As written for the Burlington Free Press by Jeff Baker http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2016/07/08/best-beer-and-vt-cheese-pairings/86707936/
You’re going to a party and you need to bring something. A spread of Vermont cheeses is a no brainer. But what to go with them? Many people will reach for a bottle of wine, but may I suggest some craft beer to go with that cheese, instead?
In the opinion of many beer and food writers like Garrett Oliver and Randy Mosher, beer is often better suited to pair with the nuances of artisanal cheeses, and my tasting experience has confirmed this. A good pairing can elevate the flavor experience well beyond the sum of both parts. Beer pairing can help focus your palate on one aspect of the cheese or create a whole new set of flavors not noticeable in either the beer or the cheese when tasted alone.
Here I’ve compiled some of my favorite beer and cheese pairings from over the years. Not every pairing is perfect, and remember both beer and cheese are constantly changing and evolving, so taste well, and taste often.
The common thought is that sharp cheddars are best suited to pair with hoppy beers. But I find that hoppy beers, like India pale ales, tend to be finicky mates. The bitterness in the beer can clash with flavors in the cheese, producing a negative tasting experience. To make it work, you really have to dial it in. I have had good luck pairing extra-aged cheddars with American double IPAs. Frost Beer Works (Hinesburg, VT) “Lush” with Plymouth (Plymouth, VT) “Hunter,” a two year-aged cheddar, made for a delightful tasting experience.
But don’t limit your cheddar to just IPA exploration. Malty lagers offer up notes of caramel and toffee to offset the saltiness of sharp cheddar. Von Trapp Brewing (Stowe, VT) “Dunkel,” a deep brown lager brewed with lots of caramel-y Munich malts, paired with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (a partnership cheese between Cabot and the Cellars at Jasper Hill) creates a hazelnut and caramel flavor experience.
With Brie- and Camembert-style cheeses, you can go in many directions. Belgian- and German-style wheat beers make easy mates. But some of the most interesting pairings I’ve found in this category come with maltier ales.
An Imperial stout, like Brooklyn (NY) “Black Chocolate Stout,” paired with a triple crème-style cheese like Champlain Valley (Middlebury, VT) “Triple,” will create a flavor experience of coffee with cream. The roastiness from the dark malt and the richness of the cheese meld together in such a familiar way for coffee drinkers.
And then there’s North Coast (Fort Bragg, CA) “Red Seal” Amber Ale, which brought out some meaty notes in Vermont Creamery (Websterville, VT) “Bonne Bouche,” a multiple-award winning soft goat milk ashed, geotrichum rinded cheese. (Geotrichum candidum is a mold/yeast which produces a wrinkled white rind on the cheese. Ash helps lower the pH of the rind to prevent other bacteria from colonizing.) The combination brought forward the malt in the beer plus flavors of toasted grains, salted butter and briny broth.
Goat milk cheese
Goat milk cheeses pair wonderfully with many styles of beer. And don’t limit your cheese board game by thinking chèvre is the best you can do for goat milk cheese. Vermont goat creameries are producing unique and award-winning cheeses that go way beyond simple spreadable chèvre.
Consider Vermont Creamery “Coupole:” made from pasteurized goat milk, this geotrichum rinded cheese brought home first place for “American Originals from Goats’ Milk” in the 2012 American Cheese Society Awards. Coupole pairs expertly with Victory (Pennsylvania) “Hop Ranch” double IPA and bright and spicy flavors of Sauvignon blanc and melon emerge. You might also try Coupole with a saison or farmhouse ale. The resulting flavors will be more earthy, like mushrooms, plus a hint of tartness and a note of salted cultured butter.
Firm goat milk Tommes, such as Does’ Leap (Bakersfield, VT) “Trappist” and Twig Farm (West Cornwall, VT) “Tomme” are great mates for Belgian-style witbiers and farmhouse ales. Witbiers, like Allagash (Maine) White, will bring a spiciness from the addition of coriander which off-sets the creamy-yet-dry (i.e. not sweet) paste of these cheeses, and farmhouse ales, like, North Coast “Le Merle” will bring forward fresh-cut grass notes.
The creaminess and saltiness of blue cheese can leave the wine world scratching its head for pairings. But dark beer drinkers should delight, as black ales and lagers often find their mate with these piquant cheeses.
Jasper Hill (Greensboro, VT) “Bayley Hazen” is arguably one of the country’s best blue cheeses. A raw cow milk cheese with a natural rind, Bayley Hazen strikes the perfect balance between salty and creamy. Victory “Donnybrook” Nitro Stout (Downingtown, PA) paired with Bayley Hazen conjures up a lush experience of salted butter and café au laît. You might also try a black ale, like Maine Beer Company (Maine) “Weez,” and look for a woody, tobacco note.
If dark beers aren’t your thing, but sours are, crack open a bottle of Lindemans (Belgium) Gueuze Cuvée René Lambic and taste it with the cave-aged Plymouth “Big Blue.” The bright acidity of the beer cuts through the creaminess of the cheese layering flavors of lemon peel on top of earthy hay.
There are dozens of excellent cheeses made in Vermont which fall into the wide category of cheeses know as “Alpine-style.” These semi-firm, natural-rinded beauties offer reserved earthy notes ranging from nutty to meaty, often with hints of salinity.
Spring Brook Farm (Reading, VT) “Tarentaise” is a perennial favorite of mine to have with Vermont-brewed hoppy beers. With a not-so-bitter pale ale like Hill Farmstead (Greensboro, VT) “Edward,” you’ll get notes of aromatic citrus and white flowers, with an underpinning of malt sweetness. If you turn up the bitterness a bit to Fiddlehead (Shelburne, VT) IPA you might find flavors of orange marmalade and creamy pistachios.
So that’s the good stuff, but what about the bad pairings? Most beers can be OK with most cheeses, but what happens when a pairing is downright wrong? Well, you might get increased bitterness, conflicting flavors like milk with skunky herbs, or extreme drying astringency. The good news is that all you need to do is clear your palate with some more beer and grab a different hunk of cheese.
Let me know about your favorite beer and cheese pairings on Instagram and Twitter, at @aPhilosophyOf.
This column was distilled from dozens of collaborative tasting sessions I’ve had with colleagues over the years. Special thanks to Justin Gould (The Farmhouse Tap & Grill – Burlington, VT), Colin Walsh (Acorn – Denver, CO), Ruth Miller (Vermont’s “Beer & Cheese Maven”) and Paul Sayler (Zero Gravity Craft Brewery – Burlington, VT) for their palates, insight and willingness to eat cheese while drinking beer.
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing.
Beer and cheese tasting events:
July 15-16, Vermont Brewers Festival, Waterfront Park, Burlington, tickets still available for the 12 p.m. July 15 session, www.vtbrewfest.com.
July 17, Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, Coach Barn at Shelburne Farms, 261-8595, www.vtcheesefest.com.
July 29-30, Stowe Brewers Festival, 80 Weeks Hill Road, Stowe, www.stowebrewersfestival.com