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How to plan a beer and cheese pairing party

The idea of pairing wine and cheese is as old, it seems, as wine itself. Setting out a cheeseboard with beer is a newer notion, though it makes perfect sense especially now that Tampa Bay is bursting at the seams with breweries and tap houses. Liquor stores and even grocery stores are carrying a variety of interesting beers, too, and there are places like Shep's Food Market in St. Petersburg, which boasts 1,200 varieties of suds. In recent years, our selection of cheeses has bloomed, too. Beyond European cheeses, some of the well-known creameries of the West Coast (Humboldt Fog, Point Reyes, Rogue and Cowgirl) are sending their products all over the country. (When I moved to Florida in 1992, it was near impossible to find fresh mozzarella. Those days are long gone.)

So the time is now, to invite your pals over for a party featuring beer and cheese, and maybe some other nibbles, too. Think of it as your twist on the Oktoberfest celebration.

For those of us who don't really know hops from a hole in the ground, the process can be daunting. Think of me last week perusing those 1,200 beers and then a 100 or so cheeses to figure out what might go well with them. It's a tough job.

I turned to food writer Janet Fletcher's very informative Cheese & Beer (Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2013) for suggestions. With her guidance, I was able to pick out six beers (all about $2 a bottle) and six cheeses to sample (much more expensive but ask for small pieces to be cut fresh).

(See my pairings and comments in accompanying story.)

In general, I like lighter, fruity or delicate beers like American pale ales and pilsners, over hop-heavy India pale ales or dark porters and stouts. But during my tasting, I was surprised how much cheese complemented and mellowed the stronger beers.

In fact, Cigar City's José Martí American Porter could be a new favorite. Paired with Point Reyes original blue drizzled with just a bit of honey, the earthy undertones of the robust beer mellowed and brightened pleasantly.

What an education.

Guide for beginners

In general, the stronger the beer, the stronger cheese you'll need. A blue cheese stands up to the muscle of a dark beer or to one that has pronounced hops. Aged cheeses also pair amiably with complex beers. The tender tendencies of a mellow cheese are swallowed by a brutish beer.

Mild, high-fat cheeses, such as triple creams like Saint André, are better suited to be served alongside light-bodied beers, like pilsners. Still, some will like how they cut the bitterness of an IPA.

According to Fletcher's Cheese & Beer:

Delicate beers go with young, fresh cheeses. For example, wheat beers or pilsners with unaged goat cheese, feta, burrata or mozzarella.

Pair malty and nutty beers with "sweet" cheeses. Brown ales, stouts, porters and holiday ales play well with aged alpine cheeses, such as Gruyere, Goudas and other aged cheeses such as manchego.

Offer hoppy beers with tangy cheeses. Goat cheese and cheddars are appropriate pairings with India Pale Ales.

Strong beers like imperial stouts, barley wines and quadrupels match well with blue cheeses and aged sheep's milk cheese.

Confused? So was I.

I headed to Shep's and picked out six varieties of beers, some I figured I'd like, others I knew I wouldn't. Then I stopped at the Fresh Market and scooped up six cheeses, ranging from mellow to strong. FYI: The six-pack of beer was about $13 and the cheeses totaled about $35, with plenty left over for snacking.

The lighter beers I stored in the fridge and the darker ones I let warm a bit. The cheeses mostly came to room temperature so that their flavor could fully develop.

I learned quite a bit by taking a wee mouthful of beer and a nibble of cheese. In some cases, the flavors separated disagreeably. In others, it seemed as if the brewmaster and cheesemaker were working side by side when they came up with their recipes.

Mostly, it's important to not stress about putting on a beer-cheese pairing that will satisfy an expert. Buy a few different types of beer, put out some complementary cheeses and let your guests determine what they like.

It is, after all, a matter of taste.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

Suggested pairings

Ideas for cheese and beer pairings for a casual get-together

Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale

with Champignon triple cream

soft-ripened cheese with mushrooms

Forget the post-breakup gallon of ice cream to make you feel better. This pairing soothes whatever ails you. The nutty beer is brewed with whole roasted pecans ground like grain. That flavor is enhanced with the creamy, mild cheese and the bits of mushrooms add earthiness. Also good with aged manchego, its salty afterburn a pleasing kick.

Cigar City José Martí American Porter

with Point Reyes Original Blue

This robust beer brewed in Tampa and named after the Cuban national hero is muscular and needs a cheese that can hold its own. Blue cheese is the perfect the companion here, but so are aged manchego and Gouda. The tang of the cheese stands up nicely to the beer. We drizzled the cheese with a little Panhandle Tupelo honey, too, and that sweetness takes the tasting in another delicious direction.

Avery Brewing Co. IPA

with fresh, unaged goat cheese

India pale ales are hoppy brews, which means they've got bitter personalities. Some people love them, others run the other way at the mere mention. A subtle cheese helps to cut the bite and that's the job of a fresh, soft goat cheese. Surprisingly, the tang of the cheese doesn't compete with the beer. Soft triple-cream cheeses, such as Saint-André or Champignon, are also favorable matches.

Shipyard Pumpkinhead

with Carr Valley baby cheddar

This seasonal brew smacks of pumpkin pie and the sweetness of it pairs amiably with a young cheddar cheese, this one aged just 45 days. Think apple pie and cheddar. Pumpkinhead and cheddar is a good starter tasting for someone new to beer and cheese pairings. It's uncomplicated, sort of like a baby's smile. Fresh goat cheese also makes a nice accompaniment even though its tang would indicate otherwise. It's a sweet-tart thing.

Ommegang Rare VOS Amber Ale

with Beemster X-0 aged Gouda

Beemster, made by a farmers' co-op in the Netherlands, and Ommegang, brewed in Cooperstown, N.Y., may be separated by an ocean but their amber ale and aged Gouda are made for each other. The Rare VOS is brewed with orange peel and zesty Grains of Paradise from West Africa and plays nicely with the nutty, butterscotch overtones of the cheese. Let the cheese come to room temperature before serving and you'll get the full benefit of the pairing. Other aged, hard cheeses are suitable options.

Humboldt Brown

with Don Julian 12-month aged manchego

This very rich beer has an intensely herbal quality thanks to the toasted hemp seeds in the brewing formula. As both the beer and assertive manchego warm toward room temperature their flavor profiles bloom. The salty kick of the cheese and the slight caramel flavor of the beer makes us think of the salted caramel trend that's found in lots of baked goods and even ice cream today. A stand-up and take-notice blue cheese works well too. Again, the salt and tang plays well with the malty sweetness of the beer.

How to plan a beer and cheese pairing party 10/12/13 [Last modified: Monday, October 14, 2013 3:19pm]

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