Cheers to Cheese: A Primer to Pairing Cheese with Beer and Spirits
This holiday season, try combining your dairy with beer or spirits instead of wine
Cheese and wine scare the bejesus out of most people. There, I said it.
With all due respect to wine, cheese is easier to pair with beer and spirits because of their similar base ingredients (grass is converted into milk, which is made into cheese, while grasses in the form of cereal grains are fermented into beer or distilled into many spirit categories). Cheese, beer and spirits also share similar flavor profiles, and are often described as nutty, yeasty, earthy, herbaceous, and vegetal among other characteristics.
I first paired cheese with beer and spirits while writing my book, Cheese for Dummies, in 2011. I was simultaneously working as a cheesemonger and quickly learned that tannins (which can manifest as astringency on the palate) and acidity can clash with cheese.
The above is a generalization, of course — and sparkling wines and Champagne are eternally compatible with most cheeses. I simply prefer spirits to wine, and when cheese enters the picture, great things can happen. I also find that the great diversity amongst beer styles and spirit categories make for more inspired, playful pairings. (While I enjoy cheese with cocktails, they can be problematic if too sweet or otherwise unbalanced, so for the purposes of this column, I’m focusing primarily on premium sipping spirits.)
Learn what you like
The most important thing when pairing cheese — with anything — is to aim for similarities or contrasts in flavors: A pairing should be about balance. An assertive blue works well with a juniper-forward gin, while a smokey, earthy reposado tequila would overpower a delicate, soft-ripened chevre.
Even if your cheese knowledge is nonexistent, if you head to the cheese shop/department armed with several adjectives that describe your favorite types, you’ll find offerings that will appeal to you. Gooey, runny, semi-firm, crumbly, sharp, buttery, stinky, creamy, earthy, sharp, crunchy, tart, salty: All of these are legitimate descriptors of cheese. Other things to take into consideration:
- Are you serving a savory or sweet cheese plate? Choose one or the other, to avoid palate fatigue.
- A savory selection of hearty and stinky or blue cheeses paired with charcuterie and olives or pickles is ideal with beer, Scotch, reposado tequila or mezcal.
- For dessert or brunch, I love fresh or soft-ripened cheeses and a mild blue with honeycomb or preserves, toasted nuts and seasonal fresh or dried fruit. Match them with eau de vie, gin or light herbal liqueurs.
A quick and dirty guide to cheese styles, and what to drink with them
Winter is when new-release blue cheeses like Stilton, decadent washed rinds like Vacherin d’Or and buttery, nutty aged Alpine styles like Fontina or Gruyère hit the shelves. Their stronger flavor profiles are thus excellent with beer and spirits.
“Generally speaking, when it comes to spirit and cheese pairings, I like to match the color of the spirit with the age of the cheeses,” says Casie Wiginton, a Certified Cheese Professional (CCP) and Certified Cider Professional at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. “White, or unaged, spirits play nicely with younger, brighter cheeses, whereas brown spirits like whiskey want something with a little age on it, to balance the wood in barrel-aging.”
- Fresh/Soft: These mild, milky, unaged, or briefly aged cheeses (think burrata, ricotta or pecorino fresco) aren’t typically made in winter because most dairy animals stop lactating. Some small cheesemakers, like Pure Luck Farm & Dairy in Dripping Springs, stagger their breeding to ensure they’re able to make cheese year-round. Cheesemaker and co-owner Amelia Sweethardt pairs her olive oil-packed, herbes de Provence-coated chevre with Garrison Brothers Balmorhea Bourbon. “I proof the drink down with ice, because the bourbon is double-aged, bold and rich,” she says. “It’s well-matched to late-season goat cheese, which is dense and creamy, and the olive oil and lavender balance things out It’s a surprising pairing, but it works.”
Unaged agave spirits, gin, lagers, pilsners, witbier and Hefeweizen work with these lactic, sometimes salty cheeses. “I love fresh chevre with tequila because of the beautiful acidity and minerality that it provides,” says Wiginton. “Try it with a Margarita with a salted rim.”
- Soft-ripened: These cheeses, also known as surface-ripened or bloomy-rind, have velvety, chalky, vegetable ash-coated or wrinkly rinds. Floral, fruity, or buttery cheeses like Brie or La Tur or earthy, mushroomy cheeses like Camembert are excellent foils for cider, lagers, pilsners, lambics and other sour or fruity beers. For spirits, try eau de vie or Calvados, gin, unaged agave spirits or vodka, or light herbal aperitifs.
- Natural rind and Waxed/Clothbound: These cheeses, which include Alpine styles, Cheddars, and Goudas are perfect for brown spirits like whiskey and rum, aged agave spirits, and stout, porter, saison, cider or Belgian brews. “Something like L’Amuse Gouda, which is extra-aged, with notes of butterscotch, is going to be as comforting as your favorite sweater when paired with bourbon,” says Wiginton.
- Washed-rind: These are stinky cheeses that have been washed with brine, beer or spirits, resulting in sticky red, orange or pinkish rinds. They usually smell stronger than they taste, and they’re particularly compatible with hoppy beers, saisons, cider, Scotch or rye. Epoisses, and Pont l’Eveque are two excellent holiday picks.
- Blue: A beautiful match for brown spirits like bourbon, rye or rum, amaro or other herbal liqueurs and white spirits like gin, vodka, unaged rum, grappa and eau de vie. Saison, fruit or Belgian-styles ales also pair nicely. Phil Giglio, co-founder of Blanco’s OroBianco Italian Creamery, which produces farmstead water buffalo cheeses, says he loves their blue with “the roasted bitterness of a stout or coffee porter — especially from our neighbor’s at Real Ale Brewing Company or Texas Cannon Brewing Company.”
Creating a great cheese plate
It’s always better if you can taste before you buy. Antonelli’s and Central Market are my go-to’s for their levels of customer service and knowledge and they’ll make suggestions and offer samples (just don’t take advantage; you’re better than that).
If there’s going to be other food available, allow one ounce of each cheese per person (remember, 16 ounces equals one pound).
- Keep it simple. Serve three to four cheeses for up to 12 guests and go easy on the garnish (a sprig of herbs, evergreen or edible flowers, or dried leaves work well).
- Let the cheese be the star of the show. A cluttered plate or board loaded with incompatible and/or gloppy condiments is a hard no.
- Have fun with it. You can serve all cow’s milk cheeses, blues, or bloomy-rinds, or a combination thereof, but it’s about balance in textures and flavors. It’s also nice to make signs so your guests know what they’re eating.
- The rind is always edible, unless it’s a clothbound or waxed cheese. It’s fine to skip it, but resist the impulse to excavate the paste, or interior, on a cheese board.
- If you’re serving a formal cheese plate or staggered pairings, start from left to right, with progressively stronger-flavored selections. This will prevent palate blow-out.