Beer and Cheese

Paul Blow

What pairs best with cheese? The ongoing debate usually splits the vote between white wine and red wine. But what if the answer is beer? My wife recently had a decadent Sunday lunch with some wine-collector friends of ours. Despite the great wines poured that day, what most excited her was that, when it came time for the cheese course, the wineglasses were removed and beer glasses appeared. And a beer—Jever (see my tasting notes below)—was served with the cheese.

Try it at home. Get a few different types of high-quality cheese, a dry red wine, a dry white, and several kinds of beer. There is a ceiling on what the wine and cheese pairings can yield. At best, a good white wine pairs with many cheeses, but often the two simply just “go” together without making a really great match. And it just gets worse from there. If you have a pungently bitter, earthy cheese such as Muenster, most whites and all reds will perish beneath its overbearing stinkiness.

On the other hand, try that Muenster with a rich Belgian beer such as Chimay or a Belgian-style ale such as Brother Thelonius from California’s North Coast Brewing Company and you’ll find a perfect harmony: The complex interaction between sweetness and bitterness in the beer disarms the cheese, bringing out its fruitier, more hospitable side.

The pairing is pretty logical. For one, both cheese and beer tend to be consumed relatively soon after they’re made, so there’s still a note of primary fermentation about them. Beer and cheese also have a harmonious link in grain—though with cheese there’s an extra step involving cows, sheep, or goats. And beer provides a textural contrast that wine does not: bubbles. (Champagne bubbles are usually too aggressive for cheese, except maybe Parmigiano-Reggiano.) With creamy cheeses, the bubbles cleanse the mouth, readying it for another bite. And with sharper, brighter cheeses, the bubbles from tight pilsners or lagers serve to soften the blow.

Of course, not every cheese and every beer go together. Just as with wine, you have to work at the pairings. Belgian ales, while often great matches for earthy cheeses such as Muenster or Époisses, differ significantly from one to another in terms of hoppiness, fruitiness, and maltiness, so play around. With sharp goat cheeses try pilsners or hoppy IPAs. With soft, rich triple-creams, try a Belgian saison-style ale. And with mellow, harder, crunchy cheeses such as Comté or cave-aged Gruyère, go with a mellow stout or a soft, nutty ale.

Wine may be the hot-ticket item of today, but beer goes well with much more than just pizza and hot dogs.

Jever Pilsener—This classic example of pilsner style comes from the northern German town of Jever (about 100 miles west of Hamburg). With a noticeably malty character, the beer layers on notes of crisp, floral, and grassy hops, finishing with a gorgeous bittersweet taste. Perfect for sharp cheeses from fresh chèvre to cheddar.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.