The first beverage pairing that comes to mind for many cheese eaters is wine.
But humans have been eating cheese with both wine and beer for a very long time. Humans started making cheese between 6500 and 6000 BCE.[i] Then they started making the oldest-known wines in 5980 BCE[ii] and the first beers around 5000 BCE.[iii]
Today we are taking part in one of humanity’s oldest pursuits when we have a glass of our favorite fermented beverage with a little cheese snack. So why not swap out the wine and have a beer with your cheese?
I’ve put together a few very basic tips to help you get started enjoying cheese with beer if it is a new concept for you.
Taste the individual elements.
Regardless of what you are tasting together, it is always helpful to understand what the pairing partners taste like on their own; that way you can figure out what you like or dislike about them and find other partners that highlight or downplay those elements.
Taste each beer alone, then taste each cheese by itself. As you taste, keep in mind that the flavor of the beer will wash away more quickly as you swallow, but the fat in the cheese will coat your tongue and stick around for a while. You may need a palate cleanser to help you taste through several items, so keep some plain crackers or sparkling water on hand for that.
To taste beer, smell the liquid first, then take a sip and hold the beer on your tongue for a few seconds before swallowing and breathing out through your nose. This will allow you to perceive as much as possible of the aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel. It is recommended that you drink beer out of a glass to really enjoy it, but of course the beer police aren’t going to come track you down if you drink straight out of the can or bottle.
While you want to drink you beer cool or cold, make sure you have your cheese sitting out for an hour before you start eating. You experience more of the aroma and flavor of cheese when it is room temperature; it “opens up,” sort of like wine.
To taste cheese, smell the cheese first. Take a bite of the inside of the cheese (the paste), take a bite of the rind if it is edible, then take a bite of the paste and the edible rind together. Let the cheese coat your whole tongue so you are getting it on all of your taste receptors. When you breathe out after swallowing, you will get a final retronasal aroma of the cheese’s finish.
When I taste beer and cheese together, I like to take a sip of the beer, take a bite of cheese and hold it on my tongue, then take another sip of beer. Sometimes I have to sip, bite, sip, bite, sip to really recognize what I’m experiencing. But honestly, you don’t have to put as much thought into the sensory evaluation part of enjoying the pairing if you just want to casually taste it.
Start with what you like.
While there may be some rules for pairing, taste is subjective. As cheese expert Max McCalman says, “The first indication of a successful pairing is, if you’re hungry and thirsty it will probably work.”[iv]
If you like something, you like it. I recommend starting either with a beer you really enjoy and pairing it with a small variety of cheeses, or start with a cheese you love and pair it with a few different beers. Rules aside, that is the best way to figure out what you really like with what—through trial and error.
Try a tasting flight.
You can taste through several beers with one cheese, several cheeses with one beer, or an even pairing of three beers and three cheeses, or something like that. This is fun to do with a small group of people if you want to try a bunch of beer without really feeling the effects: just split each beer into two, three, four, or however many small pours—say two to four ounces, depending on how many cheeses you will be tasting with each one.
If you want to taste through a variety of cheeses, you might choose a fresh cheese, a bloomy-rind cheese, an aged hard cheese, a washed-rind cheese, and a blue. Try to include different milk types, too (e.g., not all cow’s milk cheeses). That way you will have five very different flavors and textures to pair with a given beer.
I would recommend starting with both your lightest cheese and beer, then working up in intensity and strength to the most powerful cheese and the heaviest or darkest beer. Keep in mind that lighter beers and cheeses may become overpowered by heavier or stronger pairing partners, and that some things, like flavored cheeses or hoppier beers—such as IPAs—can be tricky to pair in general.
If you have a specific beer or cheese and want to have a concrete starting point for finding a pairing partner, here are some options cheese writer Janet Fletcher outlines in her book on beer and cheese[v] organized based on the two families of beer (lagers and ales):
Lagers + Cheese
- Amber Lagers: Sweeter aged, cow’s milk cheeses, or mellow cheeses in general
- Märzens or Oktoberfests: Aged cheeses in general, aged sheep’s milk cheeses, stronger cheddars, nutty Alpine-style cheeses, some goudas
- Pilsners: Young and fresh cheeses, soft-ripened triple creams, more-aged cheeses with moderate intensity
Ales + Cheese
- Amber and Red Ales: Alpine-style cheeses, young cow and goat’s milk Goudas, aged Basque sheep cheeses
- American Pale Ales: Aged Cheddars and Manchegos, cheeses flavored with herbs or peppercorns
- Barley Wines: Smoked cheeses, washed-rind cheeses, soft-ripened triple creams, buttery blue cheeses, farmhouse Cheddars, aged cheeses
- Belgian-Style Pale Ales: English farmhouse cheeses, Camemberts, mild washed-rind cheeses
- Belgian-Style Strong Golden Ales: Aged cheeses, Alpine-style cheeses, mild washed-rind cheeses, soft-ripened triple creams
- Bitters and Extra-Special Bitters: Mild, buttery, or nutty cheeses, younger Goudas and Cheddars
- Brown Ales: Alpine-style cheeses, Goudas, aged sheep’s milk cheeses, washed-rind “melting cheeses” like Tête de Moine and Raclette
- Dubbels: Moderately stinky washed-rind cheeses, Alpine cheeses, aged Goudas
- Holiday Ales and Winter Warmers: Aged cheeses (especially Goudas and sheep’s milk cheeses), buttery blue cheeses, soft-ripened triple creams
- India Pale Ales: Creamy, high-fat cheeses such as triple creams, English-style Cheddars, fresh and young goat cheeses
- Kölsch and Blonde Ales: Fresh, young cheeses, Feta, Mozzarella or Burrata
- Saisons: Medium-strength cheeses of most families, soft-ripened cheeses
- Sour Ales: Soft-ripened triple creams, aged Goudas, fresh goat and cow’s milk cheeses,
- Stouts and Porters: Nutty cheeses, Alpine-style cheeses, mild blues, creamy Cheddars, aged Goudas, soft-ripened triple creams
- Wheat Beers: Young, fresh cheeses, Burrata or Mozzarella
If you want to start with the type of cheese and find a beer to pair based on that, check out Marcella the Cheesemonger’s basic cheese-and-beer pairing chart. Regardless of which angle you approach the pairing, the most important part is to experiment, eat and drink what you enjoy, and have fun.
If you don’t know what to try or you still don’t know where to start, ask your neighborhood cheesemonger or beer specialist for suggestions. I often work together with my shop’s beer and wine steward to help customers find successful pairing partners. As a shopper, I will often ask my beer and wine steward what he has been drinking lately that is really great, or what’s new on the shelf.
Some recommendations with which to start.
I did a few beer and cheese pairing events in 2019 with a local importer of European beers, Tacoma-based Merchant du Vin. Some of the Belgian beer pairings we came up with are:
- Lost Peacock Creamery Whipped Chevre (fresh goat cheese) with Lindeman’s Young Lambic
- Samish Bay Aged Ladysmith (young, soft-but-not-spreadable cow’s milk cheese) with Brasserie du Bocq Blanche de Namur
- Mild American-style Camembert[vi] with Orval Trappist Ale
- Tieton Farm & Creamery Velvet (sheep-goat blend bloomy-rind washed with pear brandy) with Lindemans Strawberry
- Cypress Grove Midnight Moon (firm goat Gouda) with Zundert Trappist 8
- Cascadia Creamery Cidered Cloud Cap (cow’s milk cider-washed aged bloomy-rind) with Lindeman’s Young Lambic
- Cascadia Creamery Glacier Blue (natural-rind cow’s milk blue) with Rochefort Trappist “8” or Green Cap and with Rochefort Trappist “6” or Red Cap
- Beecher’s 4-Year Aged Flagship (cow’s milk Cheddar-Gruyère hybrid) with Westmalle Dubbel
You may not have access to the same cheeses we used–which are mostly local to Washington–but you can use something similar. The same goes for the beers. For example, try a fruit lambic with a mixed-milk bloomy rind or soft cheese, or go for a malty, sweet Dubbel or Belgian Dark Strong Ale with an aged, crystalline Cheddar- or Alpine-style cheese.
You can also check out Janet Fletcher’s “five cheese-and-beer pairings to try before you die.”
In my next post, I’ll take a deep dive into a series of pairings I did with two beers from my new favorite brewery, Métier Brewing Company of Woodinville, Washington.
[i][i] Kindstedt, Paul S. Cheese and Culture. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012. 10-12.
[iii] See: Oliver, Garrett. “History of Beer.” The Oxford Companion to Beer, ed. Oliver. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 436. See also: Hindy, Stephen. “Sumer.” Ibid., 776.
[v] I distilled this list out of Janet Fletcher’s book, Cheese & Beer. The book is much more detailed and offers flavor notes and specific cheeses that can help guide your tasting. It is also a very short book, so it makes a handy reference guide as you build a shopping list for your next tasting. You can order a copy directly from Janet’s website or buy a used copy at your local used bookstore or from Half Price Books.
[vi] We used Mt. Townsend Creamery Cirrus, which unfortunately is no longer being made as the company went out of business in March 2020. Cirrus was buttery, mild, and fudgy, with a hint of grassiness and muted mushroomy notes—so you could sub in any bloomy-rind cheese that fits this profile.