ST. PETERSBURG — Only thing wrong with the beer and cheese last weekend was it was held at a beer festival. The crowd at St. Petersburg's first Craft Beer Expo at the Mahaffey Theater was a lusty choir who needed no preaching. They were serious about beer and having fun in bare midriffs, potbellies and tattoos, Oktoberfest decolletage, and even a kilt. For wine connoisseurs, however, the sermon would have been shocking and luscious. At first, beer and cheese sounds like a duh, "Pass-the-nachos'' moment. Beer cheese soup, fondue and pretzel dip have been on the beer-lover's menu for a long time. Can you say "Wisconsin?'' Yet fine wine claimed first dibs on the finer stuff of Europe or new old-fashioned farmstead cheeses, like those Chris Lovett, a red-bearded young cheesemonger, brought to the festival.
Wrong, says Lovett, a Whole Foods expert from the Tampa store, which still bears the Wild Oats sign.
"I never understood that; there's so much more you can do with beer,'' he says.
The diversity of beer was obvious just in the dozen lined up for the pairing, ranging from wheat beers with coriander, Belgian trippels and black lager to stouts. They were every bit as artisanal and handmade as Lovett's precious Cheshires, Humboldt Fog, aged Parmesan and triple cream Brie.
Have no fear that carbonation will spoil the butterfat in the cheese. Even Champagne lovers drink bubbly with soft, stinky chevre. Good beer and good cheese make for easy pairs.
Almost all worked, even those I least expected. Lush French feta with brisk Samuel Adams hefeweizen? Wow. Dogfish Head's killer Indian Brown Ale with Cheshire and a Carr Valley Mobay combo of goat cheese and sheep cheese split by gray ash were fantastic pairings.
Some were naturals, like the Holy Mackerel black stout spiked with pomegranate from Delray Beach with a super creamy Brie with jam of the same fruit.
Yet Belgian Chimay and a cheese soaked in the abbey's ale failed. So did Tarpon Springs' lovely Saint Somewhere saison ale with gjetost, that oddly sweet goat cheese so caramelized some tasters called it peanut butter and butterscotch. Separately they're delightful, together not so much.
(Lovett's favorite pairing for the Norwegian cheese: a cup of coffee and gjetost on bagel for breakfast.)
At a more analytical seminar, Samuel Adams brewmaster Bert Boyce and Lovett suggested the best pairs were beers and cheeses of similarly intense flavors but otherwise contrasting. Bitter ales are better with creamy cheese than sharp. Porters stack up well with hard, smoked cheeses.
Ultimately, the event showed that beermaking is now as handcrafted as cheese and just as close to the farm and natural ingredients.
Better tell the sommeliers someone moved their cheese.
Chris Sherman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8585.