Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

The Great Beer & Cheese-Off

By Jay Brooks
Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 at 11:36 am in On Beer.

Below is a modified version of my regular column that ran in today’s newspaper. I’m posting it here too as home base to participate in what I’m calling the The Great Beer & Cheese-Off. Read the instruction on how to play along and then post your own results here for a chance to win a prize.

Everyone knows about wine and cheese pairings, but the affinity between beer and fromage always has been something of a secret — until now. A growing number of culinary experts are starting to recognize what we beer geeks always have known all along. Beer and cheese — especially artisanal cheese — is a match made in heaven. Both beer and cheese balance “sweetness and acidity with fruitiness and fermentation flavors,” says brewer Garrett Oliver in his book “The Brewmaster’s Table” (Ecco, 2005). They’re both traditional, fermented, farmhouse products, whose roots lie in the grasses that ultimately flavor the final product. So it’s hardly surprising to discover that some monastery breweries, such as Chimay, make both beer and cheese.

But finding just the right combination is key and that’s a project I’ve been working on. I’ve chosen three artisanal cheeses for a panel of colleagues to pair with the perfect beers. Why not taste right along with us? I have some prizes for the best beer pairing for each of the three cheeses listed below, and I’ve offered a few tips to get you started.

The Artisanal Cheeses

1. Maytag Blue


This is one my favorite blues, and not just because it’s owned by the Maytag family, who until recently owned Anchor Brewery. The Maytag Dairy Farm was founded in Iowa by Fritz Maytag’s father in 1941, making it one of the first artisanal cheese companies in America. One of my favorite ways to use Maytag Blue is to crumble some on top of a bowl of chili, something I tried at an Anchor event where both were being served. It’s a terrific combination.

To get you started, Stephen Beaumont and Brian Morin, in their “beerbistro cookbook,” suggest barley wine or even imperial stout for blue cheese. In the “Brewmaster’s Table,” author Garret Oliver doesn’t mention blue cheese, but does suggest Barley Wines with Stilton, which is a specific type of blue cheese.

2. Widmer 1-Year Aged Cheddar


I wanted to make sure I included at least one Wisconsin cheese and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars makes some great golden orange cheddars. Even the one-year old aged cheddar is very full-flavored. Widmer’s website described it as having “rich, nutty flavor [that] becomes increasingly sharp with age. Smooth, firm texture becomes more granular and crumbly with age.”

For milder cheddars, Beaumont and Morin suggest brown ales or pale ales, and for older, sharper cheddars, IPAs or strong abbey ales. Likewise, in the “Brewmaster’s Table,” Oliver suggests India Pale Ales with cheddar cheese.

NOTE: Since writing this, I’ve learned that Whole Foods no longer carries Widmer Cellars cheeses, so this one may be harder to find than I originally thought.

3. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog


Humboldt Fog is a goat cheese from Cypress Grove Chevre in California. It’s described on their website as a “soft, surface ripened cheese. The texture is creamy and luscious with a subtle tangy flavor. Each handcrafted wheel features a ribbon of edible vegetable ash along its center and a coating of ash under its exterior to give it a distinctive, cake-like appearance.”

In the Brewmaster’s Table, Oliver suggests “a spicy Belgian beer with residual sweetness,” and specifically Ommegang’s Hennepin. Beaumont and Morin recommend Belgian-style wheat beer or doppelbocks for goat cheese generally.

The Challenge

Pick a cheese or try all three, then think about your favorite beers and which might taste good with them. Invite a few friends over and taste each cheese with a few beers. Then pick the one that works best. (Be sure to choose beers that are readily available; no homebrew or draft-only beers, please.)

Post a comment here any time before May 1 (deadline updated: end of the day, Tuesday May 3), and tell us which beer you think pairs best with each cheese — and most important, why you think it works so well. What flavors does the beer bring out in the cheese, or vice versa? What makes the pairing more than the sum of its parts? What did you learn about the pairing, or about beer and cheese together more generally?

Based on your descriptions of which beer worked best, I’ll choose a winner for each of the three cheeses. Each winner will receive a copy of my friend Maureen Ogle’s book “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer” (Harvest Books, 2007). It’s a great read about the history of American beer from the industrial revolution to present-day craft brewers.

The following week, I’ll be hosting another tasting with a number of local brewers and beer writers and I’ll include your winning beers in our tasting, too. Look for the results of the Great Beer & Cheese-Off Challenge — and recommendations for perfect beer and cheese pairings — right here in mid-May.

So pick up these three cheeses, or three similar ones, along with some craft or good imported beer and get tasting.

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

  • Kevin Worley

    I was luck in that I was able to find two of the three cheeses suggested by Jay, the Maytag Blue, and the Humbolt Fog from Cypress Grove. Instead of the Widmer Cheddar I found a 5 year aged Cheddar from Canada, Black Diamond Vintage Reserve.

    My game plan is to do or three tastings over the course of the next week. For tasting number one, I chose two very different beers. The first is my choice for the gold standard of really well balanced barleywines, Anchor Old Foghorn. The 2nd was Monk’s Castle Flemish Sour Ale. Old Foghorn is one of my favorite beers by itself, but in terms of how the cheese was complimented, the sour may be the winner between these two.

    The Flemish sour is much more carbonated than the Barleywine, and that carbonation along with the sour flavor seemed to amplfy the unique flavors of these cheeses. The sharpness of the cheddar balanced out the sourness of the Monk’s and created a very subtle but recognizable fruit to the finish of the beer.

    The sour ale gave the goat cheese an almost pudding feel.

    The Maytag Blue was fabulous with both beers. No clear winner there.

  • Pingback: 99 Pours » Blog Archive » The Great Beer & Cheese-Off()

  • Tiffany Adamowski

    When seeking out the cheeses, instead of calling around or driving to the nearest big city, I visited three grocery stores in the suburbs, settling on replacements for all three. In typical Tiffany fashion, I ended up doing The Great Beer & Cheese-Off twice. Read on…

  • Mario Rubio

    Maytag Blue. So tasty. Give me a little on a piece of sweet baguette with some fig jelly and a Pliny the Elder.

    Widmer aged cheddar – I’m going with Drake’s 1500 Pale Ale. Hoppy enough to stand up to the bite of the cheddar with a solid body that competes with the butter flavor of the cheese.

    Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog – What beer doesn’t pair with this cheese? Hops, malt, yeast, all bring out different facets of this chameleon of a cheese. That said, I’m going with an odd but still one of my favorite selections: Gageleer. Try this pairing with this unhopped Belgian golden ale while enjoying a warm summer afternoon outside.

    I’ll have more to write on Friday, didn’t want to give it all away.

  • Dan Sherman

    I’ve been intrigued with beer and cheese pairings for a little while, but haven’t gone much past aged cheddar and IPA, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to branch out a bit. I usually have a lot of beer on hand, so went with what I had and just went out to buy cheese. My local shop didn’t have the Widmer cheddar, so I substituted a 3 year old Wisconsin cheddar (no brand indicated). This was the only aged cheddar that was orange. It made me wonder why the cheese maker decided to use annatto to color their aged cheddar when most other makers of aged cheddars don’t. Is it a Wisconsin thing?

    Anyway, here’s an abbreviated version of our tasting notes.

    Humboldt Fog:

    Tasted with Paulaner Hefe-weizen, Saison Dupont, Lagunitas Brown Sugga, and Russian River Pliny the Elder.

    Paulaner Hefe-weizen – The creamy, lightly tangy finish of the cheese didn’t work with the slightly sweet finish of the hefeweizen. A beer with a drier finish would work better. The lightly spicy and fruity aromatics of the beer complemented the cheese.
    Saison Dupont – The creaminess of the cheese was balanced nicely by the crisp, sparkling finish of the saison. The complex aromatics and flavors of the saison worked better than the hefeweizen to complement the cheese.
    Lagunitas Brown Sugga – Malty & caramel sweetness don’t work as well as crisp dryness, but the alcohol cuts the mouth-coating finsh of the cheese.
    Pliny the Elder – I had this pairing at a beer dinner several years ago. Surprisingly, it does work quite well and Pliny doesn’t overpower the cheese as one might expect – the creaminess of the cheese cuts through the hops. A close second to the Saison.

    The winner? Saison Dupont. Followed closely by Pliny the Elder. Nice contrast, eh? Definitely try them both! The loser? Paulaner Hefe-weizen (Brown Sugga not far behind).

    Cheddar – Wisconsin cheddar (orange), aged 3 years:

    Tasted with Lagunitas Brown Sugga, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Russian River Blind Pig IPA, and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (2010).

    Pliny the Elder – Good pairing. The hoppiness of Pliny balances the cheese nicely, softening the finish of both, leaving a mild, lingering cheddar flavor.
    Blind Pig IPA – Also a good pairing, allowing the cheddar to shine more than in the Pliny pairing.
    Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (2010). Big lingering bitterness drowns out the cheese. Floral, piney, resinous character of the beer doesn’t work well with the cheddar flavor.
    Lagunitas Brown Sugga – Goes OK with the cheddar, but the caramel character of the beer gets lost in the cheese.

    The winner? Pliny and Blind Pig were neck and neck. The beers bring out slightly different characteristics of the cheese and vice versa. If I were to choose one, I’d pick Pliny, partially because it’s such an awesome beer. The loser? Sierra Nevada Bigfoot.

    Maytag Blue:

    Tasted with Lagunitas Brown Sugga, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Russian River Blind Pig IPA, and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (2010).

    Pliny the Elder – Pliny didn’t stand up to the cheese – the cheese overpowered both the aroma and flavor of the beer. A tragic thing to do to Pliny.
    Blind Pig IPA – didn’t even bother with this one after the Pliny.
    Brown Sugga – Not surprisingly, after being overpowered by the cheddar, Brown Sugga was overpowered by the blue.
    Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (2010). This is the winner. The cheese tames Bigfoot and vice versa. The two battle it out with first the beer taking center stage, then reluctantly giving in to the cheese’s long finish.

    The winner? No question – Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. The loser? My palate. I’m glad we saved the huge beer and strong cheese for the end. I’m looking forward to finishing the Humboldt Fog tomorrow night after I can taste again.

    Bonus Maytag Blue tasting:

    I had some left-over Maytag Blue for a bonus tasting the next night (decided to save the Humboldt Fog until I could pick up a different saison). I tried the Maytag Blue with North Coast Old Stock Ale (2009), but didn’t think it was a very good pairing – the bite of the cheese overpowered the beer to some extent, but there was something about the flavors that really didn’t mesh. I pulled out an aged Gouda, which I thought paired very nicely with the Old Stock Ale – the salty, nutty cheese complemented the beer nicely. I didn’t try it, but I’d bet that the aged Gouda would be a better match for Lagunitas Brown Sugga than any of the the other cheeses. I’m going to incorporate the aged Gouda into my next tasting.

    I also tried Deschutes Black Butte Porter with the Maytag Blue. That turned out to be quite a nice pairing. The roasty, choclatey character of the porter cut through the piquant blue nicely and the flavors worked well together. I don’t know whether this was a better pairing than the Bigfoot, since I didn’t do them side by side, but it’ll be fun to try this in the future with the addition of a couple of stouts as well (maybe a good reason to open the bottle of Alesmith Speedway Stout I’ve been cellaring).

    Thanks for the impetus to explore beer & cheese! I’m looking forward to the results of the Great Beer & Cheese-Off!

  • Dan Sherman

    I’m just wondering about the tasting “with a number of local brewers and beer writers”. Did this happen? Did I miss the column? In any case, I’m thinking about cheeses that pair well with summer beers. Hefeweizen, wit, pilsner, etc. Seems a bit trickier. Any suggestions?