I Tried It: Beer & Cheese Pairing

Beer and cheese: two of my favorite things in the world. Beer and cheese together at the same time: possibly my most favorite thing in the world.

In my mission to become more adept (or adept at all) in pairing beer with food, I decided to start honing my pairing skills by organizing and planning a beer and cheese pairing. My pairing skills are still very, very elementary, and I will eventually work up to more complex pairings, like dinners, but as they say, you have to walk before you can run. Pairing one beer with one cheese seemed easy enough – challenging to conceive but not so challenging that I got overwhelmed or dejected.

Using the awesome chart in my Beer Pairing book, I picked out four styles of cheese that I really enjoy – Camembert, Edam, smoked cheddar, and blue cheese – and then one additional style with which I’m not as familiar – Swiss – to make a well-rounded cheese plate that would grow in intensity along with the beers I chose.

Once I had my cheeses, I needed to decide what beer styles would complement the cheeses the best. In looking at the chart, the types of cheeses I chose had a common beer element: they all paired well with Belgian-style beers. I made a list of the types of cheeses for which I was looking and gave myself a couple options for each type so I could be flexible with my choices once I got to the store. I also listed a couple of beer styles I could use for each cheese.

Since I’m still new to the pairing game, I didn’t want to break the bank on cheeses or beers, so I headed to my closest Harris Teeter with my list in hand. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to find the particular beer styles I wanted, but as I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy the challenge of choosing beer from a limited selection because it makes me reconsider beers that I maybe usually pass by. For my Camembert, I was looking for either a Biere de Garde or Tripel and chose Allagash Tripel Ale. For my Swiss, I wanted a witbier or a Saison and chose Mother Earth’s Weeping Willow Wit. For the Edam, I wanted a Quad or Strong Golden and chose Ommegang’s Three Philosophers. For the smoked cheddar, I wanted a Dubbel and chose Ommegang’s Abbey Ale. Lastly, I wanted a Tripel or a Belgian Strong Ale and chose Chimay Grand Reserve.

I wanted to add other non-cheese components to my pairing that would provide a respite from the cheese but also pair well with the beers. I also like to add components that pair well with more than one beer I am serving not only to showcase the versatility of the beer, but also to keep the pairing from getting too overwhelming. I added pecans to pair with the Ommegang Abbey Ale as well as the Ommegang Three Philosophers. I added white chocolate and sourdough to pair with the Mother Earth Weeping Willow Wit. Per Beer Pairing’s advice on extras, I also added fresh strawberries and dried apricots. Not having palate cleansers is something I think is often overlooked at beer and food pairings or even beer tastings, so I also made sure to have plenty of chilled water and water crackers on hand.

Once I had all my components ready to go, I drew a diagram of my cheese tray so I could figure out what was going where as well as how I wanted the tasting to progress. I didn’t want to start with something strong, like the smoked cheddar or blue cheese, and I also didn’t want there to be dissonance as the pairing went on. I decided on starting with the Camembert and Tripel; then moving to the sourdough, Swiss, white chocolate, and witbier; then moving to the Edam, pecans, and Quad; then moving to the pecans, smoked cheddar, and Dubbel; and ending with the blue cheese and Belgian Dark Strong Ale. The plate would progress from the lighter cheeses and beers (if 8-9% ABV beers are considered “lighter”) to the more intense cheeses and beers.

Because I used Beer Pairing as a reference and didn’t try to be too adventurous, the beers, cheeses, and other items all worked perfectly together. The goal of this pairing for me wasn’t to execute some Garrett Oliver-level pairing but rather get a feel for how to plan and execute a beer pairing with some tried and true pairings.

And also eat a tray of cheese with five high gravity beers – needless to say, My Fitness Pal did not hear about this pairing.

The stand out of the night was the witbier with the sourdough, Swiss, and white chocolate, which wasn’t a surprise as witbiers are one of the easiest pairing beers because they have enough flavor components to pair with a lot of different types of food. The smoked cheddar and Dubbel was another favorite, as was the blue cheese with the Dark Strong. The “least” favorite for everyone else was the Camembert and the Tripel, mainly because my fellow tasters were not fans of the Camembert. My “least” favorite was the Edam with the Quad. I put “least” in quotes because they were all stellar pairings, but in a ranking system, someone comes in last.

All that was left by the end of the night.

All that was left by the end of the night.

If you’re curious about pairing beer with food, I think it’s helpful to start out on a smaller scale with something like a beer and cheese pairing because the legwork of figuring out what pairs well with what is already done for you. It’s helpful to break down the flavor components of the beer and the cheese, which I did in a PowerPoint (I can’t un-nerd myself, even when I’m doing things for fun), so that you understand the why behind the pairings, but there is no guesswork involved. It’s like coloring in a coloring book rather than picking up a paintbrush and expecting to be the next Monet.

Next up on my pairing agenda? An ice cream, cake, and beer pairing.