Cheese and beer, beer and cheese. Forget about serving up a glass of red or a tumbler with port when you bring out the well aged Cheddar or a silver-spooned scoop of Stilton so creamy that you could wash your face with it — beer and cheese is one of the best gastronomic tangos known to man or beast. I should know, having spent years squiring a variety of beers and introducing them to some of the best cheeses to squirm across the planet. But how does it work?
For a start, beer has a secret weapon that wine doesn’t have (unless we are talking champagne or something similar): carbonation. Carbonation produces a lively, scrubbing, tugging effect on the palate that helps to clean away the unctuous, fatty, lubricious effect of a creamy cheese and makes you ready for another mouthful. Then there’s the bittersweet aspect of some beers, well-considered and considerate foils to the saltiness and pungency of some cheeses.
A big beefy well-muscled barley wine such as Adnams Tally Ho paired with Colston Bassett Stilton (for my money one of the best in the country) is a revelatory experience as the salty, creamy, pungent cheese is enveloped by the beer’s bittersweet notes of dark fruit, current cake, earthy, straw-like hoppiness and a crisp biscuity body (I also bet it works quite well with an earthy, goaty goat’s cheese). It all works like a dream, a symphonic moment on a par when every section of the orchestra joins together to take a piece of music to another plane. In the mouth, the beer is rich and almost port like, bringing out the flavours of the cheese and making it more than the best Stilton in the world. Interested? Here are several more beer and cheese matches that will add some savour to 2012…
Anchor Brewery Old Foghorn (8-10%) and Parmesan cheese (proper of course, sourced from a good deli)
American style barley wine from San Francisco, which takes to ageing in a cellar with a kraken like ferocity. This bottle was nearly 10 years old and had a sweetness reminiscent of an old Madeira and was also vinous, woody, fiery, chiming with roast banana notes and burning with a brandy-like savour. The initial dose of alcoholic fieriness was then softened by marzipan-like cake character and there was a creamy and smooth mouthfeel. And the cheese? I tried it with a chunk of Parmesan and discovered that it doused the saltiness of the cheese, which it in its turn teased out the sweetness of the beer, making for a delightful Len Goodman-pleasing two-step on the palate. And if you haven’t got one aged don’t despair; the younger, fresher and spritzy ones are rather pleasurable with that great godlike genius of Gloucestershire cheese-making Stinking Bishop.
Thornbridge Bracia (10%) and Barkham Blue (www.twohootscheese.co.uk)
Bracia is an imperial stout/porter to which has been added chestnut honey, giving it a herbal-like sweetness alongside a breakfast honey coated toast character. It is a soothing, smoothing, creamy, rustically roasty, burnt and burnished beer that also has coffee beans, chocolate, almond paste, alcohol and a fiery bitterness followed a tongue-tingling bite on the end of the palate. It’s the beer world’s equivalent of a sauternes albeit with hops and roast barley and it’s a marvellous beer just ready to man up to a creamy, salty, stinky, sloppy blue cheese that oozes across the plate like an oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico; the dark flavours of the beer adding something metaphysical almost to the cheese. I’m a big fan of Barkham Blue after some time spent aging so that is what I will have here, and I suggest you do.
Weihenstephaner Vitus (7.7%) and Farmhouse Extra Mature (www.gouldscheddar.co.uk)
The pairing of a strong Bavarian Weizenbock with this smelly, fiery Somerset Cheddar produced east of Glasto is one of those things that shouldn’t work but it does. The carbonation of the beer keeps the palate from getting too giddy and buttery (try a Cheddar with a Czech Pilsner if you want to achieve that effect, it’s not pleasant), while the cloves, bananas and hints of honey tease out the pungent, savoury notes of saltiness, nuttiness and restrained but pleasing creaminess. A long tall glass for the beer and a spoonful of home made Piccalilli will really make you feel even more giddy with enjoyment.
Sharp’s Honey Spice Tripel (9%) and Little Black Bomber (www.snowdoniacheese.co.uk)
If you like Doom Bar then you might be surprised to discover that this elegant beer comes from the same Cornish brewery and is a totally different brewing kettle of beery fish. It’s a strong wheat beer style that fuses three traditions: British brewing, the addition of honey and the strength and peach skin fruitiness of a Belgian tripel. It’s a complex luscious beer with honey blossom notes on the nose, and vanilla, ripe fruit and orange Cointreau on the palate. With a Stilton it teases out the saltiness and butteriness, while with a favourite fiery matured Cheddar from Snowdonia (ok I know it’s not Somerset, but it’s a Cheddar style) it offers a Bachian counterpointe between the restrained sweetness of the beer and the earthiness and creaminess of the cheese. Fabulous.
Burton Bridge Tickle Brain (8%) with Traditional Farmhouse Cheshire (www.hsbourne.co.uk)
I first had Bourne’s Cheshire Cheeses about a decade ago when I had a food column in The Field, it was a revelation, given that I thought all Cheshire Cheese was a crumbly, buttery nuisance of sickliness. This cheese instead was — yes — crumbly, but it had a mild creaminess and a delicate saltiness that made it a memorable experience. I came across it again recently and it was just as good — this time I had a glass of Burton Bridge’s very strong Belgian-style Dubbel to hand. The beer has a ripeness of flavour in its character, caramel, hints of brown sugar, raisins and currents and an appetising bitterness at the end. Drank with this magnificent cheese it seemed to tease out its inherent sweetness and the two of them rolled along fine.
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