Tastings School - Perfect Partners (Cheese & Beer)

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Perfect Partners (Cheese & Beer)

Cheese is far more compatible with beer than wine, so why don't we serve the two together more? Ben McFarland goes on a road test

Wine and cheese parties were all the rage in the 70s. That’s when wine and cheese first really got together. For years the two were joined at the hip and happening social gatherings. Back then, they seemed such a nice couple.

But they were also impressionable, unripened and un-aged – far too young to realise their differences and the fate was awaiting them. Cracks soon appeared and, a few decades on, the relationship is now crumbling like a Danish Blue.

They still pretend to get on but, deep down, they’ve both got their doubts. But there’s no reason why wine and cheese should like each other. In fact, I expect chalk has a less rocky rapport with cheese than wine does.

The fact that the two often meet on the dinner table after a meal is a touching ritual, but hardly a foundation for a solid future.

Why do they insist on pursuing such a pointless marriage of convenience? A lot of things seemed like a good idea way back then but would you wear a Tank Top today?

Harsh I know, but it’s time for the two to go their separate ways.

A full-bodied wine, that’s improved with age, shouldn’t have any trouble finding a partner away from the cheeseboard while cheese can set himself free and do what he’s always wanted to do – namely go and sow his wild oatcakes with beer.

It’s the perfect partner, proper whirlwind affair material, a match made in heaven. Beer and cheese have a lot in common you see. Both are traditional farmhouse products with the same agricultural ancestry. Cheese is made from the milk of cows, sheep and goats that munch on grass. Barley, essentially another kind of grass, is what brewers use to make beer.

Both are fermented, aged and shaped by tiny little organisms. Both can be enjoyed at their most youthful with simple, clear flavours, or with some maturity when a range of complex characters are on show.

It’s an exciting time to match-make beer and cheese. Both are undergoing an epicurean epiphany. Artisan cheeses and craft beers are growing in popularity and melting the butter of discerning drinkers and diners who, let’s face it, want something a bit funkier than the humdrum household names.

A maverick selection of both beer and cheeses were recently gathered together at the salubrious Paxton & Whitfield shop in central London. Paxton & Whitfield is the big cheese of the cheeseshop world.

It takes pride in sourcing and maturing exceptional cheeses from throughout Europe and has supplied cheese to the Royal Family since 1850. If you want 300 of the finest cheeses around then this is the place to go. It’s not the place, however, to reveal your love for Edam or Kraft cheese slices.

The beers, meanwhile, were supplied by the Beer Naturally Campaign. Funded by Coors Brewers and backed by the Independent Family Brewers of Britain, ‘Beer Naturally’ champions all things beer-related with a healthy focus on beer’s budding relationship with food.

What a wonderful idea. Armed with a glass, a cheese knife and a pocketful of crackers, Beers of the World dived in for some serious matchmaking:

Cheese with...

...full-bodied lager

Brie de Melun, France:
An unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese with a mellow mushroom aroma and hints of creamy caramel in the mouth.

Grolsch, 5% ABV, (Holland) A golden lager with a light hoppy aroma. Elusive apple and banana notes.

Did they get it on? The generous carbonation of the lager lifts the creamy texture of the palate, allowing the biscuity malt character to sneak in. An efficient if unspectacular couple.

...creamy lager

Oxford Isis, France:
A thinking man’s pasteurised cheese produced by a Frenchman for the clever clogs at Oxford Universities. Washed in honey mead, full of flavour and with a distinct spicy tang.

Lowenbrau Original, 5.2% ABV, Munich: Wellbalanced blonde beer where the malt is strong and sweet and the hops sharp and bitter.

Is love in the air? A German-Franco skirmish in the gob where neither are willing to back down. The hops come through but then, in a rare move for a Frenchman, the pungent cheese fights back and overpowers it. After the initial scuffle, however, the bubbles of the Lowenbrau sooth the spicy after-bite of the cheese amid a reconciliatory embrace. This one’s a fiery love-hate relationship.

...fruit beer

St Felicien, France:
A hearty mountaineer’s goat’s cheese from the Alps. What it lacks in size it makes up for in complexity with a fabulously creamy texture, a light acid tang and a nutty aromatic nose.

Liefman’s Frambozen (raspberry), 4.5% ABV, Belgium: A truly unique raspberry beer without the saccharin character of more commercial examples. Big raspberry notes boff you on the nose while the liquid is both sherbety-sweet and lip-twistingly sour.

Any hanky panky? Even though fruits like apple and grapes are welcome on a cheeseboard, I had little hope for this pairing. But it works incredibly well. A funky, fruity frisson that gets sexier with every sip and slither.

The Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas of the beer and cheese world in that one’s intensely fruity, sweet and pleasing on the eye and the other is small, old and a little bit smelly. A beautiful yet baffling relationship.

...highly hopped India Pale Ale

Crockamdale, England:
This cheese is a twist on Wensleydale, a favourite of Wallace & Gromit. Pressed, brined and matured for four months, this is a great ewe’s milk cheese. Creamy with an incredibly delicate farmyard aroma and a cleansing bite.

Worthington White Shield, 5.6% ABV, England: A defiant survivor of 1820s’ IPA tradition, when only the most flavoursome of beers endured the arduous voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to India. A bottle-conditioned beauty bursting with hops and dry rich marmalade flavours.

Surely some slap and tickle? Drunk on its own, the IPA has a habit of being brusque and brutal. Yet the softly spoken cheese softens the beer’s edges. In return, the White Shield brings out characteristics of the cheese that simply weren’t there previously. A symbiotic relationship where the total sum is greater than its considerable parts.

...with Trappist ale

Herve, Belgium:
This is Belgium’s most famous cheese. A small brickshaped cheese that dates back to the seventh century and looks ominously like lard. It has an autumn-coloured sticky crust washed in ale. The interior of the cheese has a sweet to powerful and spicy flavour reminiscent of a sweaty shin pad.

Chimay Red, 7% ABV, Belgium: A deep, silky yet succulent copper Trappist ale brewed in the dubbel style. It’s brimming with fruit flavours and a late hit of hop bitterness. Worth noting that Chimay monks also make their own cheese – well you’ve got to do something with all that time on your hands.

Should I buy a new hat? I don’t know if there’s enough room in a relationship for both of these. In the house of flavours, plates fly and doors slam with the ponky power of the cheese exchanging insults with the astringency and pointed bitterness of the Chimay. Perhaps they’re just too alike. Maybe they just need some space, man.

…..with strong ‘old ale’

Cropwell Bishop Stilton, England:
One of the very few organic blue cheeses made in Great Britain. Two years ago, it was voted supreme champion at the British Cheese Awards. Deep, creamy with a herbal high.

Brakspear Triple, 7.2% ABV, England:
Triple fermented and triple-hopped in the double-drop system with a blast of Cascade hops and a final fermentation in the bottle.

A long and lasting relationship? Stilton’s cluster bomb of herby, spicy flavours has most wines running for cover. It’s the blue bits they can’t cope with. If truth be told, Port is the only fermented grape juice that stands its ground.

This port-like strong ale, however, opens a ‘can of whoop-ass’ on the Stilton. Not only has it the depth to counter the massive richness of the cheese but also the bottle-conditioned bubbles to peel the sticky cheese from the top of the mouth and firmly wrap it up, ensuring a clean finish. Its nutty hoppiness also welcomes any biscuits to the party. A well-heeled and happy couple.

...with strong ‘vintage ale’

Ripe Brie de Meaux, France:
At £167.95 per kilo and a history dating back to AD 774, this Brie is French cheese’s king of kings. Voluptuous and velvety in texture, pungent and pokey in aroma, eye-watering and overpowering in flavour – this Brie means business.

Fuller’s 2004 Vintage Ale, 8.5% ABV, London: A beautifully balanced bottleconditioned ale – the jewel in the Fuller’s crown. Deep amber in colour with spice, herbs and cloves on the nose and a rich caramel, citrus character in the mouth. Ideal for afterdinner sipping at Christmas.

Voulez-vous couchez avec moi or not?

Such is the power and prestige of the French cheese, few hold out much hope for the English Ale. Yet the vivid aromatics of the beer light up the aromatics of the cheese while the weighty richness twists the nipples of the rich ‘n’ ripe brie. The balance of caramel, spicy and citrus-hop flavours allows the beer to linger on the palate long after the cheese. It’s a bit like the Olympic bid. You thought the French were going to win it, but then the Brits come and nick it at the death. A very cordial entente indeed.