It’s an important question for artisan cheese fanatics at any time of the year, but it’s especially serious right around the time the sleeveless shirts of summer get swapped out for sweaters and scarves: Which beverage pairs better with cheese, beer or wine?
Both have their merits, the Antonelli’s Cheese Shop cheesemongers will tell you, but there’s just something about beer.
Beer and cheese “is more of an age-old tradition than wine and cheese,” Antonelli’s cheesemonger Kara Chadbourne said, citing the Trappist monks, who have been brewing beer for hundreds of years, as an example of how far back the flavorful duo goes. “Cheese and beer were just meant to be. More tannic wines can remove some of the cheese flavor, whereas beer’s effervescence lifts the butter fat present in all cheese off the tongue. Carbonation’s a big help.”
Fresh off a handful of beer-and-cheese pairing events for Austin Beer Week, Chadbourne (and other cheese experts around town from places like Henri’s and Epicerie) knows a lot of the science behind the cheese-making process and the reasons certain cheeses go best with certain beers.
At the cusp of the big holiday party season, having some crucial pairing awareness about two of the edible items you might want to serve at celebrations can help craft your holiday party into a buzzy (and possibly a little stinky) affair, indeed.
But first: a bit more background on why beer and cheese are so well-suited for each other. It’s almost a little chemical, you could say. Beer comes to be with the mashing of malted barley, turning the starches in the grain into maltose; cheese originates “with the animal and what they are eating, the land they live on,” Chadbourne said, which is often grass that enzymes in their stomachs convert to lactose. From there (and in between a couple other steps), those sugars are fermented by yeast to produce beer and by bacteria to produce cheese, and after a period of aging for cheese, both beer and cheese are the result.
Pairing them isn’t nearly so complicated, but it can take time to find the “transcendent experience” that Chadbourne said is possible with the right trial-and-error-style experimenting.
The most important thing to remember about getting comfortable with any type of pairing is that it’ll only happen with “training on palate,” she said: You need to try a lot of different types of cheeses and beers together. Certain styles of each will bring out the best in both, but as Henri’s Dave Puchta noted, discovering which those are “is all up to the person doing the pairing.”
“You want something greater than the original parts, something that really highlights the best of their characteristics,” he said. “That isn’t always easy to get, but the result makes it worth it.”
He and Chadbourne each have general guidelines that any budding cheesemonger can try to follow. Generally, she said, “the bolder the beer you have, the bolder the cheese, and vice versa.”
But don’t discard beers’ other qualities when trying to match them with cheese. Do you want to enhance the smokiness? Pull out a hint of bitterness? How about highlighting a crisp finish? That’s all possible if you know that cheese can be divided into about seven different styles, according to Antonelli’s, from fresh to washed rind to blue, designations that mark cheese’s moisture and mold content.
Softer cheeses, such as brie and Camembert, require beers like pilsners, pale ales and other sessionable styles that won’t drown out the cheese’s butter-like characteristics.
For washed-rind cheeses, which have a barnyard odor and a funky, robust flavor, Puchta recommends going with sour beers to match funk with funk; Chadbourne, however, prefers IPAs like Dogfish Head’s 75 Minute, a blend of the Delaware brewery’s more well-known 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPAs. “The hops plus the robustness of the cheese brings out the sweetness of the beer” from the maple syrup added to it, she said. “Bitter on bitter can have surprising results.”
And blue cheeses, perhaps the most assertive style, require beers that can stand up to them, making “stouts and barleywines primed” for Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort and other big cheeses, Chadbourne said.
Both Antonelli’s and Henri’s offer a variety of beers for customers to try with cheeses. They also carry a good deal of wine and even some ciders — in case you might have a different answer to that all-important year-round question.
Antonelli’s Cheese Shop.
4220 Duval St. 512-531-9610, www.antonellischeese.com.
Henri’s Cheese & Wine.
2026 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-442-3373, henrischeese.com.