a big fan of putting contrasting elements together so that they mesh and create a whole bigger than the sum of their parts rather than clash and reduce each other. For instance, I'd take that big hoppy IPA, be it Stone Ruination or Knee Deep Deranged or something similar and pair it with an aged gouda like L'Amuse, Ewephoria or Beemster. Most aged goudas have sweet overtones in the finish; it's customary to be reminded of toffee, molasses and vanilla. Those flavors contrast nicely with the piney and resinous finish of the IPA, and ideally they'll bring out the stone fruit and citrus overtones as well.
What about those blues? I love scotch ales, especially Parallel 49's Salty Scot or Founder's Dirty Bastard with blues. Beers like that have rich caramel and chocolate overtones. Their sweetness is the perfect balance to all of the pepper and earth of a classic blue. And if it's the season, bourbon barrel aged stouts make an amazing pair with blues. That might be my favorite pairing of all.
Another great pairing is to match really creamy cheese from brie to triple creams like L'Explorateur or Brillat Savarin with just about any beer that has undergone a secondary fermentation. The effervescence of an Ommegang Hennepin or Abbey Ale, a Boulevard Tank 7 or either Local 1 or Local 2 from Brooklyn Brewery will contrast with the intensely smooth texture of those cheeses. Furthermore the fruitiness of these beers will companion well with the root vegetable and herbal flavors from the cheese.
Look, I'm all about terroir when it comes to beverages and food, but that's not the primary element that you first experience. Most people think about flavor and texture and those make the best bases to create good pairings. If it looks good on paper, that's fine, but it has to taste great. That's what comes first.
Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.