Beer and Cheese: A Match Made in Heaven?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Experts the world over have made their chops telling people what wine to drink with dinner. These wine connoisseurs pontificate that there's a wine to go with every dish, from pad Thai to steak au poivre. Perhaps because of this, other drinks have long conceded the fine dining territory to wine. But it's short-sighted to confine beverage pairings to wine when many types of subtle and sophisticated beer are available.

And why not drink beer, even in fancy restaurants? Sometimes wine just doesn't work. Asian cuisines are one area where wine parings are tough. For instance, the spice and sourness of Thai or Indian food overwhelms the delicacy of fine wine. The better thing to do is crack open a beer. Even the dullest bottle of Singha or Taj Majal will stand up to the spice and tame the heat of foods like chicken vindaloo or pad Thai. A more interesting beer, like a crisp Pilsner or hoppy IPA, would be even better.

Beer and I are therefore set to go for the jugular. I will discover if beer can encroach on cheese, wine's most hallowed ground. I started thinking about this thanks to a tasting put on by the knowledgeable guys at Bierkraft, a beer and gourmet shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Their parings of spring beers and cheese were transcendent, and the concept is worth some experimentation at home.

Bierkraft and I have both taste and science to back up our pairing strategy. For her masters thesis at UC Davis, graduate student Berenice Madrigal proved that even the mildest cheeses mute the subtleties of the red wine drunk with them. Intuitively, this makes sense if you think of the way the taste of wine works with fat. Many red wines are excellent with rich meat; if you have a porterhouse steak, by all means open up a big tannic cabernet sauvignon. But think of how that same wine would taste if you were to chase it with a slug of whole milk. Fresh cheeses like mozzarella are not too far off from fresh milk, and so big reds might not make the best pairing. White wine in particular can be great with cheese, but it does not hold true across all types of wine.

In contrast, beer is guzzled with cheeseburgers and sausage pizza alike, as the hops and carbonation clean the palate of both milk and meat. Not only is beer versatile, it is sometimes inspired: the fruity qualities of some beer can emphasize the same characteristic in cheese, and nut and caramel flavors in malty beers go with aged cheeses.

I found in my tasting for this post that beer can be switched for wine in classic parings. Port is traditionally drunk with stilton, but instead I opened up bottle of Fuller's London Porter. The beer's rich dark maltiness stood up admirably to the glorious barnyard funk of the cheese. The beer cut right through the richness with its bitter edge, and the strong flavor of the stilton mingled pleasantly with the long coffee and chocolate finish of the porter. It was a knockout. If you were to throw some walnuts and apples into the mix you would have a killer cheese plate.

Not too long ago I uncorked an albariño to go with a salty Spanish cheese. The white wine is from Galicia, in Spain, and the high acid and marine notes in the wine matched the salty cheese nicely. For a beer match I looked to Germany, and poured the Franziskaner hefe-weisse alongside Naked Goat, an aged hard cheese from Montesinos, in Jumilla, Spain. The cheese is creamy and pungent, with a salty tang at the finish, and would murder any wine that came near it. The beer is delicate, floral and slightly citrusy on the palate, but its backbone of hops bitterness allowed it keep its integrity against the salt and richness of the cheese.

Not all my parings were fortuitous. I thought that chevre might be a good match with both the Franziskaner and a Belgian-style white beer from Unibroue called Blanche de Chambly. But the high sour notes in the chevre fought with the citrus in both beers. As I munched the chevre my thoughts drifted from beer to crisp, minerally French whites, like Chablis or Sancerre; maybe some cheeses do go better with wine, after all.

Incidentally, the hefe-weisse and white beer are both great with salad, a dish that is notorious for its unsuitability with wine. Discovering beers to pair with food is a great way to sample the inventive beers made by of American craft breweries, or to take a tour of the traditional beers of Europe. Beer might not knock wine off of its pedestal in most gastronomic temples, but as summer progresses and I seek refreshment rather than reverence I'll reach for a bottle opener more often than a corkscrew.